Sunday, July 31, 2011

Defining Charisma Down

Some special folk are known for having "charisma" or for being "charismatic." The Greek root refers to possessing divine favor, as in having a gift of the Holy Spirit. The more popular meaning refers to charm, magnetism, or the ability to leave a lasting impression on others or to command a following. Charisma is also closely linked to personality, the salient features of a self. Someone may be charismatic because he or she is a person of virtuous character (as in Jesus Christ, or, to a lesser extent, the Apostle Paul), but not necessarily. One may be known for charisma or personality and fail to exhibit any of the classical virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) or Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love). Consider Mick Jagger, for example.

While moral character is more important than charisma (which in the end will amount to no more than wood, hay, and stumble if not tempered and inspired by virtue), it seems that charisma itself is losing its charisma. In 1993, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a famous essay in The American Scholar called "Defining Deviancy Down." The thesis is that moral were decaying so rapidly that what was considered socially deviant was losing its stigma or becoming acceptable. Thirty year ago, having an "illegitimate child" was quite a scandal, but not so much today, since illegitimacy rates have gone through the ceiling in recent decades. Now "partners" have children together and few think twice about it.

It strikes me that American culture is now defining charisma down just as it has defined deviancy down. That is, just as it is increasingly easier for vices to be deemed normal, less than charismatic people are now being defined as charismatic. It is difficult to explain why this is, but I offer two examples: Rob Bell and Barack Obama.

Bell is frequently hailed as charismatic, but I have no idea why. He does not have a distinctively attractive voice, is no wordsmith, and it not remarkable looking. Nor does he draw deep from the wells of wit or arresting intelligence. Rather, he has a smirking, joking demeanor that is something else entirely. It is not even the "coolness" of jazz (say Miles Davis).

Obama, who sadly now presides over the American decay he has so long desired, is also hailed as charismatic. But I have found nothing of that property. He thrives on catch phrases with no meaning; revels in absurd grandiosity (more so before taking office), has odd speech patterns; off teleprompter, he incessantly says "uh" (the bane of public speaking--or any speaking), draws out words during which he is, apparently, trying to come up with thoughts (usually the word "aaaaaaaaand"), and is far less than commanding. He doesn't seem very comfortable in his own skin. He has a better voice than Rob Bell, but hat hardly confers charisma.

Not all charisma has been defined down, however, in the same way. Some search for hyper-charisma through rude, crude, vile, and spectacular behavior, such as Lady Gaga. But even she fails to be truly charismatic because when everything is mere hyperbole, there is no deep mystery, no exotic entrancement, no fierce fascination. She comes across as a noisy, hyperactive, special-effects zombie.

Charisma, when wed to virtue and sound life principles, can be profound indeed. Think of Ronald Reagan, for example, in politics. Or, consider Billy Graham in evangelism. But mere charisma, even lacking moral character, has its own charms--as long as one recognizes them as such. Popcorn has its charms, although it is not very nutritional. If one tries to live off it, it will not suffice. The charismatic personality has a certain flair that provokes and may inspire; or at least it entertains. But when charisma is defined down, nothing is left besides a facade. I, for one, will pass that action.

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