Sunday, February 25, 2007

Al Gore's Oscar

I thought I knew what charisma was -- although I could never define it. It describes a quality that people have who we want to be around. And it probably has media-specific realizations. One might be attracted to someone via one particular medium (print, sound, video-film, stage, stadium, even internet) but think otherwise on meeting them in person -- or via some other medium.

Then there is politics which is all about maintaining coalitions. There are some characters who can tell one group one thing and another group something very different -- using crafted ambiguous language -- and get away with it. They maintain coalitions; they get re-elected. Many of the rest of us fail badly when resorting to rhetoric, pieties, ambiguous messages, etc. But some do get away with it. I have always concluded that they possessed the charismatic qualities to do so.

Now comes Philip Rieffs' Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. It begins with some promise (the New Yorker cartoon that shows a hopeless fellow attempting to use spray-on charisma) but quickly becomes an idiosynchratic-psychonalatic argument with Max Weber. The ground covered includes Old and New Testaments, both of which rely on presentations of various charismatic characters.

And why scorn Weber? "Weber did not invent charisma, and I doubt that he has the soul-raking power that would accompany its destruction. I cite Weber ... for his detructive neutral uses of the concept ... His formulae of ligitimation translate too easily into professional sales techniques, with leadership as the product." (p. 244) The great man apparently defined things in a way that suggested publicity and celebrity.

Now I was ready for the Oscars. Watch reruns of your TIVO-ed Academy Awards, see Melissa Etheridge sing then-nominated (and eventually winning) "I've need to wake up" and catch the the messages flashed in the background, including "light-rail". How many of the guests in the Kodak Theatre have ever used light rail? (I could not resist.)

In fact, watch the works and tell me that Al Gore is charismatic in any medium. In fact, Dr. Henry Miller diagnoses narcissistic personality disorder. Turn-off, rather than turn-on and not charisma.