When Gallup issued its annual poll of the men Americans most admired in 2014, it featured two improbable names at No. 10: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All things considered, 2014 wasn’t a terribly good year for either.
Both found themselves embroiled in conflict and controversy. Both faced international opprobrium. And both exhibited a pugnacity that, diplomatically at least, was hardly considered admirable.
So how did Putin and Netanyahu wind up with enough admirers in this country to place them on the list? The simple answer may be that they exude certitude in an age that reveres it, and views it as strength.
This is the opposite of what we are taught in sophisticated college humanities courses — that certainty is the dominion of fools and knaves. There is no absolute truth, scholars insist, and even if there were, no one could claim a monopoly on it. We are taught to believe in ambiguity, accommodation and a certain kind of intellectual modesty — that just because we may feel something doesn’t make it true or right. This sort of modesty is regularly cited as one hallmark of great thinkers and great people. They understand their limitations.
But in the real world, people do not necessarily find intellectual modesty admirable. What the hurly-burly of life seems to teach is that the one thing we can admire is a person’s sense of certitude — honoring deep conviction and an unwillingness to countenance doubt.
Putin and Netanyahu are, of course, very different, beginning with the fact that the first is a strongman who can impose his certitude on others while the second is not. But if they have one thing in common, this is it: Neither seems torn by internal struggle. Each projects absolute confidence in his own beliefs and visions.
It isn’t hard to understand why Americans might confuse certainty with strength, which is indeed admirable. Self-confidence is practically a secular religion in America, with everyone from Tony Robbins to Oprah Winfrey as the prefects. In the world of U.S. self-help, we hear endlessly that confidence and self-assurance are the magic elixirs to a productive and satisfying life. You can do anything if only you believe in yourself. You can invade Ukraine, for example, or resist international pressure to find some accommodation with the Palestinians.
In political terms, Putin and Netanyahu share a similar bravado — which is movie bravado. The kind that Americans found so appealing in John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger, neither of whose characters ever had a doubt cross their mind.
It isn’t necessarily that we believe in what Putin or Netanyahu are doing. Certainly, few Americans, quite likely even those who say they admire Putin, endorsed his annexation of Crimea. Their admiration must be for the chutzpah of it — for the willingness to act in a world so often paralyzed by inaction. It’s a vicarious thrill, even when the action is questionable. In a way, the admirers could be saying: “He’s wrong, but he’s strong.”
But if certainty has always had a powerful appeal, and if that appeal had been fortified by the self-help movement, it may now draw its greatest strength from the fact that a world of conflict, brinkmanship, inefficiency and moral vacancy — a world like ours — has had to devise a psychological antidote to the mess around us. That antidote is certainty, and we now live within a culture of certainty: We believe what we believe and no one can shake us from that. It is our anchor.
This isn’t only true of a Putin or a Netanyahu. One has only to watch cable news or listen to talk radio, both of which are beholden to certainty, to see that it has a bridgehead in the media, and one has only to read any string of comments on the Internet to see how certainty has been democratized.
Doubt is obsolete – an anachronism. No one seems to doubt his opinions anymore. The irony is that a culture of certainty contributes to the sense of paralysis because certainty not only precludes compromise; it turns anyone who disagrees into an enemy and every disagreement into Armageddon. Putin and Netanyahu, two of the most self-satisfied leaders in the world, also appear to be two of the most paranoid. Which leads to another irony. Certainty engenders conflict. It doesn’t resolve it.
But this sort of tough-talking swagger isn’t about political efficacy. It is about the aesthetics of leadership and about the charge we get out of seeing people try to make a video game out of reality. Putin and Netanyahu look and talk like tough guys. They cultivate the image, and though this gives a lot of people the willies, it evidently gives some people a sense of reassurance. There is some certainty in the world after all.
When everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, Putin and Netanyahu are there to tell us that they have the answers — and that John Wayne is alive and well in Moscow and Jerusalem.
Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He’s working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.