The ‘Appreciation Day’ risks developing a cult of personality

Dear Editor,

The President’s Appreciation Day is now over, but I suppose the discussions will continue, if not increase about whether or not such an event is appropriate.

Supporters of the PPP/C and moreso, supporters of President Bharrat Jagdeo will undoubtedly feel justified in honouring their leader. From their perspective, Mr Jagdeo has transformed this country and charted its course to economic progress and viability. This, in fact, was one sentiment echoed at the televised event, and generally, one for which some Guyanese would offer a measure of recognition to the President. Those opposed to the PPP/C and the President, equally will deem the ceremony inappropriate, considering unsolved crime and questionable socio-political circumstances increasingly evident in Guyana.

Personally, such an event, especially since it is likely to become institutionalized, runs the risk of developing a cult of personality. In layman’s terms, when respect for a public figure plunges to the depths of idolatry, then there exists a cult of personality. History is replete with examples of monarchs occupying the throne by divine right; of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il being venerated by the citizens of North Korea as the sources of all blessings; and most recently of Muammar Gaddafi who envisioned himself as the protector of Arab nationalism.

Maybe the organizers of the President’s Appreciation Day intended anything but deification of President Jagdeo, yet the method of organizing this event along with some of the sentiments expressed, ought to forewarn us about the possibility of creating personality cults. It is my understanding that attendees of the event, were in some cases, ferried free of cost to Demerara to witness the occasion. Then replicas of the national flag were distributed to be waved by the spectators; the flattering speeches containing such endearments as “nothing short of stellar” and “Hail the Chief”; there was the cabinet escort to the centre of the field; the fanfare by the Guyana Police Force band; the display of the President’s portrait on a big screen captioned ‘The Architect of Modern Guyana’; and finally the fireworks.  External to the stadium, several television channels were broadcasting the event uninterrupted.

Whether the organizers are aware of it or not, they were invoking certain traditions which border on idealization. I can think of any number of Guyanese who already see the parallel between the flag-waving spectators at this event and those acclaiming their sporting heroes after a gruelling contest. Having the President deliver his remarks from the centre of the field suggests the major actor in the ‘orchestra’ of a Greek theatre. In a cosmological sense, it is tempting to see such positioning as suggestive of the prominence of certain heavenly bodies. This is not so far-fetched when one of the abovementioned plaudits is considered. Also, in history, poets and artists were expected to produce pieces which extolled the leader, a tradition which was evident yesterday. To address the President as “The Architect of Modern Guyana” will certainly amuse some historians and politicians, even within the PPP/C itself, since other famous names in our country’s history could aptly fit such a title. Nonetheless, the operative word “architect” glorifies the President as the designer and creator of contemporary Guyana – a rather vainglorious characterization.

There are mild personality-cultist underpinnings to what occurred yesterday, and as well intentioned as the ceremony may have been, it places this country on a course that requires discernment. Praise and commendations are quite normal and necessary, but there is always a looming threat of over-indulgence and over-compensation, both of which can spawn the deification of leaders, and eventually the oppression of citizens. Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan reformed schools by making his book a core text in all classrooms; Leonid Brezhnev could not contain his desire for self-adulation, so he awarded himself many medals and honours; while Stalin labelled himself “the greatest leader” and “sublime strategist of all times and nations.” These are the extreme outcomes of the cult of personality, but which nevertheless befall societies oblivious to the dangers of excessive adoration.

On February 25, 1956 at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Krushchev denounced the cult of Stalin by pointing out that it “…brought about rude violation of party democracy… and varnishings of reality.” In closing, he declared, “So as not to repeat errors of the past, the central committee has declared itself resolutely against the cult of the individual.” Hence, based on its philosophical origins, the PPP/C itself should be ideologically opposed to the cult personality.

Even though an occasion of this kind seems unique for presidents, it is understandable that it is considered that the outgoing President deserves a farewell. The event was by no means ostentatious idolatry and the President himself did not participate in self-glorification. However, the exercise by itself warrants careful examination, for once the motives, intentional or not, point in the direction of the cult of personality, then we should beware.

Yours faithfully,
(Name and address provided)

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