Jonathan Tremblay: Superstition and Historical Leaders: “...All That is Wrong with the Western World”

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and Breaking News editor for the History News Network]

Now that the World Cup of soccer has been won by Spain, much of the world and virtually all of North America will promptly forget about the sport altogether whereas they were buying merchandise and crowding bars as early as 7 AM to watch North Korea versus Senegal just a month ago. One person that has not forgotten and that used the World Cup as a topical addition to a seemingly endless speech last week is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Specifically, the President attacked the Western World’s belief in the divination powers of Paul the Octopus.

To refresh your memories or inform you outright, Paul was the name of an octopus that was routinely given a choice between feeding in one of two containers, each of which had a national flag on it. Feeding from a country’s container, It surprisingly picked Spain as winner against The Netherland for the final but also uncannily predicted the outcome of all seven of Germany’s matches correctly.

Now I am a strong believer in coincidence and don’t necessarily believe that the octopus is magical. President Ahmadinejad on the other hand thinks that the Western World strongly believes in the precognitive powers of Paul and thus Paul is not only “spreading western propaganda and superstition” but also is a symbol of “all that is wrong with the Western World”. In fact, his speculation goes as far as affirming that our Western leaders strongly believe in Paul (as opposed to the teachings of Allah (peace be upon him) in this case): “Those who believe in this type of thing cannot be the leaders of the global nations that aspire, like Iran, to human perfection”.

Now I believe this is a misunderstanding. Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and even Vladimir Putin do not think that Paul the Octopus is a prophet, a vizier or the reincarnation of a divine being. The octopus will (probably) not be drafted to the White House in order to determine a timeline for the Afghanistan pullout. Paul is a cute sideshow act and nothing more.

On the other hand, if President Ahmadinejad wants to criticize superstitious Western leaders that seemingly appreciate democratic councils and think tanks as much as Ouija boards, he only has to crack open one of our history books.

(I feel I should add a disclaimer here that by ‘superstition’, I am not including any religious beliefs that have been a common point of guidance for world leaders for millennia and are thus not ‘strange’ or ‘extraordinary’.)

Secret powers or superstitious pitfalls

Beginning our adventure at Versailles on the throne of Napoleon, the petit caporal shot up through military and political ranks in a short two decades to survive the French Revolution and impose his reign on most of Europe. Up until his final imprisonment in 1815 and death in 1821, Napoleon had (rightfully) relied on councils of nobles, bourgeois, generals and (wrongfully) family for advice but his actions were also often directed by two things: his fear of cats and the number 13. Whereas he would simply outlaw cats where he lived, his triskaidekaphobia seriously affected his tenure with such things as a professional fourteenth dinner guest on hand for whenever the table only had 13 patrons to the military operations that could never be conducted on the thirteenth of the month.

Venturing further into the esoteric, Mary Queen of Scots reigned from 1542 to 1567 and many accounts indicate that she made important decisions based on her tarot readings.

Moving on to a time where superstition was both the last thing to base decisions on and the only source of hopes, both sides of WWII had documented beliefs in superstition. Winston Churchill surrounded himself with cats that allegedly brought him good luck while he battled the apparent dark influences of the number 13, Friday and travel in general. Similarly across the Atlantic, President Roosevelt hated travelling along with Fridays and the number 13. One wonders how the two Allies met so often considering the restrictions (and we have records) of both men whom ‘could not’ travel or do much of anything on Fridays or at times that had anything to do with the number 13. Like Napoleon, FDR would go so far as to have his secretary on call as a fourteenth in case he was one of thirteen dinner guests around a table. On the Axis side of things, Hitler was terrified of cats and had them banned from all Nazi installations. His quest for the occult, including the search for the spear of destiny said to have pierced the side of Jesus Christ, became legendary but did not do much to help him in the end. I’m starting to see an unexpected pattern that cats are key to victory.

Keeping with America, the long tradition of democracy and transparency explains why we have so many documented superstitions for US presidents. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) believed in his dreams as visions and legend has it that he witnessed his own assassination days before it happened. He would go so far as to announce positive news about Civil War battles before messengers arrived because he had already ‘seen’ the good omens. The very superstitious Lincoln lives on today; it is said that he haunts a wing of the White House and roams the halls at night.

President McKinley (1897-1901) wore his lucky red carnation at all times on his lapel. He would frequently give the carnation to people he met to bestow the good luck unto them but had to drop everything afterwards in order to get another one. It was (probably) a coincidence that in Buffalo during the Pan-American expo, he gave his carnation to a young girl and was then promptly shot. He died eight days later convinced the lack of a carnation was to blame.

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) was positive he saw a UFO and proudly said so during his political campaign. He even promised to declassify all documents pertaining to extraterrestrial activity were he ever elected president. Speculation has it that he simply saw a particularly bright planet Venus but the man was convinced. Election seemed to have changed his mind as he never spoke of the matter again. On the other hand, he never declassified anything on extraterrestrial life so the possibilities are that there was nothing or something to hide…

Finally we have the granddaddy of all superstitious world leaders as recorded by history. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). His wife Nancy consulted sporadically with an astrologer, a common thing following the more esoteric times of the 60s and 70s. What was definitely uncommon was that President Reagan came to rely on the astrologer, one Joan Quigley, for executive decisions. The president was reportedly trying to avoid a curse that saw the death or assassination while in office of all US presidents elected in 1840, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940 and 1960. Following John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Reagan in May of 1981, Mrs. Quigley became (by many accounts) the second most important person in the country after the President. Reagan’s former chief of staff even went on to confirm that the President’s schedule had to be routinely confirmed with the astrologer for final approval. In effect, when protestors in the eighties proclaimed that the White House wasn’t listening, they had no idea…

In conclusion, President Ahmadinejad accuses the wrong Western leaders of superstition and gives way too much credit to Paul the Octopus. With varying degrees, from President Truman’s lucky horseshoe in the Oval Office to President’s Reagan’s executive seer, superstition has been taking out the punch out of democracy for centuries now. We believe these leaders represent the people but they might just as well rely on the stars, their phobias and their gut feelings to lead a country. All in all, I agree with the Iranian President that superstitions are a bad thing for world leaders but whereas he and I see these things as ridiculous, frivolous and downright insulting at times, that is only because we do not believe in them. The same argument and logic could apply to religious beliefs but that is a topic for another blog.

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