Saturday, May 26, 2012

Greed versus Arrogance

The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. I need money. That’s what I want.
                                                               Little Richard
Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
                                                                                     Sun Tzu

Greed – the thought of it seems to make people crazy and resentful. It drives them into the streets looking for things to break, someone to injure.  In the gathering storm of the financial crisis in Europe protestors gather themselves in a collective high dudgeon. They set upon the police, smash bank and store windows and execrate the “greedy rich” who refuse to pay their “fair share.”  Greed, they lament, is the cause of their misery and the reason behind the threatening economic collapse. The protesters apparently know exactly how much wealth other people should possess and clearly they understand that the rich among them are just too rich.  Rich enough and too rich – by what measure, what rationale does one separate these two regions whereof residence in the latter makes someone “public enemy number one?”  It is not an easy question, given all the complexities of human motivation and aspiration, I would think, certainly not one left to an angry crowd roaming the streets and not to an ambitious politician eager to play Robin Hood if it works for him. 
Most people, I would wager, would like to be rich, certainly most poor people – all else being equal, rich is preferable to poor.  Moreover, if they could be rich, how many of them, I wonder, would not want to step over that line and be too rich, and how exactly would they know if they were?  
However, I think less about greed than I do about arrogance.  In my life I have met very few people whom I could recall as greedy, genuinely, voraciously greedy, but I have encountered more arrogant, vainglorious people than I can remember.  Arrogance does, and has done, incredible damage … to individuals, to associations, to institutions.  Arrogance unlimited makes otherwise smart and talented people reckless, stupid and insufferable. I find it remarkable and lamentable that more attention, discussion and commentary are not given to this wretched corruption of the human personality. No one likes an arrogant person. Yet, there are so many of them in so many places. Why is this?  
Consider first where it lives. Arrogance tends to follow all of the conventional measures of success, which is, of course, why so much of it is tolerated and even indulged. The poor, the wretched, the down-and-out are not often to be found in the ranks of the arrogant. This is not to say that all successful people are arrogant. Many remember where they came from and how much of what they have what and what they are comes from the fickle favor of fortune.   
The personal arrogance of someone can be more easily born if there is at least some compensation for it. Spectacular genius, immense productivity, and rare talent can make arrogance in the bearer tolerable and somewhat forgivable. At least you or someone gets something in return for the condescension, haughtiness and disdain that must be endured. In individuals whose accomplishments and talents are unremarkable or imaginary, it is insupportable and infuriating.             
Arrogance, if you will, is a kind of epistemological malfunction caused by errant beliefs about one’s own capacities and stature and what they ought to signify to others.  Most people become arrogant, I suppose, because they believe what they are told about themselves from those around them: parents, their handlers, their professional agents and publicists, the sycophants, camp followers, ass kissers and favor seekers.  At some point, early or late, they come to imagine that they are special, more talented, more intelligent, more gifted and pure than anyone else in the world.  And so, because they glow brightly and stand far above all others, they claim exemption from the annoying norms, customs and expectations that govern the lives of lesser beings. “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes,” as Leona Helmsley was reportedly overheard to say by her housekeeper.    
          Arrogance has a number of curious facets.  One is stupidity.  John Edwards – one can hardly think of a man more stupidly, perhaps insanely arrogant. A former United States Senator, Democratic Vice President Nominee 2004, top contender for the Presidential nomination in 2008, while campaigning in the primaries as a champion for the poor and a devoted husband to a terminally ill wife, he was frolicking backstage with a campaign groupie who eventually bore his child, belatedly acknowledged. His lying, evasion and double dealing have forever rendered him a sorry, contemptible fraud, and, a barely escaped convicted felon.  
How was someone so ambitious, successful and supposedly bright so utterly stupid as to think that he would not be exposed and eventually ruined? Moral and ethical considerations aside, a simple consideration of self-interest should have warned him that he would soon fall to earth.  Arrogance, unbounded arrogance turned this supposedly intelligent man into a pathetic fool who ruined his life and betrayed his family and supporters. This was a man done in not by failure, lack of opportunity, or bad luck, but by success.  False, vain and deeply cynical, Edwards was unable to recognize and appreciate the gifts of good fortune, and he never seemed to possess any sense of humility that might have helped him govern his personal life and act like a decent human being. 
Often arrogance also makes people reckless as well as stupid. Two words – Monica Lewinsky – capture the face of arrogance in one of the more astonishingly reckless spectacles that have ever risen to a national level of attention and entertainment. For whatever it was that he took away and treasured from his encounters with the chubby White House intern, Mr. Clinton, a very popular and likeable man, put his Presidency at great risk while also demeaning the office. He humiliated his wife and daughter and permanently soiled his reputation. He became the butt of countless jokes and fueled the lewd antics of the late night television jesters. Only arrogance can explain such reckless and inexplicable conduct.  He was, like Mr. Edwards, another victim of success.  He clearly thought that he could do whatever he wanted to and was exempt from the norms that govern mortals.
Arrogance is destructive. Taken to extremes it brings about for some such a heightened self-regard and self-infatuation that even the most self-interested forms of prudence fall away. Off they stroll self-confidently down paths of self-demolition with their detractors and critics unable to contain their glee.  Anthony Weiner, a New York congressman, destroyed a rising political career with sordid and embarrassing conduct that any rational individual should have known would eventually be discovered and ultimately ruinous.  When exposed Weiner initially fumed with a feigned indignant posture.  He maligned and defamed those who had accused him. When the evidence of his embarrassing “hobby” became incontrovertible his arrogance suddenly collapsed into abject self-pity. Devoid of honor, class or dignity, he blubbered and talked incessantly as if the inflated verbiage emitted would undo the lies that trapped him. His pregnant wife, of course, had to witness the pathetic downfall.  
Arrogance comes in different forms. There is the arrogance of power, spoken of above.  Power like alcohol intoxicates and distorts the judgment. Like the drunk behind the wheel of his car who cannot perceive his own (temporary) impairment and unfitness to manage the basics of driving and the danger he threatens, the arrogantly powerful man cannot seem to grasp the reality of his own human limitations and shortcomings and consider the feelings, the opinions and the legitimate interests of other people.
There is also an arrogance of talent. Like power, it can distort the possessor’s judgment. What the arrogantly talented man fails to understand is that his talent, most talent, comes via lottery, a genetic lottery.  Rather than appreciating the good fortune, the arrogance takes charge and like all arrogance distorts and impairs judgment. The possessor of a special talent in his own imagination magnifies its importance so as to establish his universal superiority and hence his own deserved elevation above his peers.  The arrogantly talented man believes that his special talent makes him an on expert matters far and wide.   
          Consider, however, intellectual arrogance, the arrogance of people who know more and understand better than anyone else.  Intellectually arrogant people tend to be the worst of them all. Why?  Talented and powerfully arrogant people usually focus on themselves. They are in their own estimation special and unique. They just want and need be treated differently – adulation, special entitlements and heightened consideration. But intellectually arrogant people want to run and manage other people’s lives because they know what is best not just for themselves but for everyone.  They know what you should eat, drink, smoke, drive and, of course, think.  Those who think differently are not just wrong, but bad or stupid or corrupt.  Intellectual arrogance is the apex of arrogance because it culminates with a desire and compulsion to make everyone be what they are supposed to be according to the blueprint that they, the superior knowers, have intuited.  That the blueprint might be defective or flawed never occurs to them.
When intellectually arrogant people acquire power, the result is disaster. Imagine having your life and the lives of everyone around you managed by a self-proclaimed, self-appointed cadre of consummate know-it-alls.  Once in charge you will be expected daily to celebrate their wise counsel, thank them for their benevolence, and comply enthusiastically with every new whim they conceive, all of course for your own well-being and improvement. If you don’t, there is punishment in the form of reeducation, that is, if you are lucky.  If you decide that you would rather live in a place governed by less enlightened mortals, they won’t let you leave.  This describes the lives of tens of millions people throughout the twentieth century who have lived in the classless, Socialist Workers paradises where everyone is equal.
Of course, the professional know-it-alls don’t know nearly as much as they think they do and when things fail to work out as they had predicted, they always  find someone else to blame, never themselves. From the delusion of omniscience comes the desire for omnipotence.  For these superior knowers to admit to being wrong would mean that they would have to relinquish that coveted, unlimited power over the lives of others and to be accountable for shortcomings that they can never admit having.
The great crimes and ravages of the twentieth century are largely the work of intellectually arrogant men, the supreme knowers, lethally overconfident – Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot. Their special knowledge they thought entitled them to a kind of power over others no one else had ever had.  “Unlimited power above all law” as Lenin would have it for his own Bolsheviks. The knowers would sweep away the old, corrupt order. Mao spoke of the “four olds”:  old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas that he wanted all of China to be done with and transmitted his own astonishing arrogance to his young Red Guard to make it all happen, by violence and force. The “old” was made and maintained by the unenlightened.  The elimination in China of the “four olds” made way for the three C’s – corruption, coercion and collusion, the essential, defining features of every Communist dictatorship. Mao’s “wisdom” from the beginning was a kind of insanity born of his arrogance. His political heirs who still rule over a billion and a half people in his name could not survive if the Chinese people were offered alternatives.          

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Barack, we never knew you!

[The Obama administration]… is to a unique degree a presidency of inference.
                                                                                       Peggy Noonan
Un homme est qu'il fait, pas qu'il dit.
                                                                   André Malraux

In a column in the Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan suggested that Barack Obama’s Presidency was an unprecedented work of inference.   One can hardly exaggerate the significance of this observation. Indeed. Somewhere in those dark, vast rhetorical regions bordered on one side by the soaring words, “there is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America”, and, “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” on the other, the real political convictions of this man reside.  What are they?  What is he really about?  As Ms. Noonan astutely concludes, even after three and a half years one can only infer what these might be.  Making these inferences seems to be a full time occupation for the pundits.
          The verb “to infer” has at least two basic meanings: (1) to derive conclusions from facts or premises, and, (2) to guess or surmise.  It does not seem unreasonable at this juncture to surmise that “Hope and Change”, the campaign slogan of 2008 was a cynical but brilliantly crafted ruse calculated to make it possible for any voter in that broad middle spectrum of the electorate to infer that the young, fresh earnest candidate from Illinois was … The One, exactly the right person to replace the man everyone seemed to have grown tired of. The premise used to make this inference was completely and deliberately vacuous – inviting a blind leap of faith, so to speak – compensated for by the pastoral, inspirational tone of Barack Obama and a soothing personal imagery unfortunately with no connections to any empirical reality. Complicit also was the press corps who forsook their professionally mandated oversight and signed up with the self-proclaimed “genius” routinely demonstrating his modesty with tropes like: “we're going to change the country and change the world.” Overnight the so-called reporters turned into groupies, surrendering themselves to a man who was promising to “heal the planet” and proclaiming to his followers “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” In retrospect, how could this vapid effusion from such a bloated ego have been taken seriously by sober or grown up people, much less news people who are supposed to be critical and skeptical?  
The unprecedented strategy by Obama’s fantasist-managers was not to expose him – his personal history, beliefs, or accomplishments – to the electorate but to conceal him. The concealment was aimed to put the voters in the position of guessing what the translation of Hope and Change into practical politics from a man with a meager political career might look like and what its enactor really believed and wanted to accomplish.  A few of his detractors suggested that he might be, of all things, a “socialist,” a charge sneeringly dismissed by the camp following legions.  What nonsense! This was only an inference based upon facts about the man’s many long and close associations with friends and mentors, in writing and in person, who actually were socialists, as well as his actual political record which was far to the left of most of his political colleagues.
 Obama was as some have observed a Rorschach candidate. The absence of a lengthy and substantive political career meant for the aspirant and his handlers that he could be … whatever.  From the vacuity of Hope and Change one could “infer” anything which was exactly how it was supposed to work, and did work.
  However, the first definition above of “infer” – “to derive conclusions from facts or premises” is also highly germane in the contemplation of this “presidency of inference.”  In 2008 whatever was actually known about Barack Obama that might be relevant to his fitness to be President was ignored or misrepresented as noted above. Specifically: his lack of executive experience, his questionable associations, his penchant for “going for the groin” with his political opposition.  Never before was the manufactured image of a candidate – post partisan, post racial, moderate, transparent – such a glaring departure from the flesh and blood individual.  
   A highly relevant document from which conclusions about the President’s political beliefs, attitudes and personality might actually be derived is his autobiography, Dreams from my Father.  Did anyone who voted for him actually read it?  Consider this angry and bitterly tinged extract from it, an account of his gravitation toward Marxism during his undergraduate college years, how it was expressed and how in retrospect he considered it.

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students, the foreign students, the Chicanos, the Marxist Professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets….  At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz [sic] Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated." [From, Dreams from my Father, 100-101]

For those inclined to think of Mr. Obama as a pragmatist, a moderate, a seeker of bi-partisan compromise, what sort of inference should be made of this?  By itself and without much context one should perhaps be generous and dismiss it as hyperbole and melodrama, unfortunate utterings of a spoiled and prolonged adolescence, transcended by eventual maturity – from Marx at twenty to Milton Friedman at forty.  But this is not a confession.  The last sentence gives it away – “We were alienated.”  This is a vindication.  Never in the book does the author show a change of heart or perspective in this regard nor give any evidence of having moved beyond this tortured perspective of being a victim in an unjust and rigged system. Nowhere in the book is there any indication that the future President ever came to believe that his “alienation” was in large part a product of his own immaturity and limited experience, that the “constraints of bourgeois society” were not “stifling”, and that, the America that nurtured him and eventually raised him to its highest legislative body was not, as his wife put it during the 2008 campaign, “just down right mean.”
          One important personality feature that can be reasonably attributed to Obama after a reading of Dreams is that author (around 30 at the time of the writing) was a deeply alienated and resentful man. From his own writing it is quite clear that resentment was and is the driving force of his political career, and that his growing up was shaped by a lasting sense of anger and grievance. Also clear is that this resentment was played out in his choice of friends, associates and mentors, individuals also deeply alienated from American traditions and filled with grievance and hostility toward American traditions and customs. 
          The man in 2007 who told his audience, I don't want to pit Red America against Blue America. I want to be President of the United States of America,” is no longer around. The Audacity of Hope, lifted from one of Pastor Wright's sermons, became the audacity of bait-and-switch.  Unfortunately, the real political convictions of Obama, the ones he has carried from his university days and artfully concealed, came out in his Univision radio interview in late 2010, We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us. Hope and Change, whatever it was supposed to mean, has given way to condescension and condemnation and the pursuit and destruction of his enemies, the rich.  His message for reelection, “fairness” now is built on the foundation of his primal motivation – resentment, converted with considerable demagogic skill into righteous indignation.  Those who have more are to blame for those who have less.  The resentful young man who “ground out his cigarette butts in the hallway carpet” never relinquished the anger and hostility that guided him to “chose [his] friends carefully.” 
Early in his Presidency the smitten adulators in the media were comparing him with Lincoln, FDR, and JFK.  He now looks and sounds more like Huey Long or Juan Perón.  But perhaps the President might look to Oscar Benevides, President of Peru in the 1930s for his 2012 campaign slogan, one quite consistent with his words and deeds – “For my friends, anything: for my enemies, the law.”