Sunday, November 01, 2009

Seduced by illusion

Two interesting things happened recently. They seemed unrelated, but seem to me to share a common thread.

One was the selection of President Barack Obama as the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. There was much comment from many quarters on this, especially when someone put together that the nominations for the prize closed just two weeks after Obama's inauguration - far too brief a period in office for him to have done anything to warrant such an accolade.

The other thing was the results of a rather out-of-the way online contest sponsored by the online magazine, which is a digital phenomenon in the GQ/Esquire/Maxim mold (think Playboy lite). Apparently their annual online survey of "Most Influential Men" turned up an interesting result: the man in question was imaginary. That's right, according to those who voted in the poll, the most influential man was the character Don Draper of the television show Mad Men. This surprising result was so intriguing that Rabbi Yonason Goldson wrote a superb column for Jewish World Review that makes several excellent points far better than I could.

To me, the connection between the two events was obvious: in both cases, those making the selection had voted for appearance, not substance. That Don Draper didn't exist and had never done anything in the real world was irrelevant; the important point was that he appeared to be the kind of man that the voters wished to emulate. The same criteria influenced Obama's selection for the Peace Prize: at the time he was nominated, he'd done nothing but run a campaign (and had done a masterful job of it) - an event which is pure image in America's media-dominated culture. Even following the nomination announcement, the media was abuzz with commentary such as this column, which gushes about Obama's acceptance comments.

The gap here between image and substance is frightening. What is even more frightening is that few think it remarkable. Anyone who knows history is aware that a sharp intrusion of actual events can shred even the most artful and well-constructed image (just ask the builders of the Maginot Line). One has to wonder how a culture who elects illusory images as their leaders will respond when they are faced with an actual challenge - because it is at times like that that illusion will shred and evaporate.

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