I always suspected that a celebrity is a creature of our imagination. We fabricate celebrities out of ordinary people, because in our fantasies we do like to separate real from what we imagine or want to be real. When we actually meet a person, we perceive as a superstar, a halo of fame that attracted us by its mystery melts: we see someone we did not except or even want to see. Someone else!
I gained this insight April 16, 2016, after meeting the eighth Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. I was fortunate to participate in a ceremony of the conferral of an honorary degree to the Secretary at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles. A day before I shared the news with my family. My grandfather, who spend most of his life struggling with the Soviet regime, momentarily replied: “What a waste! I would never spend my day to see a man who did nothing to improve post-Soviet economy!” My dad, born at the other side of the iron curtain forced as smile. Hiding his irritation, he responded calmly that I must go and ask intelligent questions (he offered to prepare a list). Grandma, excited as if she was going, pleaded: “A selfie! Take one for my Facebook page, so everyone gets jealous!” My older brother watched the scene in silence rolling his eyes a few times. Mom was, as usual, in the kitchen.
Ban Ki Moon was never an LMU student. The LMU leaders wanted to recognize his service while (I am guessing) aiming to promote the school to international community. Ban Ki Moon already received honorary doctorates from a number of institutions: The University of Malta (2009); the University of Washington (2009), Alfarabi Kazakh National University (2015), and Cambridge (2016). However, this one was the first in the field of Humane Letters for the Secretary General, with others being doctorates of law.
Next morning as I was leaving for the event, grandfather walked me outside. “Beware, my naïve American grandson!” he warned me. “It’s just a trick. Politics are lies, and only lies!” He patted me on the shoulder before going back to solving his crossword puzzles, his main occupation these days. Taking a bus to LMU took me longer than I expected. I managed to be late. As I was rushing in, making a sharp turn from the street into the inner part of the Life Sciences Auditorium where ceremony was taking place, I suddenly saw him. Just a few feet away surrounded by the faculty, Ban Ki-Moon proceeded to enter the Auditorium from the opposite side.
It was sudden; security officers quickly summoned me inside. Yet it was overwhelming, as if I peeked into a someone’s dream. Instead of a powerful world leader I saw a fragile old man of my grandfather’s age! His black academic attire, and soft smile made him look like a professor of theology who conducts his matters in worlds away from ours. I was stunned. I expected to see someone else.
I went inside. Waiting for the ceremony to start, I mused about my odd reaction to the meeting of this great man. I mean “great”, because as both Secretary and General, Ban Ki-Moon is a diplomat of worldwide scope of power and a commander-in-chief of hundreds of thousands of peacekeeping operations. He alone can mediate among governments during crisis and protect lives of millions of people. The seventh Secretary General Kofi Annan, for example, prevented outbreak of armed conflict in 1998, by his personal negotiations with Saddam Hussain. The fifth one, Perez de Cuellar, helped to end a civil war in El Salvador in 1989. Ban Ki-Moon, like the U.N. leaders before him, was an architect of global piece. To me, however, he looked nothing like that. Yet what should a world leader look like?
The Auditorium was quiet, and had empty seats on the back. Surprisingly, not many students attended the event. In a few minutes the Head of the Faculty Senate entered. She stopped at the center of the stage with a mace in her hands silently announcing the beginning of the ceremony. Then a faculty procession appeared. In their solemn academic regalia, slowly taking their seats - reserved in the first few rows - they brought in a faint spirit of the Middle Ages. Or maybe I was daydreaming, having read a night before a history of honoris causa (honorary degree); the first degree was bestowed in 1479 to a brother in-law of Edward IV, Lionel Woodville, by Oxford University. Then I saw him again. Ban Ki-Moon entered the room as a part of the faculty procession. With his light diplomatic smile, he took his seat on the stage next to the President Snider. The ceremony commenced.
It went rather quickly: an opening prayer, introductory remarks by senior LMU officers, an address of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, President’s Snider’s talk, Professor Plate’s story of his friendship with the Secretary General. It felt like a tribute to both, a great man and a longstanding tradition: a rite performed to distinguish Ban Ki-Moon’s service. To be honest, I missed most of the talking until the Ban Ki-Moon address.
His voice was quiet, his pace unrushed, his tone soft, yet resolute. He talked of mobilizing governments to support health of women; of Russian aggression in Syria; of poverty that United Nations helped to combat; of rights of girls and minorities. He spoke for more than an hour during which the distance between him and me, that seemed to fade at our accidental meeting, intensified. “We build bridges between the nations” - Ban Ki-Moon was saying and suddenly I realized that I knew nothing about this man and his work. Fragments of news I watched, my assumptions about politics was all that shaped my perception of this man. A Ban Ki-Moon I “knew” was no more than a phantom whose greatness, so brilliant that it blinded at times, affected me only because it rose up from the depth and darkness of my fantasies. The real Ban remained invisible. Ironically a paradox of his fantastic being only intensified when I have met him, I just could not imagine a frail quiet man to act as a world leader. “What if he could join my family for dinner,” - I thought. “What would they think of him? Would they feel as strange as me? As if this man was two people at once?” The idea immediately showed its dark side: that dinner would become an occasion for my family to exercise their political illiteracy making Ban Ki-Moon a suffering witness to that.
The event came to closure. Ban Ki-Moon was leaving. As I watched him go I felt little sad, as if I was saying goodbye to a friend I would never see again. At night, the family asked me how it went. I said “fine” not to excite anyone. Grandma liked the pictures, despite that only President Snyder had a chance to make a selfie with the Secretary General.