Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 December 2007

Arrogance and Humility

I’m not usually one for fawning over newspapers columnists’ work. But Roger Cohen’s column today is worth fawning over. It’s insightful, profound, and timely. Everyone who cares about our country and loves democracy should read it.

Called “Democracy in the Americas,” it contrasts Hugo Chávez’ reluctant acquiescence in Venezuela’s close rejection of his “socialist revolution” with recent and not-so-recent events in our own country. I won’t do Cohen the disservice of trying to summarize or paraphrase his brilliant column. But I do want to expand on one of its several themes: arrogance and humility.

Arrogance is an earmark of tyrants. They always have all the answers, sometimes even before a question is asked. Lenin and Stalin “knew” that Communism had created a “new” economics which would sweep the world and secure human utopia. So did Mao. Hitler “knew” that German racial purity, efficiency and science would improve the human race. We all now know what that sort of arrogance produced: a sea of blood and misery.

The greater promise of this century flows from a notable decrease in that sort of arrogance. Somehow, human society is in the slow and difficult process of purging itself of collective arrogance and the cults of personality that once won the blind allegiance of millions.

Vladimir Putin has done wonders for Russia’s standard of living. He is one of the smartest leaders of that or any other country. He wants to retain his influence in Russia. Yet he professes to be bound by the Russian Constitution, and he seems sincere. At heart a caudillo, of far humbler talents, Chávez bows (at least for now) to the popular will. Under foreign and domestic pressure, Musharraf takes off his uniform and agrees to cut his “state of emergency” short. Even Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic visions are held in check by Iran’s popular will and by a Supreme Leader who, although a cleric, seems more pragmatic than he. With the demise of Saddam (one of the few good things that our invasion of Iraq produced) there are only two real despots left: Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe.

Today’s Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran don’t look much like Jeffersonian democracies. But they’re a whole lot better than were Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Mao’s China in their times. So some hidden transformation is going on, worldwide. At times it seems subtle and jerky. But it is also powerful and profound.

There is one great irony. Amidst this gradual global rejection of tyranny, our own nation is backsliding.

George W. Bush is by far the most arrogant and stubborn U.S. leader of my lifetime. Elected as a “nice guy” to serve out a caretaker presidency, he became a monster after 9/11. He put on the arrogant face of a superpower with 10,000 nuclear weapons, prepared to tell the rest of the world what to do and how to do it, or else. He marginalized Congress, arrogated unprecedented power to himself, and ignored historical restraints until slapped down by the Supreme Court.

I don’t mean to heap all the blame on Bush. Our executive branch has been growing outsized since the end of World War II. Each president and his advisors have, at times, partaken of the age-old political game: “how can we give ourselves more power?” That’s why Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their lawyers had the theory of the “unitary executive” (a euphemism for dictatorial rule with a few constitutional restraints) so ready in their briefcases. While the rest of the world has been lurching unsteadily toward the light, we have been falling backward toward the darkness of one-man rule.

That’s why humility is so important in our next president. As we approach the 2008 elections, our candidates mostly play a game of “hide the ball.” They obscure their real intentions in generalities and double talk. Or they cover up an absence of concrete proposals with demagoguery—on religion, on terrorism, or on immigration. So it’s almost impossible to determine with any confidence what any candidate would do on any particular issue once in office.

But we can assess our candidates’ character. We can gauge their arrogance and humility.

It not hard to tell when a candidate has a “know it all” attitude. Nor is it hard to recognize a candidate who really thinks, “I don’t care about the issues, as long as I get elected.” Neither of those attitudes is healthy. In contrast, a great leader thinks, “I know what my core values and goals are. I have some ideas how to get there, but I’m open to methods and means. I'm willing to listen and learn.” That’s the kind of humility that makes great leadership possible.

Roger Cohen’s fine column recognized as much. Buried in its middle is the following paragraph:
    “The United States needs a new beginning. It cannot lie in the Tudor-Stuart-like alternation of the Bush-Clinton dynasties, nor in the macho militarism of Republicans who see war without end. It has to involve a fresh face that will reconcile the country with itself and the world, get over divisions — internal and external — and speak with honesty about American glory and shame.”

Cohen couldn’t name names because the New York Times’ policy forbids columnists from endorsing candidates. But we all know about whom he was writing. There’s only one candidate who fits that description. Now we just have to elect him and take the lead, once again, of the slow and jerky social revolution that is transforming the world.

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