Sunday, April 06, 2008

American Hubris And The Rockets' Red Glare--

Hubris- In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of knowledge, interest in, and exploration of history, combined with a lack of humility. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and Nemesis in the Greek world. The proverb "pride goes before a fall" is thought to sum up the modern definition of hubris.

The other night, I was watching the History Channel and they had a WW2 documentary on about the USS Enterprise in WW2. The ship survived Pearl Harbor and went on to survive many other major battles. At one point in the war, it was pulled into Bremerton and refitted, making it the best gunned aircraft carrier of the second half of the war. The narrator kept repeating the phrase “American Firepower” for the duration of the story, and as you all know, it led to the death and destruction of the Japanese military, which led to two infamous bombing runs over the island of Honshu and the cessation of the war.

“American Firepower”.

I could almost visualize the narrator with his Marine flat top and his deep blue tattoo; one of those square-jawed men who could make a knuckle a weapon in a bar… but then I kept having flashes of some weaselly dude sitting in a studio somewhere, frail-boned and over-bitten, talking an octave lower than his natural voice, reading from a script written by another weaselly worm while the rockets’ red glare… the bombs bursting in air… yadda yadda…

The word “hubris” kept coming around and bugging me.


It was odd to have hubris whispered into the metaphorical ear. It was odd to be prostrate on the couch, running compendiums around my brain making notes and taking names…

But I can be odd sometimes.

George W. Bush is the poster child of hubris. In some ways, I think it fitting that we Americans chose him to be our “decider”. I see hubris as a societal problem, and in an epidemic, symbols can be handy things to hold on to (and we sure got one!) Even the now infamous quote “I am the decider” is just dripping with viscous hubris, so thick it makes your jaw drop and your eyes glaze over. But George Bush is not alone. People voted for him. Lots of people. And they voted for him AFTER seeing what he was already like, giving him a second term and stretching the pall of America’s renewed adoption of hubris hanging over us.

Dick Cheney, of course, is the hubris motor in the machine. When told that his opinions were counter to the wishes of the American people, his now famous answer “So?” is so weighted with hubris it sinks to the bottom of the stomach and just sits there.

Did he really just say “So?”? (Yes, folks, he really did.)

Our current election cycle has us looking at three candidates at the moment, chosen from a field of many more. And true to the nature of our disease, hubris turns up at the forefront of qualities that make up each of these candidates.

The obvious is John McCain, a man covered in hubris the way a boy in a puddle might be covered in mud. His now infamous “Bomb bomb bomb… bomb bomb Iran attempt at humor notwithstanding, one can detect hubris between everything he says. This is a man that reacts to the words “American firepower” the way I react to the words “naked Jessica Simpson”. The very idea that we “could be in Iraq for a hundred years” goes to the core of his illness, which is of course, rotten. John McCain assumes we have “the right” to be in Iraq for a hundred years. This right granted, perhaps, by “American firepower”? Pride and the fall anyone? “Might makes right”, I proclaim, is at the heart of the disease.

Hillary Clinton is a slightly different strain of the hubris malady. This woman believes that lying to achieve an end is “political maneuvering”. This form of hubris is clinically less ostentatious and obvious than the bomb dropping kind, which makes it harder to detect. But unfortunately, there is a very large contingent of Americans infected with hubris-spores to support the “lie your way into power” predisposition of Hillary “married to the master liar“ Clinton. For some reason, lying about your experiences abroad (the bullets that flew around her head in Bosnia), and then lying about the lie (blaming the lie on being tired and misspeaking, when the lie was written on a teleprompter and repeated at four different venues) is apparently a quality some Americans want in their commander in chief-- demonstrating that American hubris is not limited to just one political party, it afflicts us all.

Which brings me to Barack Obama. Here is a man who talks of “hope” and “change” in the abstract, and then proceeds to demonstrate a third kind of hubris when confronted with concrete questions that require answers. At first listen, Barack’s “programs” and ideas about governing seem to be in a desire-fulfillment role. Tell me what your problems are, what you desire, and I will fulfill them using my new powerful position in government. That would be the basic gist of his political promising. And oh, can you see the hubris there?

Taxes are obligatory and not voluntary. Every American is required to pay taxes by threat of governmental punishment. When a man (or woman) stands before a crowd and promises them “programs” and “scholarships” and more programs and more monetary gifts that are not his own but procured from the American people by coercion, that‘s hubris!. It may not explode on your television screen as such, but there it is-- the arrogance of “knowing what’s best” and the arrogance to stand before an affected crowd and tell them to their faces. “I, as the leader of government” can solve your problems for you because I know better than you”. You have to be infected with hubris yourself to not see the cancer in this way of thinking. (Unfortunately, many of us are.)

As I lay on my stomach drooling onto my pillow watching 50 millimeter guns explode into atolls, I realized that much of the source of our modern hubris comes from WW2. This was the war where “American firepower” kicked some butt and took some names. This was the era when America, with her vastly untapped resources and newfound military pride, became infected with the arrogance we see in our culture today.

This was when America really started to swagger and slowly let the hubris take over her heart and mind. Suddenly, we were the powerful purveyor of all things “good” in the world. The wondrous ones who will lead humanity with her powerful presence and “American firepower”. We became drenched in our own successes, our own righteousness, our thickly ladled hubris, and we started to get into mischief because of it.

The era after WW2, with Korea and Vietnam and all of the small and deadly proxy wars we involved ourselves in (and the resultant expansion of American military might around the world), is all symptomatic of our hubris. We believe mightily in ourselves now, because we were once morally and militarily superior to nations like Japan and Germany whose hubris brought them an incredible amount of death and destruction. We were once the righteous ones, the slayer of the hubris dragon, and in the slaying, we have become infected with the disease of hubris ourselves.

We elect leaders infected with the disease, and we do so with forbearance, not realizing that the rockets' red glare… the bombs bursting in air... might just be broadcasting our modern acceptance of a national condition we once stood proudly-- with our “American firepower”-- against.


Anonymous said...

I think there are people who equate hubris with power and competence, and don't see it for what it is. Which has gotten us itnot the mess were in.

Jonas said...

Good post. America can't live forever on its past glory. The coming years will be painful...

Cynic with Flair said...

Such a coincidence - I was talking about how George Bush's ego has been his barometer with my parents, who are staunch Republicans. They agreed with me, and they voted for him a second time.

I will argue that any presidential candidate has to have an element of hubris to desire to be the leader of this country. I want a person with confidence and swagger, but I don't want Dick Cheneyist "So?"-types. And yes, I could believe he would say that. He is clueless.

Good point about hubris. The US has gotten ourselves in our current situation in Iraq because "we know what's best" for them. Can't agree.

And, I enjoyed your Marine flat top reference. ( :

Billy said...

I saw that doc because I was always interested in carriers. As far as hubris, I think you have nailed the problem dead on all the way through your post. George and Dick--they scare the hell out of me, especially after watching Frontline on PBS for years and seeing how they ... um ... "decided" to go to war. Damned scary, though few know in detail the power grabs by Cheney and Rummy.

The Clintons' hubris has me more po'd than anything right now. I have a visceral response to their arrogance and lies, which to me seem transparent. Hillary, according to late reports not getting much press, told Bill to forget his pledge to end ethinic cleansing in Bosnia in '92 so it wouldn't detract from her healthcare reform efforts. Type in Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair in Google(with "Hillary" and "genocide") and you'll see some scary articles. By '96, 250,000 people had been slaughtered. As for McCain, I find his Beach Boy parody insulting and offensive.

But the problem is indeed societal and did come from WW II. If people watch Ken Burns recent documentray on WW II (last Sept.), they'd see a different side. A far cry from John Wayne movies and the image we have. It was bloody and filled with tactical mistakes that could have been avoided, and though the GIs did come home to become boomers, they were far more haunted by their memories than anyone knows. Most had PTSD before anyone really knew what it was. (They were forbidden to write about the hell and gory details in letters home.) They kept quiet and put it behind them, but we were left with the images of glory, not realizing what the firepower was really about. It was a dirty job that had to be done, but few know what the war was really like.

Shrinky said...

Blimey Scot,

A verbose and astute post. Sadly, it isn't only American politics infected with this discease..