The progression of the prominent, the ones who appear before us as elected politician, social activist, business tycoon, etc, is intriguing for the different stages in the professional lives of these individuals. In the curve of their career path, there is often turbulence; reputations rise and
fall and rise again; fortuitous circumstances alternate with setbacks and, occasionally, just when you think the individual is finished his/her star can shine again. However, while the pundits among us may engage in long circuitous debates on the stature of these figures, the one clear sign that a leader’s career is over is not when the people get angry, nor when they fulminate in the press, nor when they hold up protest placards in the street.
The goodbye indication for those leaders is when the people start laughing at them. It is certainly true that people will enter into some harmless teasing of their leaders – Richard Nixon’s ‘V‘ sign, for instance; Lyndon Johnson’s use of profanity; ‘Iron Lady‘ Margaret Thatcher – and there is the common USA condition where a few brave comedians will zero in (Mort Sahl on Nixon; Bill Maher on George Bush) but when the reactions turn into a widespread state of mocking or derisive laughter, you know that that career is effectively over.
What is of particular interest in the shift is that it occurs spontaneously, from the bowels of the society, and no one can predict when the turn will come, or identify the trigger, but when the tipping point arrives, the entire society recognizes it and confirms the verdict.
The common man, who is always uncommonly smarter than we assume, is immediately onto the shift like flies to ripe mango, and the die is cast. To tease somebody, or even laugh with somebody, means there is still some regard there; but when the circumstances become such that you are constantly making jokes about the individual it means that he/she has lost the credibility to lead you intellectually, morally, politically or otherwise. Leaders in a society can sometimes come back from a mistake, or a poor decision; there is none in the case of mockery.
Sometimes the shift is triggered by a devious connection – such as the Watergate burglary under Richard Nixon in the USA, or, in Trinidad, in Eric Williams’ time, the banishing of the critical calypsonian Chalkdust, who was also a teacher, to a remote school in the island. In the 1970s in Grenada, there were rumours about PM Eric Gairy’s alleged dalliance with obeah; the change in reactions, from concern to laughter, was a signal that his regime was on its last legs.
Sometimes, it’s an aspect of the person – such as Bill Clinton’s famous affair with Monica Lewinski. A regional example is Eric Williams’ wearing of the hearing aid which led to the nickname ‘Deafie‘ carrying with it the unspoken implication that he could no longer hear what the people were saying, and, with the dark glasses, that he could no longer see them.
Sometimes, it’s a display of arrogance, like Juan Peron’s wholesale replacement of the
Argentina constitution with a new one allowing the mass nationalization of natural resources and public services, as well as the re-election of the president.
Sometimes it’s a flaw that becomes gradually exposed, a classic example of this being former US President George Bush.
Although Bob Woodward’s book on Bush showed him to be man who was actually doing a lot of homework and involving many proven professionals in his policy-setting forays, Bush had gradually became known for his hilarious fracturing of English (“They misunderestimated me”), his stunned vacuous look, and his bumbling responses to questions. Eventually in public Bush came to be seen as a somewhat cardboard figure, making poor assessments (“You’re doing a good job, Brownie”) unfounded declarations (“Victory is ours in Iraq”) and clearly outclassed in public by his British, French and German contemporaries. Once the humour turned from gentle teasing to mocking laughter (with major pushes from comedians such as Bill Maher and Chris Rock) it was a sign that Bush’s ship had run aground.
Sometimes, a moral issue does it. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for example, the former IMF chief, became mired overnight in a controversial incident in Washington. Although found innocent of the charge, the public now sees Strauss-Kahn as a pathetic figure, and countless jokes about him are circulating on the internet.
Although some of the humour aimed at the man is truly obnoxious, the lesson is that when the folks start laughing the dimension knows no borders. Strauss-Kahn’s intended run to be President of France is now a dead issue. Voters don’t gravitate to the source of their mockery.
These days, of course, a multiplication factor in the spread of laughter is the emergence of these modern technologies that allow commentary, alarmist or comedic, to be dispersed rapidly and widely.
Within seconds of someone creating the latest Pat Robertson or Strauss-Kahn piece of hilarity, people in those respective countries are laughing the laugh. And even in less developed societies, there are enough of the social media mechanisms – it is commonplace now to see persons walking around with them in Guyana – to spread the mockery once the target has come into focus.
Prominent public figures everywhere, be it in politics, business or media, no matter how long they serve or proclaim, should take note: when the people rail at you and vent their anger in the media or publicly, although it’s a danger sign, it means the show is still on.
When the anger simmers down into booing, that means they’re annoyed but still watching the action. However, when the grumbling turns to widespread laughter, it’s time to take off the makeup and put your tuxedo in mothballs – your audience has left the theatre.