Modern politics : The rhinoceros syndrome

For plenty of people, Hillary Clinton’s cringingly false boast in March that she had dodged the bullets at Tuzla airport during a visit to Bosnia in 1996 was a defining moment of exposure in her long contest with Barack Obama. After that, for many voters, she had lost it. So now, I wonder,

will Obama’s scarcely less egregious assertion that his great-uncle took part in the

liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 have an equally decisive impact on this year’s US election? Somehow I doubt it. Yet the two bogus claims are a double reminder of the enduring importance of the rhinoceros syndrome in modern politics.

Back in 1515, Sultan Muzaffar II, the ruler of Gujarat, presented alive Indian rhinoceros as a gift to Alfonso d’Albuquerque, the governor of Portuguese India. Albuquerque duly arranged for the rhino to be shipped to Lisbon as a present to Dom Manuel I, king of Portugal. When the rhino arrived in the Portuguese capital it created a sensation. No rhinoceros had been seen in Europe for more than a thousand years, since Roman times. The beast instantly became the wonder of Europe.

A few weeks later, word and even a sketch of the rhino reached Nuremberg, where Albrecht Durer created a famous woodcut of the beast, a print from which can be seen in the British Museum. As those who have examined Durer’s celebrated print will know, the German artist worked from inaccurate anatomical sketches, including armour-like plates covering the rhino’s body and a small extra horn on its neck, which he replicated and embellished in his woodcut.

Such was the success and fame of Durer’s print, however, that his imagination came to define reality. For nearly 300 years, most subsequent depictions of the rhinoceros continued to reflect the artist’s errors rather than anatomical fact. As late as 1956, indeed, Salvador Dali sculpted a rhino, neck horn and all, that owes more to Durer than it does to zoological accuracy.

False rhino syndrome is the willingness to believe that something is other than what it is. The tenacity of the false rhino in the popular mind for so long is a reminder that human beings possess a vast capacity for misperception and for preferring to believe what they would like to believe. This does not excuse Hillary’s tall tale about landing at Tuzla — but it casts light on it. Maybe Clinton is indeed someone who cannot tell fact from fiction. Plenty of people seem to think so. But, at some significant level she clearly thought it was true.

Obama’s claim about Auschwitz displays a similar vein of make-believe to Clinton’s about Tuzla. It is easier to explain, but not necessarily easier to excuse. Obama’s campaign claimed he made an error about which camp his great-uncle helped to liberate. But who makes false claims about being at Auschwitz? Monday was in fact the second time Obama has claimed

that US troops liberated the most notorious Nazi death camp, though it is the first time he has written his own family directly into the fiction, whether or not it was inadvertent. He ought, of course, to know that it was the Russians who freed the Auschwitz survivors in 1945. The collective wish to believe Obama means that it has also provoked far less publicity and condemnation than Clinton’s Tuzla story.

Politics is particularly vulnerable to avoidable self-deceptions of this kind. In different ways, Clinton and Obama have both faced the rhino syndrome. Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination in spite of his flaws. Clinton lost because hers have been overstated. He has had it too easy — and could get away with nonsense about America liberating Auschwitz. She has had it too hard — and couldn’t recover from a false claim about Bosnia. His supporters are dazzled by his break with the past but too dismissive of doubters. Her fans see a candidate who fights for the poor, while critics see a racist — this week Christopher Hitchens even compared her to George Wallace. None of this is fair or objective on either count. People are seeing only what they want to see — not what is actually in front of their eyes.

But the greatest collective hypocrisy of our time remains the state of the economy. Indisputably, times are harder than they were. Undeniably, big changes in global financial power are afoot. Yes, growth is faltering, nerves are stretching and politicians are struggling to strike a persuasive note after surfing a long period of rising prosperity. But be honest: is this biting economic distress of the sort that traumatises families, communities and whole generations in the way that the convulsions of the 1930s or the 1980s did? Not yet it isn’t.

When I read in the papers of the British family of four planning a summer holiday trip to the west coast of America, a place which their parents could never have dreamed of visiting, will suffer the “misery” of paying an extra GBP240 surcharge for the privilege, I wonder who is more deluded, the politicians or the people? And I ask myself what kind of rhinoceros we think we are looking at. — The Guardian