Before the introduction of television as our main source of entertainment, information, knowledge, and propaganda, the world’s leaders managed to perform their jobs largely without the “paparazzi effect.” By that I mean that they went about their business without being followed and photographed like rock stars, without tweeting every thought popping in or out of their brains while sitting on the toilet, without having a fan base equaling that of the most successful European footballers, and without being forced to find time to do a tour of talk shows and sketch comedy programs at least two or three times a week.
I imagine that most statesmen living, say, two hundred years ago weren’t very familiar to their subjects. For one thing, back then you couldn’t very well friend them on Facebook. A sad fact, for sure, but there you have it. If you lived in 1847, for example, most likely you didn’t know your sovereign’s nickname, his favorite designer, his most precious childhood memory, or how exactly he was planning to accomplish the economic recovery of your part of the world. How many Germans really knew what Herr Bismarck was up to on a daily basis? How many Russians do you think knew they were ruled by someone as magnificent as Peter the Great? (How many knew they were being ruled by anyone at all?) How many of Napoleon’s soldiers knew every detail of The Little Corporal’s plans for world domination, and would he have tweeted them to everyone if he’d had the chance?
Today’s politicians and statesmen (and stateswomen) are little more than the world’s biggest celebrities. Their popularity is banalized and their work trivialized by their constant presence everywhere. They tweet, they Facebook, they roughhouse with Jimmy Fallon or Jeremy Clarkson or in my country Ivan Ivanovic, they visit fashion shows and movie premiers, they get Photoshopped for magazine covers, they’re spoofed crudely by everyone with a sense of humor, their garbage is forensically examined for evidence of I don’t know what, their sex lives are discussed at every dinner party, their children are offered the best jobs as journalists or writers or professors or movie stars or the United Nations ambassadors for whatever, they write bestselling novels and sell move rights to their autobiographies to anyone offering a fistful of dollars, they open restaurants and invent new ways to slice bread, they forecast weather and engage in score predictions for the Champion’s League, they consult and advise everyone possessing a set of functioning ears on every subject from astrology to global warming, they lecture and sing and dance and act and for the longest time around elections they seem to be everywhere, from the CNN headquarters to my sock drawer. For a while I thought if I lifted up a pile of old magazines sitting in the corner of my bedroom I’d find none other than Bill Clinton. The man was everywhere! He was so everywhere that when he came to visit Montenegro a couple of years ago he thought he was in Macedonia. He must have been sick to death of seeing himself every time he turned a corner.
For the last few days the biggest celebrity in the world, you must agree, has been the Pope. Now, I have no interest in the Pope’s comings and goings. I live in a country not under this man’s jurisdiction. It surprised me, therefore, that Serbian media cared so much about the Pope’s last day. I felt, in all honesty, a bit overwhelmed by it yesterday. Lately I’ve begun to notice that our media (television, especially) takes its cues much too often from the big networks broadcasting weather, sports and traffic from the West. I know more about the latest snowfall in the American Midwest than I do about the floods that have crippled the southern regions of my own country. Today, instead of learning something more about whether or not our milk is safe to drink, the morning news lectured me ad nauseam about the Pope’s iconic red shoes. Thank heavens they informed me around noon he was not allowed to depart barefoot: after slipping out of the official red shoes the Man Formerly Known as the Pope put on a pair of Mexican leather loafers. Good for him! I was worried there for a minute the-old timer would have been left shoeless. I imagined some horrible Italian peasant woman with a giant hairy wart on her nose busting into his bedroom late last night and demanding, “Le scarpe, vecchio!” A scene out of an old Benny Hill skit.
I don’t understand the spell the Pope casts over people. I see pictures of multitudes standing under his window, tears streaming down their faces, and I can’t help asking “Does this old man really matter that much in a world of countless pressing issues?” I don’t know, maybe he does. I fail to see how. Just because CNN or euronews tell me I care doesn’t mean I really do.
Here in Serbia we worship athletes and, sometimes, pop stars of questionable morals rather than church officials. My relationship with the Church and its employees is…well, I don’t have one. I don’t go for that kind of thing. I never could relate to priests as representatives of some higher being, or concept, or just a better way of life. This I blame mostly on a small incident from my childhood. I was once taken to an important church event, at the conclusion of which all attendees were meant to file past the priest, who, I’m assuming because my memories are rather vague, passed on some kind of generalized blessing from Up Above. Some people simply shook his hand, while others bent down and lightly kissed, or pretended to kiss the tips of his fingers. This is a symbolic gesture, I understand that now. But back then I found it quite odd, and I hoped to high heavens he’d washed his hands before coming to work that day (hand-washing being a pillar of my childhood education, of course). When it was my turn to approach him, someone behind me whispered hurriedly “Kiss his hand!” I became flustered, suddenly realizing this man was, in fact, one of my father’s good friends, a good-natured old buddy fond of tipping back a few shots of rakija before lunch and notorious for letting out some truly symphonic farts after a good meal at our house. How could I kiss his hand? My reluctance and indecision nearly brought down the entire structure of the Serbian Orthodox Church that day. Alright, maybe it wasn’t quite so dramatic. It did embarrass him and the people behind me, all of whom then proceeded to bow to him elaborately rather than shaking or kissing his hand. Who better to create an awkward and uncomfortable situation in church than a ten-year-old kid who stopped believing in Santa Claus at the age of four.
The Pope, to me, is a figure very much like our good old Saint Nick. Iconic outfit, large entourage, great vehicle, an army of expectant fans.
Only, I’ve never gotten a gift from the Pope. And I’m usually won over by cheap gifts, like candy or small bundles of cash.
I’m just sayin’…