To Leave a Beautiful Corpse

17 February 2013

When a charismatic leader dies aburptly while still in power, his or her supporters quickly begin building a mythology of what would have been accomplished had he or she lived. That is why, for example, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was and largely is so highly regarded; in the minds of his admirers, he would have accomplished wonderful things in the last five years of a two-term Presidential Administration, regardless of what one otherwise makes of its first thousand days.

The mythological episode of such leadership is treated as having the same standing for purposes of comparison as does historical fact. When an opponent tries to construct an argument founded on logic and general fact against policies associated with that leader, supporters treat the mythology as if it is a disproof by counter-example. What's really happening then is that Faith is being mistaken for empirical data.

Even before the dire physical ailments of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías became apparent, his base of supporters had discernibly eroded as the consequences of substituting administration for markets became harder not to see in the specific experience of Venezuela and as, yet again, a socialist regime increasingly moved to forceably silence critics rather than to meet their criticism in open debate. But, if Chávez were to die, then those concerns would be played-down; and, no matter what happened in Venezuela after his death, a mythology would be constructed about how Chávez would, after all, have brought-about a Golden Age for Venezuela, for large parts of Latin America, perhaps for the Third World more generally. In effect, the Hugo Chávez Who Would Have Lived would be treated as-if an empirical disproof of any argument against sorts of socialism that would come to be associated with Chávez.

The world would be better-off without belief in that mythological Chávez. For the long-run sake of the world, I've been hoping that Chávez would bounce-back, retake the helm, and continue to run Venezuela into the ground. (I'd agree that having Venezuela run into the ground even once would be awful, but having it and other nations run into the ground repeatedly by a string of imitators seems worse. And, if Chávez were to die, one imagines that his successors would run Venezuela into the ground anyway.)

Well, it seems that Chávez is not going to bounce-back; perhaps he's going to die. But, if so, he's taking a rather long time about it. And, at least, pretty much anything short of suddenly dying undermines the effectiveness of mythologizing. That's not how it would work if this mythologizing were rational — the Leader Who Would Have Been would have moved across the stage every bit as heroically if not for senile dementia or if not for a crippling stroke as he or she would have if not for an assassin's bullet. But the matter is in the first place very much one of irrational fantasizing. Making matters worse for mythologizers of Chávez, his lieutenants, jockeying for as much power as they might have in any case, insist that Chávez is still calling the important shots; his departure would thus be less sharply defined.

Even if Chávez bounces-back rather completely, we'll still get some mythologizing — just as there will be a mythology of what President Obama Would Have Done had he had an deferential majority in Congress for eight years — but the world may be spared the sort of mythology that would have developed had Chávez died on the operating table on 11 December.

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