Offscreen Notes

Electing Democrats or Demagogues

November 9th, 2020

“Mankind have in all ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders and law-givers.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Uses of Great Men”

What makes a great leader? People used to speak of world conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte as great men, and, of course, many books and films have celebrated them: among the films, Alexander the Great (Robert Rossen,1956); Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004); and, Caesar and Cleopatra (Gabriel Pascal, 1945), Julius Caesar (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1953), Julius Caesar (Stuart Burge, 1970); and Bonaparte’s tale is presented in Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927), Waterloo (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1970), and Monsieur N. (Antoine de Caunes, 2003). Were those men world builders, world conquerors, or world smashers? Some critical views sometimes describe them as world destroyers: Alexander (356 BC – 323 BC) conquered Greece, Egypt, and India, but when he invaded Persia, burned Persepolis, and insulted the local religion; Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), a hero of the people, was a breaker of tradition, defying Rome’s senate, initiating civil war, and courting foreign personal allies, and Caesar, known to be vain, was ostentatious and debt-ridden—and he embraced the title of dictator, compelling the senate to declare him dictator for life; and Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), a skilled soldier, spoke of French honor and human rights, and defended the French revolution, but Napoleon ignored treaties and invaded other countries (which his armies plundered), and he affirmed slavery in French colonies. What makes a great leader? Ralph Waldo Emerson—who named Plato, Swendenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe as Representative Men (1850)—affirmed purpose and use above happiness, and Emerson wrote in “Uses of Great Men” of a subversive heroism:

“I admire great men of all classes, those who stand for facts, and for thoughts; I like rough and smooth, “Scourges of God,” and “Darlings of the human race.” I like the first Caesar; and Charles V, of Spain; and Charles XII, of Sweden; Richard Plantagenet; and Bonaparte, in France. I applaud a sufficient man, an officer equal to his office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master standing firm on legs of iron, wellborn, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater when he can abolish himself and all heroes, by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons, this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our thought, destroying individualism; the power so great that the potentate is nothing. Then he is a monarch who gives a constitution to his people; a pontiff who preaches the equality of souls and releases his servants from their barbarous homages; an emperor who can spare his empire.”

Often instead of world conquerors, we think of national leaders in times of trouble as great men—Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle. Or people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai as being among the best of us. What makes a great leader? Despite the rise and fall of despots in the twentieth century, inspiring grief and outrage, in our own time we have seen new demagogues seek and win power: in South America, in Europe, and—in America. However, we can recognize that conservative concerns for morality, tradition, and property are just as important as liberal concerns for liberty, equality, progress, and pluralism. Public discourse helps us evaluate proposals articulated on behalf of different principles; and there are leaders who seem to defend democratic principles and practices: among them, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. I admired Barack Obama, and as he left office as President of the United States, I contemplated the subject of leadership; and, among other things, I, Daniel Garrett, wrote, “Remember This House” about Obama and 2016’s Southside with You (Offscreen, June 2017); and “First Tragedy, Now Farce” about Richard Nixon and subsequent Republican presidents, considering Spielberg’s 2017 The Post (Offscreen, July 2018); and my essay “American Masters and Monsters” allowed me to consider leadership in both history and in culture through examining Thomas Jefferson and the 1995 Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris (Offscreen, November 2020). In that last article, I state, “What makes a great leader? Who can bring the citizens of a nation together? The subject is one we consider in grade school and during election periods, and sometimes as we try to work with others or take on important tasks ourselves—but the answer, no matter which faculties and forces and values and virtues are named, must be lived with efficiency and conviction: courage and creativity, and honesty and intelligence, and charisma, commitment, confidence, eloquence, energy, fellowship, knowledge, judgement, method, nurturing, responsibility, self-awareness, sense, spirit, trust, and vision.”

Daniel Garrett

American Masters and Monsters: Jefferson in Paris and The Golden Bowl, two films of love and power by James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Ismail Merchant

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