The old devils called charisma and charm

A CHARISMATIC personality can have influence far beyond the import of the cause they advance or the values they represent.

A charming, seductive character can gift wrap the thinnest idea in a way that can defy rational judgement. Often in a way that turns promise into disappointment.

The followers of showboating Indian spiritual leader Ram Rahim Singh — he, almost predicably, styles himself “Godman” — who was convicted yesterday of raping two female followers were so distressed by the verdict that they rioted across the Punjab, causing, according to The Hindustan Times, at least 25 deaths and the widespread destruction of property in a society that can hardly be described as affluent.

Whether that reaction came about because the rioters could not believe that the leader of their Dera Sacha Sauda sect was guilty or because they felt the judgment was a stitch up is hardly significant. His personality, described as flamboyant and domineering in equal measure, had such a grip on their imagination that they, to use an entirely apt phrase from the vernacular, completely lost the head.

Next week an anniversary of a death that caused a goodly proportion of an entire nation to lose the head will be marked. Thursday will be the 20th anniversary of the Paris death of Princess Diana, the most photographed and hunted woman of her time . That she died in a car being chased by paparazzi was hardly surprising; a life lived through the camera lens ended in one too.

At this remove, and apart at all from her and her family’s tragedy, the reaction to her death remains incomprehensible. Calm, rational people of all ages, creeds, gender, and outlook were convulsed in a public grief that has not been equalled anywhere since. In a country where emotional restraint, the permafrost stiff upper lip, is almost a national characteristic the unabashed, unconcealed anguish was an extraordinary example of the power of charisma and imagined relationships.

Diana was a beautiful woman who radiated empathy, and she was sorely misused by her husband so she had consdierable public sympathy. Even so, the scenes across Britain, and elsewhere, in the days after her death seem a kind of high water mark of modern personality cults. Those days represented a kind of peak celebrity that still defies understanding.

A very different kind of animal magnetism is in play in Los Angeles this weekend. Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor meet in what is expected to be the most lucrative event in boxing history. The organisers — “we have managed to extract every possible dollar from the market,” said one — want to make at least $500m from the encounter, one that could hardly be further from the Corinthian ideals that one way or another still inform great sport — as will be evidenced in Croke Park this afternoon.

It is interesting though that at a moment when we think we understand and know so much we are still hopelessly in thrall to the oldest, most primal instincts. Charisma, charm and magnetism still trump logic almost every time.


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