President Obama was humbled twice this week. First, he sent the resounding message to the International Olympic Committee at Copenhagen that it should give the Olympics to Chicago…because I am Barack Obama. He was then resoundingly humbled as Obama – I mean, Chicago – was the first city eliminated.
Then, the president was “most surprised and deeply humbled” in a very different way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. 1983 laureate Lech Walesa was surprised too, commenting that “He has no contribution so far.”
But Walesa, like the rest of those complaining that Obama has never accomplished anything to merit such an award, misses the important point. The award is not about accomplishing anything: it is about narcissism.
“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee. True, Obama’s greatest accomplishment on the world peace front seems to have been his frequent remark that diplomacy is nice. But his rhetoric on behalf of public niceness makes him the perfect object through which peaceniks can live vicariously – and that is the purpose of the award these days. It is about giving a face and a mouth to the desires of those to whom the Peace Prize still means something.
This is a distinction crucial to understanding Obama’s popularity. Those who speak of the Obama follower’s “loyalty” or “devotion” misunderstand the words. Obama was elected president, not because of anyone’s loyalty, but because he was a skillful blank slate onto which people would project their own personalities and desires. The Peace Prize comes for the same reasons.
Humans find real loyalty inspiring, which is why songs and acts of undying devotion to God, country, friends, or the rare genuine hero can make them choke back tears. We were made for such loyalty; like Jonathan for David, sacrificing ourselves for something beyond us. Loyalty comes from what Burke called the religious impulse; when we are loyal, we stand by that person or thing no matter what. Great leaders inspire loyalty, which exists for the sake of the object.
In contrast, honoring a person because he represents what we want is, in fact, narcissism. Men like Obama, or earlier demagogues like Napoleon or Mussolini, make us feel a part of something greater than ourselves. But that something is in fact only a projection of our own selves and desires, lumped into a titillating aggregate. These men tell us they will give us everything we desire, and, cheering, we worship ourselves at their feet. Great demagogues inspire collective narcissism, which exists for the sake of the subject; for the sake of the self.
Obama won the Peace Prize, not because he accomplished anything, but because of collective narcissism. Through him, peaceniks can feel good about themselves. And the fact that he too is a narcissist makes it all the better.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.