"Personality cults are crazy."
Crazy like a fox. Do North Koreans really believe that Kim Jong Il can change the weather based on his mood? Do Libyans think Qaddafi's Green Book is a brilliant work of political philosophy? Do Turkmen really think that the Ruhnama, the religious text authored by their late post-Soviet dictator -- and self-styled spiritual leader -- Saparmurat Niyazov, is a sacred scripture on par with the Quran and the Bible?
Probably not, but for the dictators' purposes, they don't have to. As political scientist Xavier Márquez has argued, personality cults are as strategic as they are narcissistic. Part of the problem that dictators' would-be opponents face is figuring out who else opposes the leader; compelling the populace to publicly embrace preposterous myths makes that harder still. Official mythmaking is also a means of enforcing discipline within the regime. Stalin -- the progenitor of the modern dictator personality cult -- understood well that his self-mythologizing would be too much for some of his old comrades to swallow; Lenin, after all, had specifically warned against it. But those who might have objected were swiftly dispatched. For the apparatchiks who remained, submitting to the cult was humiliating -- and humiliation is a powerful tool for controlling potential rivals.
But personality cults, like most authoritarian technologies, have their drawbacks. The bigger the cult, the bigger the challenge of succession. Heirs to the throne really have just two options: dismantle the cult or go one better. The former is perilous; in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev's famous 1956 secret speech -- the posthumous critique of Stalin that gave us the term "personality cult" -- was, after all, secret, deemed too explosive for the Soviet public. Today, North Korea's ruling Kim family illustrates the hazards of the alternative: Now that the official newspapers have already reported that the current Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, has mastered teleportation, what's his son and newly designated heir, Kim Jong Un, supposed to do for an encore?