We live in darkening times, so it’s time for some dark humour.
Inspired by the antics of a Big Man with a Big Mouth, think just for a moment about the important subject of how democracies treat their elected leaders. When they function well, democracies are irreverently harsh on those who take decisions on behalf of others. Why? In no small measure because democracy has the effect of destroying the fiction that there is, or could be, a unified body politic symbolised and held together by a Great Leader.
The coming of democracy ensures that political communities are permanently fractured. Differences of opinion and ways of life flourish. Whatever contemporary populists might say, there’s no “Sovereign Nation”, no “Body Politic” and no single unified body called “The People” who bind everything together. Compromise, consensus and working agreements to disagree happen, of course. But typically there are chronic tensions between civil societies and governments, and conflicts as well within civil societies and governments themselves. Whatever unity the polity enjoys is permanently questionable and continually up for grabs, simply because the exercise of power over others is always publicly scrutinised, contested, divided, constrained.
The contrast with early modern European monarchies and 20th-century totalitarian regimes is striking, and revealing. Think for a few seconds about how monarchies once symbolically represented the power they wielded over their subjects. The physical body of kings like Charles I (1600 – 1649) and Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) was conceived both in the figure of God the Father and Christ the Son. The monarch’s body was divine. It was therefore considered immortal and unbreakable. It could not be admitted that kings died. Their bodies symbolised infinite perfection.
Like God and his Son, kings could do no wrong. That was why the violation of their bodies – through un-Godly acts ranging from unsolicited touching by their subjects through to attempted regicide – were harshly punishable. The body of kings also symbolised the unbreakable quality of the “body politic” over which they ruled. Like God, kings were omnipresent and their bodies coterminous with the polity itself. Monarchs were God-given givers of laws. But they also resembled God the Son. Sent by God to redeem humankind, kings had a “body natural” – the sign of God in the world – as well as a body politic. Just like the persons of the Trinity, the two bodies plus the authority they radiated were one, inseparable and indivisible.
It’s a strange historical fact that 20th-century totalitarianism thrived on a version of the same fiction of a unified body politic, “pure as a diamond”, as the butcher Great Leader Pol Pot explained in a little-known 1949 pamphlet, Monarchy or Democracy. In the name of “the people”, but like the monarchies of old, totalitarianism put the body of the Great Leader on a grand pedestal for the grand purpose of establishing Him as the ultimate source of wisdom, strength, knowledge and power.
The embalming and public display of Lenin’s corpse in the Soviet Union in January 1924 was a foretaste of such practices, which reached something of a climax in the huge Memorial Hall edifice in Tiananmen Square constructed in memory of the Great Helmsman of the Chinese people, Mao Tse-tung. Those who have seen it with their own eyes will agree that it’s no simple grave for a common corpse. It more than resembles the royal tombs reserved for the Sons of Heaven who were at once elevated persons and divine persons, in whose bodies time figuratively stood still, forever.
The Tiananmen edifice preserves this custom for a revolutionary saint. It contains a marble statue and a crystal-covered sarcophagus containing Mao’s embalmed remains, together with an inscription in the green marble of its southern wall: a telling phrase dedicated to the memory of “our great leader and teacher Chairman Mao Tse-tung: forever eternal without corrupting”.
In striking contrast, when they function well, democrats and democracies put embodied notions of power and leadership under a pedestal. Democracies, understood as forms of government and ways of life in which no body rules, dispense with the fetish of rulers. They of course need leaders, respect them, follow them, learn from them – but they do not worship them as Leaders blessed with metaphysical powers. The bodies of leaders like George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon are not reckoned identical with the office of President of the United States. Executive power is disembodied. Representatives are not the same as the roles they play. And that is why, when they function properly, democracies like the United States regularly poke fun publicly at the bodies of politicians, with impunity.
I remember this dollop of dark humour from the darkest moments of the first-term presidency of George W. Bush. Halted by a traffic snarl on a freeway leading into Washington D.C., a driver was startled by shouting. She wound down her window, to be greeted by an excited citizen carrying a jerry can and bearing breaking news. “The president has just been kidnapped by terrorists! They’re demanding a huge ransom, otherwise they say they’ll set him on fire! The government says citizens should contribute, so the situation can be resolved fast.” Replied the startled driver: “How much on average are citizens donating?” Said the messenger: “About a gallon apiece.”
The dark humour’s back, as a Jewish friend of mine reminded me a few days ago. President Donald J. Trump is on his first state visit to Israel, where red tie around his neck he travels to Jerusalem, to open the brand new United States Embassy. There without warning he suffers a massive heart attack. Medical people spoke of acute coronary thrombosis and myocardial infarction. But truth was the Leader was dead.
As the news broke, pandemonium spread through the country, all the way back to Washington. Waiting for instructions, federal agents nervously guarded the body. Eager local Zionists called for the Great Leader Son of Israel to be buried on local soil. An enterprising local undertaker quickly came forward with a funeral plan. “I can arrange everything”, he said. “Best casket, beautiful flowers. Fast service. Reasonable price.” Behind the scenes, United States officials were unpersuaded. “We can’t risk it”, said one, off the record. “Two thousand years ago, another big guy died here. Three days later, he was back on his feet again.”
This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.