Tuesday, March 14, 2006

On Arrogance

Fausta has a post debunking the latest effort to show that Arabs invented everything. Her essay is a response to the exposition in Manchester, England, which explains itself thusly:

A unique UK based educational project that reveals the rich heritage that the Muslim community share with other communities in the UK and Europe.

1001 Inventions is a non-religious and non-political project seeking to allow the positive aspects of progress in science and technology to act as a bridge in understanding the interdependence of communities throughout human history.

1001 Inventions consists of a UK-wide travelling exhibition, a colourful easy to read book, a dedicated website and a themed collection of educational posters complementing a secondary school teachers’ pack.

You ought to click on to the site just to look at the list of sponsoring organizations. One has to admire such focused arrogance as this effort. If you can’t keep up with the pack, make stuff up.

I am old enough to remember when the Soviet Union did this kind of thing, though I can’t find any google references to their record of arrogance. I do remember they were claiming the typewriter. Of course, back then computers hadn’t come into general use or they would have been on the Soviet grab list.

And then there was the French habit of claiming, due to their deep generosity, to have bestowed everything to the rest of the world — including cricket.

Not to mention Al Gore’s various assertions regarding his contributions to the culture.

The word “arrogance” is formed from “arrogate,” though for some reason we don’t use the verb form as often. Interestingly, answers.com sneaks in a bit of political “nudge” with its definition:

ar·ro·gate (ăr'ə-gāt')
tr.v., -gat·ed, -gat·ing, -gates.
To take or claim for oneself without right; appropriate: Presidents who have arrogated the power of Congress to declare war.
[their italics]

We think of arrogance as a adjective belonging to, say, Hollywood actors or politicians, and this is often true. It is hard to be motivated toward the grinding process of acquiring fame and recognition without at least a touch of arrogance. You know you’ve arrived when you begin complaining about being known.

But to arrogate to oneself, or one’s tribe, or one’s culture, specific contributions that are in reality sadly lacking says more for one’s deficits than it does for any purported accomplishments. The Greeks called it hubris and predicted dire consequences for those so afflicted. Shakespeare was also big on proving the consequences of hubris. His usual dramaturgic solution was to have everyone dead by the fifth act — not counting, of course, the one person left standing to explain it all.

Many countries besides the Soviet Union have done this. France, for instance. In all probability though, France's greatest invention is the faux pas. John Kerry particularly prefers this term to the Latinate prevarication. Can’t say as I blame him, especially if one’s claims to virtue are of the heroic, valorous variety and one is prone to throwing military medals around.

This proclivity for arrogance can be seen distinctly in the American Left. Perhaps it dates from their socialist heritage. Whatever the reason, claims for virtue and moral superiority radiate from those who gravitate toward large, messianic issues like global warming or greedy American mega-corporations — sorry for the redundancy there. Of course everyone knows greed = business except for small artisans who make things by hand. They are never greedy, per the folklore of the Left. One is not permitted to question why artisan cheese is three times as expensive and half as tasty as ye olde Wisconsin cheddar.

And what is the antidote to arrogance? Humility, of course. Paradoxically, it won’t be discussed by those who possess this virtue. Humility is one of those qualities which disappear as soon as one thinks of it as a personal characteristic. Unlike arrogance, it can be harder to spot. Since no one calls attention to it, you have to be able to spot it in another. Like good art, you know it when you see it.

Can you think of a culture you would describe as possessing humility? I experienced it once in a Franciscan convent, and Theodore Dalrymple, an avowed atheist, has remarked (in an essay I cannot find) on the generosity of nuns he has met in his work. So perhaps there is a clue here.

Is humility possible only when one lives within the realm of religious belief? This doesn’t mean doctrinal propositions whose adherence earns one’s way into heaven. No, it’s more like Augustine’s idea that in the grip of belief, the only response possible is to “love God and do what you will.”

Now pick your way through that mine field.


X said...

Sometimes humility can be mistaken for arrogance by those who display false modesty at every opportunity. To be trutly humble, you have to be completely accepting of who you are andwhat you are a capable of. A humble surgeon, for instance, who is particularly good at heart surgery, when asked if he is good at heart surgery should say "yes, I am good." But at the same time he, being humble, would not pretend to know about brain surgery.

False modesty is the kind displayed by people who denigrate their own achievements. Clinton was particularly good at this - insofar as he would be "modestly" self denigrating about achievements he claimed for himself. But I suppose he had arrogated* them in the first place...

False modesty is a kind of inverted arrogance. It's an assumption that to be seen as modest you have to put yourself down. In essence, you put yourself on a pedestal with your self insulting. True modesty, as you say, makes no comment about itself and simply does the job.

*I'm going to try and use this word in a sentence at least once a week now.

Fat Man said...

"And what is the antidote to arrogance? Humility, of course."

Of course, if you humiliate a Muslim, he is required to strap on the Semtex and blow up a restaurant full of women and children.