Saturday, July 28, 2007

Charisma and evil

I was thinking this as I read Harry Potter (and I'm not giving anything away here), as a follow up to seeing Last King of Scotland a while a ago:

Why do people follow madmen? It's seems to be an unanswerable questions, or rather there are a multitude of reasons but it doesn't explain why some people do not follow and some do.

Now Voldemort is fictional, and Idi Amin was all too terrifyingly and tragically real, but in the fictional account of him, it seems that anyone with half a brain could see that this person was out of their mind, paranoid, delusional, sociopathic, etc. AND therefore know that their own lives were precarious with such a person.

My husband and I have discussed this at length, and come up with a small list:
a) We make excuses for people's behavior until it's too much
b) The possibility of power is tempting enough to ignore the possible dangers
c) The basic human inability to ever really believe that it will happen to us. Yes, this person slaughtered his last four advisors because of tiny or imagined slights, but I'll be cleverer than they.

There is also the problem of charisma.

My aunt worked for TWA out of St. Louis from the early 60's through to the mid-70's and she recounts the story of John F. Kennedy's campaign. In what once would have been a whistle stop, JFK landed and my aunt, either from supporting him, or working for the airline (or both, I forget) was in the crowd that greeted him. She says that the power of his personality was palpable--the charm, or charisma, or whatever seemed to reach out to everyone of the people in the crowd individually. She says that film and television can never do justice to it. Now, I've never quite understood the cult of JFK except that mysterious and tragic death always sanctifies the victim so I am intrigued by this description. Hitler too, though short and unattractive was able to rally crowds to fever pitch. Stalin, Mao, Amin, perhaps even Hussein were able to make people follow them, at first, by the power of their personalities. And even later, it was only those close enough to really see (or those actually suffering under it) who understood what there was to fear. I understand that eventually you are so afraid that you cannot get away and perhaps it is too late from the first meeting, but I don't understand why you would put yourself in danger if it was within your choice not to. Voldemort offered his followers a way to overcome death. Perhaps these leaders do too--certainly Jim Jones and other cult leaders claim that there way was salvation.

I believe that we (humans) are all desperate to believe in something and that many will throw themselves at anyone who seems to know some great secret. I guess what I don't understand is how people could not see that Amin or Stalin or Hitler had no answers and were secretly more scared than anyone around them.

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