#09 The Leader has Died. The Leader has Died
Originally published on November 10, 2004
THE LEADER HAS DIED. THE LEADER HAS DIED.
Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinians, has died. There is a great to-do about it. Palestinians in their wretched refugee camps, in their slums in Gaza and the West Bank under the guns and the boots of Israeli Jews, wonder what will become of them without their leader. Thirty-five years of murder and fraud following their leader, and where are they? We know where Arafat is, he’s gone, but where are those who followed him for so long and are now grieving his loss?
The leader is always problematic. He doesn’t know what we want, what we really need. If we don’t know, and how many among us do know, how is the leader supposed to figure it out? The leader does what he believes is best for us, an impossible task. He will pray to God for guidance. He will consult with experts. He will think about what it is that he himself really wants. He may have discovered that what he wants and what God wants is identical (it’s a miracle!), or quite similar, and argue that because he and God both want it, we want it too.
God was the first Great Leader. No one has been sworn fealty to more often, with more sincerity, than to God. Jews, Muslims, Christians, and in times of great stress, particularly when we are young, most the rest of us. Yet here we are. We appear to have a couple problems that we simply cannot sort out. Primarily, our willingness, on principle, to murder and defraud others for our own benefit.
Leaders appear to be neither here nor there, on principle, with respect to murder and fraud, just as the rest of us, on principle, are neither here nor there about such matters. Leaders have been leading, and followers following, from the get-go. Yet here we are. At each other’s throats. If God had understood, or cared, for what was best for us, I believe He would have done a few things differently as He set about creating his creatures. What the hell was He thinking about?
The revisionist community, particularly but not uniquely, has a leader problem with regard to the Adolf Hitler story. A majority of Germans in his time came to see him as a great and unifying figure, and a good number of revisionists still see him that way. Germans followed him into Poland, France, Russia. The immense suffering of the Germans, to say nothing of those who opposed the Germans, is incomprehensible. The sheer numbers of the dead and maimed are incomprehensible. And then, by the time he was through leading Germans, and Germans finished with following him, Germany was destroyed. Again. A commonplace “leader” story. Nevertheless, to express doubt about the value of Hitler as a leader loses you the good will of a certain segment of the revisionist community.
Arafat, Sharon, Saddam, and Bush-our own top leaders in the Middle East. All are God’s creatures. Each has his followers. Each leader, and those who follow each leader, all sincerely believe-in their leader. What the leaders themselves believe is uncertain. They are only certain that they want to gain the upper hand over those who follow the other leader/s.
Paul Johnson writes recently about one of the great leaders of modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Napoleonic cult of “the man on horseback.” He was celebrated as the “greatest soldier who ever lived . In his lifetime, Napoleon cost Europe at least four million lives . and took the first steps toward what I call the suicide of Europe in two world wars, which was the central event of the 20th century.” France honored, and honors still, the memory of this dictator, who “encouraged strongmen and tyrants of every kind and country. Hitler and Lenin, Stalin and Mao, were all touched and encouraged by his example,” to say nothing of lesser folk
I recall my youthful literary hero, Henry Miller, writing in Tropic of Cancer, something about Napoleon being “the last great man of Europe.” I didn’t understand why Miller would say that, and it didn’t occur to me to think how stupid it might have been to say it.
Only a few days ago I watched Republicans scream and stomp to demonstrate their loyalty to their perceived leader, George W. Bush, the petit-conqueror of Iraq, defender of Israel, and threat to half a dozen other peoples around the world. I watched Democrats stomp and scream and demonstrate their loyalty to John Kerry, who promised to further the war in Iraq, the defense of Israel, and to capture and kill the “terrorists,” just like George W. Bush promised.
The idea that US foreign policy should be reviewed, that US support for Arab tyrants and the Jewish colonization of Arab land should be questioned, did not surface. Meanwhile, Muslim NGOs all around the world are working on their own plans. They don’t need billions, trillions of dollars, to kill those who follow leaders they do not approve of. They only need some explosives and the willingness to die for their cause. They have both, and they have their own leaders. They are unstoppable. They may change their minds, but if they do not, they are unstoppable.
The solution to the problem of the leader and the follower? I don’t know. That’s like asking what is the solution to hierarchy. Wherever two people associate, there is hierarchy. At one end of the hierarchy is the leader, at the other end the follower. Universally. Depending on the context, it is oftentimes very practical and productive. At the same time, there is something about hierarchy and leaders and followers that suggest we should not be too eager to lead, not too eager to follow. It’s the eagerness itself that “leads” to so much murder, so much fraud, and that is so unbecoming.
One morning in Hollywood in November 1963 I was at my desk working at the typewriter when Marlow knocked on the door and told me with some intensity that President Kennedy had been shot. I had never dreamed that something like that would happen. I was thirty-three years old. We turned on the television and watched and listened to the story developing. It was an immensely dramatic story.
I had little reaction, other than noting the immense drama of it all. How many men had been killed that day? How many people all across the land were grieving over their murdered friends and family members? I may be missing important genes relating to hierarchy and the role of the leader. I’m not good at leading, and I’m not good at following. I can be affected deeply by the murder or death of a specific leader, but I can be deeply affected by the murder or death of any specific individual, regardless of her station in life. It depends on how much information I have about the victim. The more information, the more deeply I feel the death.
Maybe I wasn’t terribly moved because I had no theory about what might happen next. No anxiety. The drama was of a high order, it was fascinating, but it didn’t occur to me that the world would change. The vice president would be sworn in, if he wasn’t killed in turn. If he was, the leader of the House, or the Senate-I wasn’t sure, would take the office. In any event, there would be a new president and we would go along in the same way that we had gone along. Which in fact is what happened.
Even then I was a wait-and-see kind of guy. Today I fear that the Iraqi business is crazily dangerous, worse than Vietnam, but what do I know? I am unable to predict the future. I’m going to wait and see.
After watching the show on television for a while, Marlow and I found ourselves at loose ends. We walked down the short hill and across Franklin to Hollywood Boulevard. We crossed the Boulevard for no good reason and turned west toward Las Palmas. We were excited by the story. We didn’t know what to think about it. As we approached Las Palmas we saw a good-looking Black lady in her thirties maybe, sobbing and pounding her fists on the back of a uniformed, helmeted, White policeman who was standing at the curb.
The Black lady was crying: “Why? Why?” and sobbing, and the White policeman stood there quietly looking straight ahead, allowing his back to be used as a pounding board.
Marlow said: “Now there’s a good-looking broad.”
I said: “Yes, she is.”
“It makes me wonder,” Marlow said.
And then in a fake, sexually provocative, oily voice, he said: “Hmmm. I wonder what Jackie’s doing tonight? I’d be willing to catch a red-eye.”
I could always depend on Marlow to express the most outrageous and vulgar sentiment. Looking back on the incident after forty-odd years, I am reminded that Marlow did not encourage or follow his leader into the Bay of Pigs, or Vietnam, or into any of several sovereign countries in Latin America. Marlow was outrageous and vulgar, but he was not a leader, not a follower, and not a killer.