8.24.2012

Hubris

I'm reading a great book right now, "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris," by Peter Beinart.  Beinart tells the arc of the last 100 years of US war history in three sections of American hubris:

(1) In "the Hubris of Reason," Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton University before becoming president, believed that if he could just lecture people enough, he could convince them to practice peace.  Naivete post-WWI, of course, set into motion the events that led to WWII.

(2) In "the Hubris of Toughness," a whole host of presidents, from FDR to Nixon, vowed never to let a Hitler go unchecked, and threw their weight around unnecessarily to convince the world and the American voters that they weren't soft.

(3) In "the Hubris of Dominance," Bush I and then Clinton and then Bush II reveled in the ease of war in a single-superpower world, and went to the well too many times in the name of winning electoral popularity and seeking humanitarian and liberating aims.

The American presidency is a unique vantage point from which to give into or not give into hubris.  But it is by no means the only place we can overextend ourselves in a prideful manner.  I confess I see my own weaknesses in each of the three sections of Beinart's book.  I can think that I can scheme my way to anything with enough time to plan and craft, instead of knowing the limits of my powers and of my ability to make change.  And I can act tough or revel in dominance instead of being careful about overreaching and caring too much about whether people will think highly of me. 

The Icarus in the book title references a Greek myth in which a boy ignores his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and falls into the sea and drowns.  It can feel good to soar, and we can be made to feel invincible, all the way up to the point where it is too late and we are falling irreversibly.  Let us individually, in the small and large ways we can exercise power, and let our leaders who have access to apocalyptic levels of power, be careful not to fly too high, even and especially when we are soaring and it seems we can only go higher and higher from where we are.






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