We recently celebrated my Grandma's 101st birthday. While we were sipping champagne, she said, out of the blue: "I heard that Russia will save us". It was a most unexpected remark given that we had never spoken about Russia, much less global politics. Rather than question her about it however, I understood that Grandma is aware of the current rhetoric about a possible 'nuclear war' between Russia and the West and, having lived through two world wars, she'd rather not have to endure another. So I just replied: "Yes, you are right, Vladimir Putin and Russia will save us," and the conversation moved on.

Despite my reassuring, hopeful answer, I doubt that Vladimir Putin, or anyone else for that matter, will save 'us', 'the world' or anything else. But Grandma's observation puzzled me. I was wondering where she got this information from. It's unlikely she got it from French mainstream media, which are aligned with their Western counterparts in conducting an anti-Russian/anti-Putin disinformation campaign. Maybe a member of staff at her nursing home ventured a similar remark? Maybe it came to her via some form of limbic resonance with supporters of Russian government policy?

Beyond the origin of Grandma's remark, I also have been wondering about Putin's influence on the global population, not on the political, economic or geostrategic level (which has been extensively covered by other observers), but on a deeper, more subtle symbolic level.

But before addressing that, let's look at something seemingly unrelated: death.

The fear of death


Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, 1997
Grandma doesn't want to go through a third world war because wars are synonymous with death - a lot of violent death - which is many people's deepest fear.

In The Denial of Death, author Ernest Becker brilliantly demonstrates the paradoxical nature of man. Our heads are in the stars: we are able to think and imagine the most wonderful things, tackle the most abstract concepts, solve the most complex problems, embrace the most noble sentiments, create the most exquisite pieces of art, and even imagine immortal life. Meanwhile, our feet are stuck in the mud, we are incarnated in vulnerable organic tissue and condemned to decay.

Consciousness is our most precious gift because it enables us to apprehend the stunning beauty of the Universe, but it's also our worst curse because it makes us aware of our own mortality. ‌Like the worm, man is an animal. But unlike the worm, man is self-conscious, profoundly aware of his mortality and his inexorable fate: to become food for worms.

That we are destined to die sooner or later may be the most solid truth a person can reach, but to fully embrace it would certainly drive the strongest mind to madness. The horror of our condition is so overwhelming that we have created all sorts of lies, distractions, narratives and repressions to deny the certainty of our inevitable demise. It leads to some striking paradoxes like this form of natural narcissism: the feeling that the person next to you will die but not you. But when it comes to avoiding our deepest fears, reason comes second, if at all.


Jacob's ladder, William Blake, 1805.
"This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Ge 28:10-19)
To have an idea of how powerful the fear of death is we need only realize that the source of the tremendous success of religions over the last few millennia is that they offer a 'solution' to death.

If the religious devotee follows the proper rules and rituals, he will be saved from death and get a seat in 'heaven'. Although this can appear as a rather simplistic and deceptive deal, the whole idea may stem from a deeper and more objectively true idea.

Indeed once the individual fully faces the fact that he's just a weak, mortal creature despite his spiritual inclinations, he has to also acknowledge that if there's a creature, there must be a creator. By acknowledging he's a frail finite creature he also transcends this condition by associating through faith to an omnipotent infinite creator.

My Grandma is one of those people who found solace in religion. She believes that by being good on Earth, she will be saved and access heaven.

For most of her 101 years, religion permeated most aspects of human life, but for most of us these times of religious devotion are long gone. In the past decades, a wave of materialist atheism has struck humanity, which can't be saved by God anymore since there is no more God.

Heroes, our bridge to immortality and transcendence

In terms of fear alleviation, heroes play a role very similar to the one God once played. It is a process of transference onto an heroic figure or leader as masterfully described by Ernest Becker:
"This is how we can understand the essence of transference: as a taming of terror. Realistically, the universe contains overwhelming powers. Beyond ourselves we sense chaos. We can't really do much about this unbelievable power, except for one thing: we can endow certain persons with it. The child takes natural awe and terror and focuses them on individual beings, [...] The transference object, being endowed with the transcendent powers of the Universe, now has in himself the power to control, order, and combat them."

~ Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
This process applies to our fears in general and our fear of death in particular. By attaching ourselves to a heroic immortal figure, by joining his destiny we also become immortal.

The enlightenment definition of immortality is as follows: "living in the esteem of men yet unborn, for the work you have contributed to their life and betterment". From this perspective a hero is indeed immortal:
"Every group however small or great, has, as such, an individual impulse for "eternalization" [immortalization], which manifests itself in the creation of and care for national, religious, and artistic heroes... the individual [hero] paves the way for the collective eternity impulse."

~ Otto Rank, Art and Artist, p.411
This is one of the reasons why when a real hero dies we can witness such massive congregations, sunk into sadness, attending the funerals.

Of course, followers are mourning the lost one who incarnated a great source of inspiration and the hope for a better world. But they are also crying for themselves, for they are in shock at losing their bulwark against death and the loss of this great soul reminds them acutely of their own inevitable passing.


JFK funerals. Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line that stretched over 10 miles personally paid their respects to the President.
Notice how, right after the death of a hero, we start renaming streets, buildings and airports in the name of the dead man as if we wanted to immortalize him physically in order to somehow compensate for his physical death.

However powerful the fear of death is, it is not the sole motivator for attaching ourselves to heroes. Man has a natural drive towards goodness; this was one of the two sublime mysteries of creation according to Immanuel Kant, what he called "the moral law within man". Man has this inner yearning for beauty, harmony, perfection.

Aware of his isolation and his feebleness, man can choose to associate himself with a heroic figure that holds ideals, values or goals that are congruent or even transcend his own ones. Thus he can become part of something bigger, get a sense of self-expansion, find a reliable source of confidence and inspiration.

For Carl Jung, this drive to identify with a heroic figure was so strong that he even called it an "instinct" which fulfills the individual's need for transcendence, for being whole, for reaching something larger and greater through identification with a hero.

Attaching oneself to a heroic figure provides several major benefits; it can alleviate fear and provide beneficial guidance. However, it can also reach excessive proportions, as we shall soon see.

The Case of Right Wing Authoritarian Followers (RWA)


Berlin, Germany, 01/05/1934. A crowd saluting Hitler on National Labour Day
The term 'right wing authoritarians' describes a specific kind of authoritarian follower and was coined in 1981 by Canadian psychologist Bob Altmeyer.

The two main features of the psychological profile are the degree of submission to the perceived authorities, and an aggressiveness directed at individuals opposing this perceived authority.

Are RWAs the way they are because of a heightened fear of death and a lack of internal guidance?

To address this point, let me share some personal memories. I remember witnessing several heated discussions about death. Usually about one half of the participants were deeply convinced that there was nothing after death and were logically afraid of death. Meanwhile the other half was equally convinced that death was some kind of transition and that the soul would continue its journey. It doesn't mean they were not afraid of death and the suffering, change and uncertainty that goes with it. But all in all, they were probably less terrorized by it.

What if both parties were right? Actually, philosophers like Mouravieff or Gurdjieff suggested as much by alluding to the coexistence of two kinds of humans. Souled beings and non-souled beings. If this is true, it may be one of the reasons why people score differently on the authoritarian follower scale. People not yet of an individuated soul may need to attach themselves to a leader more than others because of their (justified) deep fear of death and lack of internal guidance (conscience).

In super-organisms, like ant or bee colonies, individuals do exhibit a high level of submissiveness to the collective rules, and when properly guided achieve collective results that far exceed the sum of their individual input. It could be argued that, from an evolutionary perspective, submissiveness to an external authority leads to a more coherent, effective group, and therefore increases its survival rate... if the authority is a good one and has the best interests of the group at heart.

So, nothing is really wrong with being a follower; the problem is that most of our leaders have a nefarious influence on their followers. To make matters worse, psychopathic individuals appear to be prime candidates for leadership positions because of their reckless self-confidence and fearlessness, apparent charisma, and capacity to lie and manipulate. As a result, they are over-represented among leaders.

But embracing the values and goals of a nefarious leader can generate strong cognitive dissonance among followers. On one side, the animalistic/instinctual substratum of the individual wants to follow a leader and be part of the pack; but on the other side, his innate drive towards goodness is incompatible with the nefarious acts perpetrated by the group.

The only way to reconcile those two antinomic forces is through the acceptance of lies. The lies spread by the leader enable the follower to be a member of the group while still believing he is doing good.

That's why psychopathic leaders keep twisting reality: it's not wars of conquest, but "freedom and democracy"; it's not enslavement, but "providing security"; it's not a coup, but "supporting a people's revolution."

But what if a good leader emerged and used people's follower instinct in the follower's (and all people's) best interests, by instilling, through example and suggestion, improvements in knowledge, compassion, progress and community cohesion?

The power of symbols and archetypes

In the Milgram experiment, subjects were told to administer electric shocks to a 'learner' at the instruction of an authority figure. The subjects sat in front of a box with electric switches on it. The switches displayed the voltage that was being delivered, and a text description of the level of pain ranging from 'slight' to 'danger/severe', culminating in 'XXX'. In the original experiment, the subject could not see the 'victim' but could hear him or her.

80% of participants were willing to go up to 285 volts (at which point the 'learner' - played by an actor - emits agonizing screams). Over 62% were willing to administer the full 450 volts, despite the screams and the labels on the machine stating 'severe danger' and 'XXX'!

But the Milgram experiment revealed another less well-known result: variations of the experiment show that the main driver of obedience was the legitimacy of authority which is mostly conveyed by symbols:
  • when conducted in run-down offices rather than the impressive Yale University, the obedience rate dropped.
  • when the experimenter dressed in everyday clothes instead of wearing a lab coat (a symbol of scientific authority), obedience also dropped.

Advertising for a newspaper featuring a baby. What does a baby have to do with a newspaper? Nothing, but it triggers a positive association.
Symbols trigger powerful emotions and unconscious reactions, and it is only post facto that our intellect creates a narrative in order to rationalize irrational and mostly unconscious behaviour.

The advertising industry understood this years ago and uses it to its own advantage. Ads bypass our intellectual center to directly trigger our emotional center.

The main point of an ad is not to claim this car is faster, or that detergent washes better (rational reasoning), even if its message explicitly says so. The point is to make you associate the product with positive emotions. That's why there are beautiful women next to the car and a cute baby next to the box of detergent, while nice music plays in a background.

And it works. It works so well that studies show positive association ads will make you choose a product that you know perfectly well is inferior to its competitors.

Of course after purchasing the product the consumer will rationalize his irrational decision with some intellectual arguments: the car is more reliable or more fuel-efficient. It may be true but the real reason for his purchase is emotional: the shape of the car or the name or the content of the ad evoked positive emotions now attached to the purchased car.


Several archetypal characters found in Star Wars
When it comes to leaders and heroes, symbols and emotions are even more powerful because the hero is a major archetype. Archetypes are fundamental human motifs embedded in the collective unconscious. They are deep, instinctual, and automatically recognized in image and emotions. More than any other concept they are directly and deeply connected to our unconscious.

Jung believed that everyone in the world is born with the same basic subconscious model of what a 'hero' is, and that's why people who don't even speak the same language can enjoy the same stories and will resonate in the same way with an archetypal hero.

As an example, let's take Star Wars. Arguably the most popular movie ever, one reason for its unique success may be its deeply archetypal nature. Georges Lucas researched extensively into Joseph Campbell's work (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces), and incorporated numerous features of the archetypal hero quest in his movies, thus making it a deeply and universally appealing creation.

What is a hero?
"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others
 at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

~ Arthur Ashe
Now that we know the role heroes play in our subconscious, let's try to understand the major traits of a hero. First and foremost the hero exhibits courage, more specifically courage in the face of death.


Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy aboard PT-109
If a hero faces death without flinching, by identifying with him or her we can indeed subdue our visceral fear of death. But this is not the adrenaline-based 'defiance of death' we see today in high-risk sports pseudo-heroes (for example); it's courage coupled with moral principles. Heroes put higher principles like justice, freedom and loyalty before anything else, including their own life.

When Sulla commanded Julius Caesar to divorce Cornelia, the young husband (only 16 at the time) refused to do so and chose to face the death penalty. The help of some family friends mitigated the sentence. He was deprived of her fortune and was proscribed. In this case, Julius Caesar had the courage to face death rather than disown the sacred bond of marriage and his love for Cornelia.

In a similar vein, JFK risked his life, and miraculously escaped death, in order to save his crew, whose PT boat had been sliced in two by a Japanese torpedo. For JFK, the life of his crew was more important than his own life.

As for Vladimir Putin, President of Russia - today the main defender of the poor and the weak, and the only substantial opponent to the destructive expansion of the US empire - one could arguably assume that he's permanently risking his life. Just look at Fidel Castro, who despite being a much pettier threat to the US empire, was reportedly subjected to 638 assassination attempts organized by the CIA, yet he never flinched from his principles of defending the Cuban people.

Vladimir Putin, the archetypal hero

What Putin accomplished for Russia since his first election in 2000 is nothing short of an economic and social miracle. The table below shows the evolution of Russia's main economic and social indicators over the 2000-2014 period.

Russia's evolution (2000/2014). Sources: The Guardian / Awara
Most Western politicians would sell their soul to get just one tenth of those results. They would also be delighted to enjoy Putin's exceptional popularity rates. Since June 2014 he has had an approval rating of about 90%. But, unfortunately, not every politician is Vladimir Putin.

Actually, Putin's popularity in his own country goes far beyond the enthusiasm usually enjoyed by political leaders. Millions of Putin souvenirs are bought each year. In his country, Putin is much more than a brilliant statesman or exceptional politician. In Russia, Putin is more venerated than any rock star; he is a national hero

Russian people wearing and selling Putin T-shirts.
Would you wear an Obama T-shirt?
.

Some analysts attribute this craze to carefully planned pro-Putin propaganda orchestrated by state-controlled media. But how then can we explain his sky-high popularity rate in the UK, Europe as a whole, or even the US? How can we explain his 92% popularity rating in China, and the literal fascination of the Chinese people for Vladimir Putin?

Amazingly, despite systematic Putin-bashing by Western media, Putin has a higher popularity rating than Western political leaders in their own countries. For example, in a recent poll 4 out of 5 Brits preferred Putin over Cameron as UK leader.

The Western media's extreme anti-Putin stance while his popularity rating is so high suggests that the recognition of a leader by the people isn't strongly influenced by data, analysis or words. Something else is at work.

The process at play here may be illustrated by this seemingly innocuous conversation I had a few weeks ago. A friend of mine was telling me about all the evil things Putin does (according to the Western press of course). So I asked him, "Then you must really dislike Putin?" He replied "No, not at all, I like him, he's my favourite statesman." I was puzzled by the apparent paradox and inquired further: "Why do you like him if he's such an evil-doer?" His final reply said it all: "Because I like the way he walks out of the Kremlin; he walks like a man."

When I heard those words I remembered something from Gustave LeBon's book, The Crowd. LeBon shows that it's not analytical material (logical reasoning, hard facts, scientific deduction, etc.) that appeals to people, but simple things like slogans, pictures, and symbols.

A statesman can engage in the most eloquent political discourses, have the backing of all the experts and the praises of servile journalists, but if he doesn't have the symbolic attributes of a great leader, at a deep level, he will never be considered as such by the people. Because the hero is such a strong archetype, we are able to viscerally identify heroes. This has probably been hardwired into our instinctual substratum since the dawn of times. For millions of years, groups of animals like monkeys or wolves naturally identity the alpha males, set a hierarchy in place and play their role for the best of the group.


One of the pictures used to discredit Putin. On a symbolic level the contrary probably occurred
Here comes an ironic twist: the mainstream media tries to ridicule Putin by making up or twisting some of his traits. They particularly focus on what they call his machismo (bare chest Putin, Putin doing sports, Putin firing guns, etc.). They may not realize that by trying to ridicule Putin (and maybe succeeding on the people's conscious level), they actually do the exact opposite on the more fundamental unconscious/symbolic levels where those traits are symbolic attributes associated with the hero archetype.

Vladimir Putin entered the international scene - in a big way - in early 2014 by defending the East Ukrainian and Crimean people against repeated attacks from a Western-backed regime in Kiev. He then consolidated his status as an exceptional leader on September 30th 2015, when he ordered the Russian air force to intervene in Syria against what had previously been teed up as "the number 1 global threat: ISIS," a group defined (not coincidentally) by their purveyance to Western - and, indeed, global - audiences of the fear of death.

In people's eyes, this courageous and efficient intervention gave him, de facto, the role of world peacekeeper, the leader who protects us. Through the Syrian intervention, Putin became, willingly or not, a world hero.

Terrorism-induced fear and hystericization

The 21st century is 'the century of terror'. It started with the WTC attack in 2001, and was followed with the Madrid train bombing (2004), the London Tube bombings (2005), the multi-site attacks in Mumbai (2008), the massacre at a Tunisian beach (2015), and both massacres in Paris (2015), to name just some of the most egregious examples.

This never-ending series of terrorist attacks has exacerbated our fear of death because everyone now understands that an attack can occur anyplace, anytime. And that each one of us is a potential target. Each one of us can die at any moment, even if we are absolutely healthy and perfectly careful.


Chancellor Adam Sutler (V for Vendetta)
The fear of death exacerbated by terrorism may explain why stars (in music, movies or sports) are so popular nowadays. They are the heroes, albeit artificial ones of modernity. Pseudo-heroes possess only the appearance of heroism and not its substance.

Terrorism works in cunning ways. By increasing our fear of death, it increases our needs for more security, and therefore our dependence on authorities. As illustrated through the words of Chancellor Adam Sutler in the movie V for Vendetta: "I want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want every man, woman and child to understand how close we are to chaos. I want everyone to remember why they need us!"

Ironically, terrorism pushes us to embrace the leaders who, very often, are the architects of the terrorism itself. In addition, the terrorism-induced fear hystericizes us, fogging our brains, disabling our critical thinking, and making us accept the grossest lies as truth.

For a long time, this was a winning strategy because there was no alternative. The only available leaders were the nefarious ones. The only available accounts were the false ones. Although many people had doubts about the integrity of their leaders, they preferred to submit to not-so appealing authorities rather than face the terror of an authority/savior-bereft death.

But, as Lincoln once said: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."


Change in voter turnout over time for five selected countries
Today, one American out of two has doubts about the official government narrative around the 9/11 attacks. More than 60% of people in the US think JFK was killed in a conspiracy. 62% of UK voters think that "politicians lie all the time and you can't believe a word they say." Meanwhile the most popular party in almost every developed country is the abstention party, and it keeps gaining ground.

So there are a lot of disillusioned people on this planet. A lot of people who do not agree with the elites, who see through the lies but remain silent because they feel isolated, powerless and threatened. All of them, men and women, are starving for spiritual truths that would ease the burden of life. Indeed, such spiritual truths are their fundamental right, in an ideal world of course. I often wonder what would happen if such people were presented with a world-class hero/leader who truly and honestly desires to assuage their hidden thoughts, yearnings and fears, a hero/leader who stands for truth and justice?

Conclusion

With a hero like Putin, the equation is totally different. Terrorism still increases our fear of death and subsequent need for heroes, but it is now a double-edged sword because it can push people to flock towards Putin.

Surely Putin deeply appeals to all people who share his vision of the world: justice, multipolarity, respect of sovereign nations, end of wars of aggression, a ban on GMOs, respect for religions, genuine neutralization of terrorism, reduction of inequalities, end of de-industrialization, etc. Some of his future followers, still believing for now that he is a threat to their way of life, may even be found on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

One of the most interesting findings concerning the authoritarian personality is that they are loyal to one leader but not necessarily to any one ideology. They can, therefore, very easily switch from one dogma to another, if the leader is right for them. This point was illustrated by Adorno et al, who pointed out that a leader could move an authoritarian personality from Catholicism to Communism. In the same vein, he mentioned the many loyal Nazis who turned into loyal Communists in post-war Eastern Europe, and into loyal subjects of the Anglo-American order in post-war Western Europe.

Even right-wing leaders in the US have not failed to notice the heroic nature of Vladimir Putin:
FOX News strategic analyst Ralph Peters : "[Russia] has a real leader, while our President is incapable and unwilling to lead."

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani: "Putin decides what he wants to do and does it in half a day. He makes a decision and executes it quickly and everybody reacts. That's what you call a real leader."

Sarah Palin: "People look at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil, and our President wears mom jeans and equivocates."

Donald Trump: "[Putin] is running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country."
They know their electors and what they need (a strong leader). They've immediately recognized such a leader in Putin and use his example to belittle their democrat competitor, US president Obama. What they may not yet see, however, is that Putin could eventually tap into their followers' reservoir, the typical right-wing authoritarian, because he, more than they, has the heroic attributes that attract those kinds of personalities.

The entrance of Putin in the heroic arena has also revealed the blandness of pseudo-leaders like Obama or French president Hollande. On the Internet you can find an amazing number of comparisons between Putin and those pseudo-leaders.

Although such jokes may seems innocuous, they reveal a deeper truth and that's probably one of the reasons why they are so popular. They symbolize the glaring contrast between the heroic attributes of Vladimir Putin (courage, manliness, etc.), and the cowardly, spineless traits of his counterparts.

The elites are aware of the symbolic and political power of heroes. Stars have a big influence on what we think and believe (far greater than the influence of politicians or journalists). That's why, as soon as a celebrity dares contradict the official 'truth' (see Charlie Sheen for example), they are bashed by every media representative.

Indeed, the most crucial battle is waged in our minds; it's all about influencing our emotions and thoughts. That's why the development of media organization Russia Today is perceived as such a threat by Washington. For a hero to have an international dimension he needs an international audience. For truth to be spread, it needs worldwide exposure. Now that this is a reality, Putin has emerged dramatically and strongly on the international scene, and Russia has become a world-class player.

The oppressive global system built by Western powers over the last few centuries is still based on lies, but at least today there is an authority that offers a truthful account of what's really going on. And it is far easier to distinguish lies from truth when we can examine both, than to identify a lie when all we have is the same lie parroted everywhere as the only truth.

So, as I mentioned previously, it's unlikely that Putin will 'save humanity', but he does offer a most precious gift to all of us: the opportunity to compare the words and actions of our Western leaders, and thereby the possibility to choose to align ourselves with truly positive values and to choose truth over lies. And that's a hell of a nice Christmas present! (Hell doesn't exist, by the way, so don't fear).