By figurehead, I mean anyone who has come to represent a certain cause, country, issue, party, position, etc. So Martin Luther King Jr. fits this description, as well as Adolf Hitler, and Vartan Mamigonian.
Having such a figurehead, be s/he alive or dead, can certainly useful and unifying, creating focus, giving whatever issue/cause/movement a human face with which people can identify. This is true whether one is in support of or against the grouping, e.g. Sarah Palin is used by us left-wingers to highlight all that is wrong with right-wing nutcases, while simultaneously used by the right wing to mobilize their troops.
I have heard discussions of how political success in Armenia could be achieved (by the ARF) if some “leader” were put forward as the face of the party. This “strong leader” mentality is frightening, especially in the context of a country where autocratic traditions run very strong, as we’ve witnessed under successive presidencies since re-independence. That’s the last thing we need more of. But, it’s also one of the drawbacks of having a figurehead.
Obviously, figureheads can also have real power. And, when vested with the trust, confidence, and support of people around them, such people, even if they start out benign, can quickly become problems. This is at least in part because everyone infuses the figurehead with their own wishes, hopes and ideals. Many on the American left had far higher hopes in Obama than his history merited, he’s clearly a centrist.
We have the same sort of effect going on with Hrant Dink. With all the posthumous coverage he’s receiving (appropriately, by the way), he’s become quite a figurehead for Turks as well as Armenians. His court cases, well managed by his family and supported by the decent intellectuals in Turkey keep the focus on issues of great import for Armenians and Turkey. But that which is important for these two parties is different, with some overlap.
For Turkey, Dink could provide the lever with which to pry improvement of the terrible human rights situation that prevails in and pervades Turkey. For Armenians, we seem to fancy his legacy as way to achieve some of our restitutional goals. Remember, the guy’s dead, and we have expectations of him, still.
These are the kinds of odd outcomes that can arise when we replace solid (if slow) organizing and international-level empowerment with reliance on a “savior,” a figurehead. I have no desire to demean Hrant Dink. He did excellent work. I don’t share all the positions he held, but he helped all of us progress. But rather than deifying him, let’s instead use his commitment and activism as inspiration for all of us to be as energetic and effective. Imagine how much further we’d get as a nation. Can we take up such a challenge?