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.          

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