“Man Is a Toad-Eating Animal”

In 1819, William Hazlitt, the great radical essayist, snarled that “Man is a toad-eating animal. The admiration of power in others is as common to man as the love of it in himself: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave.”

If you’re in the mood for some Hazlitt-style misanthropy, today’s Times has a fairly horrifying article about what campaign 2008 looks like, as seen from the rope line.

While campaign events are largely stage-crafted, the frenzied flesh-pressing that candidates engage in afterward offers something more raw and unpredictable. You see and hear things on rope lines. Get a whiff of things, too. (“I got to smell him, and it was awesome,” raved Kate Homrich, caught between Mr. Obama and a woman trying to hug him in Grand Rapids.)….

A lot can happen on a rope line, which make them both unnerving and unpredictable, and something of a culture unto themselves. Look at the faces — not of the candidates, but of the rope-liners themselves, with arms and fingers extended, their eyes bugged and sometimes tearful.

“Best experience of my life,” said Bonnie Owens, who got her fingers pinched by Mr. Obama after a rally in Louisville last week.

“I couldn’t believe she picked me out of a crowd,” said Jeff Justice after a rope-line encounter with Mrs. Clinton after a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Mrs. Clinton probably picked him out because he fainted in front of her. He was back on his feet after she gave him a bottle of water and, more important, she signed a photograph for him.

This sort of thing is embarrassing enough when it involves sweatsuit-clad Americans waiting outside the NBC studios, praying for a glimpse of Matt Lauer. When it involves people who aspire to power, it’s far, far worse.

Hazlitt had a lot to say about humanity’s need to anoint and venerate a leader. From my book (buy it, damn you):

In his essay “On the Spirit of Monarchy,” Hazlitt noted that, as savages, we fashioned “Gods of wood and stone and brass,” but now, thinking ourselves above superstition, “we make kings of common men, and are proud of our own handiwork.” As Hazlitt saw it, behind that impulse lies a craven desire to dominate others, even if only vicariously: “each individual would (were it in his power) be a king, a God: but as he cannot, the next best thing is to see this reflex image of his self-love, the darling passion of his breast, realized, embodied out of himself in the first object he can lay his hands on for the purpose.”

But Hazlitt wasn’t immune from the original sin he criticized. As if illustrating his own warnings about man’s tendency toward hero-worship, Hazlitt penned a hagiographic “Life of Napoleon Buonaparte” that took “a sentimental view of Caesarism.” None of us are immune. Liberty requires upon rising above the weakness of the Flesh, resisting our temptation to worship Power, fighting it with a political culture that contains healthy doses of scorn and irreverence.

“Bonnie Owens,” “Jeff Justice,” and the like would no doubt resent that perspective, but as Hazlitt wrote in one of his better moments:

“Would it not be hard upon a little girl, who is busy in dressing up a favorite doll, to pull it in pieces before her face in order to show her the bits of wood, the wool, and rags it is composed of? So it would be hard upon that great baby, the world, to take any of its idols to pieces, and show that they are nothing but painted wood. Neither of them would thank you, but consider the offer as in insult.”

Nobody likes a cynic. But civilization depends on cynicism.

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Posted on May 24, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Uncategorized | Comments

One Response to ““Man Is a Toad-Eating Animal””

  1. Posted by: 真・三國無双 育成代行 - 08/20/2014

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