Lee Smith’s outstanding article about American journalists, producers, and “distinguished citizens” who groveled at the bloody feet of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad shows once again the ease with which citizens of democracies become “accomplices to evil.”
It’s an old story, and we should not be surprised to see the likes of former Ambassador Martin Indyk cozying up to the Damascus regime’s equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s “Baghdad Bob” in an effort to drag a crowd of donors — and Bill Clinton — to the throne of the great man. It is even less surprising, but no less depressing, to see producers for the major networks’ “stars” (Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, Bob Simon) wooing the Assad regime in a scramble for an interview with the great man (Barbara Walters famously won the blue ribbon), or to find an admiring reference to Charlie Rose, who was apparently generous in his remarks about the recent unpleasantness in the streets of Syria.
It’s not only about Americans. Mr. Smith quotes extensively from the fawning emails from a reporter for Rome’s La Repubblica, a left-wing newspaper that recently paid me a hefty fine, having been found guilty of criminal libel at my expense. Assad had no such complaint.
Why does this happen? First of all, because of the cult of celebrity. The news business has an insatiable need for “famous people” with which to stuff its pages and broadcasts, and this acts as a multiplier for our instinctive curiosity about other people, whoever and wherever they are. The great anthropologist Lionel Tiger neatly called Facebook’s entrepreneur, Mark Zuckerberg, “the world’s richest primatologist,” and explained the great success of Facebook by our lust to know ever more about our fellow humans.
The need to fill blank pages and empty broadcast hours is at least partially satisfied by information about all sorts of people, from the rich and famous to the murderously insane. Inevitably, everyone wanted to become part of this, and, thanks to social media, we can now all become celebrities, posting and tweeting around the clock, telling anyone who’s interested — and there are plenty of folks out there who ARE interested — just what we’re up to. Even the little things most of us do most of the time.
We’re even more interested in the powerful. Sometimes really, really interested. Henry Kissinger was undoubtedly right when he said that power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, so that even ugly men and women became sexually attractive when they got a suitable title. His own experience seems to have provided the raw data for that theorem.
So it’s quite understandable that the reporters and their producers would scramble to get next to a Middle Eastern potentate, regardless of his murderous activities. Indeed, the mass murder going on in Syria today makes Assad even more interesting to the bigtime celebrity hunters. Just think back to the glory days of Saddam Hussein, or the enthusiasm with which interviewers and college students and faculty pursued Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This human proclivity has a distinct dark side, however, and it is the fascination of tyrants for a certain kind of intellectual, the kind that wants to be a ruler himself or herself. That sort of intellectual finds modern democratic politics unbearably messy and the masses of voters insufficiently admiring of intellectuals. How much better it would be, many of them believe in their dark hearts, if people like themselves could simply make decisions. The right decisions, mind you, the sort that only a brilliant intellectual like themselves can make.
So they are eager to get close to the tyrant. They want to be his consiglieri. They love to be in his presence, both because he emanates power — the power they crave — and because just being there gives them the chance to guide his actions, even if only for a few minutes.
If you read the literature on Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro and the other monsters of the twentieth century, you will find no end of admiring books, articles, and interviews. Some of this is recounted (at blessedly short length) in Accomplice to Evil. It’s not a pretty picture, but then most of human history isn’t very pretty.
Lee Smith says that the American elite personalities that cozied up to Assad should have known better. I would put it ever so slightly differently: they should have been better. But they’re corrupted by the culture of celebrity, and by their fatal attraction to the tyrants.
Just as those who watch them, and wish to be like them.