Editor’s note: From a different political season, the summer of 2008, Tom Rosshirt’s reflection on our national virtues and vices is a meditation worthy of the Fourth of July, as fresh and relevant to the 240th birthday of the United States of America as the day we first published it.
One fall Sunday, when I was a sophomore in Notre Dame’s Innsbruck program, I tossed a book and some bread in a backpack, went up into the mountains north of town and decided to major in philosophy.
On a rock halfway up the mountain, I sat and read The Trial of Socrates. The defendant, as you’ll recall, would confront any citizen of Athens who cherished his reputation for wisdom and unburden him of his false self-image.
Here’s how Socrates described one of his many encounters with “a wise man”:
“I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. . . . This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind.”
In spite of the hatred he aroused, Socrates managed to live to the age of 70—but only, in his view, because he avoided public office. “If I had engaged in politics,” he told his accusers, “I should have perished long ago. . . . I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.”
Socrates didn’t have much faith in society’s capacity for hearing the truth.
The false self-image of Saudi Arabia
In spite of evidence going back 2,400 years that puncturing a society’s false self-image can be fatal, some courageous people keep trying.
This past March, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said something that could get him killed. Four months after first raising the idea in a meeting with Pope Benedict at the Vatican, the Saudi King told a forum in Riyadh:
“If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel to come up with ways to safeguard humanity . . . as we all believe in the same God.”
With this first-ever call from a Saudi monarch for interfaith dialogue, Abdullah was contradicting senior clerics of Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahhabi sect of Islam, who clearly state that Christians and Jews are “non-believers,” and recently called for the deaths of two writers who said otherwise.
Abdullah’s proposal threatens the false self-image that gives Wahhabi Muslims the sense of their own superiority and the justification for their power—namely, the fraudulent premise that their brand of Islam is the sole path to God. They view all other paths as not only wrong but evil, and therefore believe they alone in the world are virtuous.
Any society that thinks it has a monopoly on virtue cannot tolerate other views. Fittingly, Saudi citizens are required by law to be Muslims. Saudi law prohibits teaching Christianity or Judaism, and the public practice of religions other than Islam is banned.
This kind of society is dangerous to itself and others. When people are indoctrinated with a sense of their own virtue and are incapable of self-criticism, they attribute all good things to their people, blame all bad things on other people—and then lash out.
This helps explain why 15 of the 19 suicide bombers from September 11 came from Saudi Arabia. Abdullah knows the danger. A few months after the September 11 attacks, he told a meeting of Gulf leaders: “Catastrophes are in fact opportunities that make it incumbent upon us to conduct self-scrutiny, review our attitudes and repair errors. The real and deadly risk is to face crises with hands folded and to blame others instead of confronting the crises and taking responsibility for our role.”
He may have a hard time convincing his people to “take responsibility for their role.” In a Gallup poll of six Muslim countries, 3 in 5 of those polled said that Arabs were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Ordinarily, it’s better to resist the cheap thrill of judging others. It’s a form of psychological junk food that offers a false feeling of virtue and distracts us from our own faults. But it’s worth looking at Saudi Arabia, at least for a moment, because it’s a lot easier to see the dangers of a false self-image when you first look at someone else’s false self-image.
What about U.S.?
What about us? The United States is founded on a deep reverence for self-criticism. At the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin (who was so old and sick that he had to ask that the speech be read for him) made his final appeal for the Constitution with these words:
“[T]he older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men . . . think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. . . .
“I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to [the Constitution], would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility and . . . put his name to this instrument.”
That instrument itself included checks and balances to guard against the tendency to think oneself “infallible.” With the adoption of the Bill of Rights a few years later, the Constitution guaranteed the tools essential for self-criticism—free speech, free press and freedom of assembly—and a safeguard against government “infallibility”: freedom of religion.
In its origins and in its laws, there probably could not be a country more different from Saudi Arabia in its embrace of openness and self-criticism. But in my view, even with the Constitution and the founding freedoms, the United States is still not nearly self-critical enough.
We still are in thrall to a false self-image that gives us an inflated sense of our own virtue and protects us from the painful work of self-criticism and self-correction. This virtuous self-image enshrines our right to condemn or feel superior to others and reassures us that we don’t need to change.
Taking on the false self-image is the only real path to progress, but it is a dangerous path for a public figure. When a leader challenges a society’s sense of its own virtue, it stirs up fury—the kind of fury that took the lives of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. Each leader was killed by a member of his own group for reaching out in peace to members of another group. By trying to make peace, these leaders contradicted the group self-image: “We are right and good, and our enemies are wrong and evil.”
A nation or society’s false self-image is always a variation on that theme—and many successful politicians master the art of feeding it. They repeat, in one form or another, The Things You Must Say: “We are a great nation and a great people—good, courageous, caring, wise, hard-working, generous and just.”
There is nothing wrong with these assertions in themselves. They are sometimes true. But when they form the core of a false self-image, such flattering affirmations suddenly become Always True And Never To Be Challenged. That self-image then sets the boundaries of permissible public debate. If facts contradict the conceit, the facts must be denied. If individuals contradict it, they must be denounced—and forced to apologize. The politicians who defend the false self-image pose as patriots—but their patriotism is just the secular equivalent of spiritual pride.
The great and not so great
I was in a bar in Germany once when a local man, recognizing that I was an American, came up to me and thanked me. He said he would never forget being a hungry child in post-war Germany and getting food through “Marshall-Hilfe” (the Marshall Plan). His mother had always told him: “Thank the Americans.” So he did. (I said: “You’re welcome.!”)
When he turned to go, he pounded me affectionately on the back (he had had a few) and said: “Amerika, immer noch das beste!” America—still the best!
That is national greatness.
It’s important to celebrate that greatness—whether the greatness is shown in rebuilding the lands of our enemies, the moral power of the Declaration and the Constitution, our steadily expanding freedoms, our willingness to acknowledge the sins of our past (while many countries omit their crimes from their children’s history books), our innovation in science and medicine, or our diverse range of cultures that are so different from one another and yet still all distinctively American.
There is no danger in seeing where we’re great; the danger is in not seeing where we’re not great.
As citizens and as a society, we spend more than we have, we borrow to pay the difference, and when the debt comes due, we borrow more. We have one of the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world—one-third of our students never graduate from high school, and another third, when they do graduate, are not ready for college. More than 2 million Americans live in prison, more than any other nation and, on a per capita basis, five times the rate of England. We’re the only advanced country that won’t cover the doctor’s bill for our people, even for our children. Yet we pay more for health care than any other country, in part because we eat badly, exercise little and demand that the doctor undo the damage. And if you accept the warnings of the hyper-majority of the world’s climate scientists, we’re pushing the earth to the edge of extinction.
Suddenly, I don’t feel so great.
Some politicians will talk about these problems, and they deserve credit for that. But many of them perpetuate our false self-image of greatness in the solutions they present. Their programs for “fixing” the deep problems in this country are a series of relatively painless marginal adjustments—like health care savings accounts as a solution for more than 40 million uninsured, privatized social security as a remedy for a system that is running out of money or a series of happy programs for every problem—matched with a pledge never to raise taxes. This approach of tiny remedies for big problems is not just part of our politics. It’s part of our culture. I practice it when I want to lose weight and think: “low-fat Oreos!”
Proposing minor remedies for big problems feeds the false self-image of greatness. If the remedy is minor, then we’re convinced we’re not that messed up and maybe even still great. But if the remedy is huge, it does us the double insult of saying we’re not so great after all and we’re just going to have to work harder and pay more to fix things—which is going to make us mad, because we’re exhausted and, no matter how much money people have, almost no one feels rich.
As long as we demand that politicians flatter us about how great we are, we are forcing them to downplay both our problems and the difficulty of the solutions—and that puts the country in danger.
Choose one: National security or a flattering conceit
Bill Gates says you can evaluate an organization in part by “how quickly people in the company find out about bad news and respond to it.” He adds that a good manager’s approach to bad news is to “seek it out rather than deny it.” In other words, for an organization to be healthy, as Gates says in a chapter title, “Bad News Must Travel Fast.” But when the organizing principle is not “defend against threats” but instead “preserve flattering self-image,” bad news doesn’t travel at all.
Our need to preserve the false self-image traps us in a system of twisted incentives. Ignoring the bad news is safe for politicians and dangerous for the country, while highlighting the bad news is safe for the country but dangerous for politicians.
For more than 30 years, politicians who have warned us against the dangers of oil dependency have been marginalized or defeated. As a result, we’re now deeply dependent on such countries as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela for the energy we need to run our economy.
We don’t look kindly on politicians who tell us we have to change—even when change is the only way to protect ourselves.
This habit would hurt the country in the best of times, but today it’s a serious threat to national security. The decisions the United States makes now will determine more than who has the biggest economy, the strongest currency or the best army 50 years from now. They will determine whether anybody will be here 50 years from now.
We’re threatened by poverty and disease, war and terror, anger and hatred, growing populations, shrinking resources, global warming and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Each of these problems is getting worse, driven by deep habits of culture, politics and society. It’s hard enough to change one person’s habits—how are we going to change the behavior of billions of people, all at once, and just in time?
The value of humility
The Prophet Jeremiah said: “Prophets and priests alike all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.”
Imagine instead that he had said: “O House of Israel, you are just so virtuous! Just what the Lord your God wanted—so wise, so hard-working, decent, fair and generous. You’re the best chosen people ever!”
That’s the kind of insulting praise we hear from our politicians.
We need a new breed of leaders who will take the risk of telling the truth more starkly than has been tried before, and invite the country to humility. The new leaders will have to be humble as well, or we will never give them permission to tell us the truth about ourselves and our situation.
It’s a tough challenge for a leader to tell someone, “You’re not good enough; you’ve got to change,” and yet still connect with them. Great coaches and teachers can do it. Great military leaders can do it. But coaches and teachers and military leaders cannot be fired by the people they criticize. Politicians can be.
That’s why leaders won’t change until voters change—and begin demanding truth over comfort. The choice between truth and comfort is where the future pivots—and where politics can learn something from religion.
I was raised Catholic, which means, to some extent, given a series of beliefs and practices that I accepted before I had the chance to figure them out. So I have found it fascinating in my adult life to find new meaning in the rituals I first practiced as a child.
The wisdom of Lenten sacrifice, as I see it, is in training oneself to endure suffering—not just the manufactured suffering of self-imposed penance but the suffering that comes naturally from the unavoidable conflicts of life.
Carl Jung wrote, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”
Scott Peck has written, “One measure—and perhaps the best measure—of a person’s greatness is the capacity for suffering.”
If we flee suffering for momentary comfort, we make things worse. If we can bear that suffering, we can soothe people, solve problems and end conflict. The path to peace always demands that one side, or ideally both sides, absorb suffering without retaliating—or war will go on forever.
The most painful, and most beneficial, suffering of all may simply be coming to terms with our imperfections and giving up the comfort of believing that we’re good people, noble people, or—at least—better than those people.
John of the Cross, in describing a soul going through the Dark Night, wrote that the journey “forced upon her the knowledge of her own baseness . . . which, in the season of her prosperity, she was blind to.”
In this state, he says: “She is free from the faintest notion of any thought that she is better than others or that she has in any way outstripped them.”
“In the dryness and emptiness of this night,” he wrote: “the soul also acquires humility.”
Pride goeth before …
John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and other saints emphasize that the greater your sense of your own virtue, the more sinful you are—and the greater your sense of your own sinfulness, the more virtuous you are.
Of course, humility is not a truth tied to one religion. The Prophet Muhammad said: “The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.”
The Quran says: “Do not treat men with scorn, nor walk proudly on the earth. God does not love the arrogant.”
Humility, not pride, is the mark of goodness . . . and of greatness.
Humility finds its most authentic expression in the commitment to change. Pride never sees a need to change.
The current political campaign is replete with calls for change. But I haven’t heard anybody chanting “I want to change! I want to change!” The call for change is always a call for other people to change—the rich people, the poor people, the black people, the white people, the Republicans, the Democrats—if only they would change, the country would get back on track. But a campaign to change others is based on pride, not humility. It will polarize the country, and a polarized nation is a paralyzed nation.
Despite what the partisans think, the battle that will decide the fate of the world is not the battle between Republicans and Democrats but the battle between humility and pride. It is between people who will see the dangers, admit their flaws and change—and those who will deny the danger and their flaws and reject any need for change.
If enough people change, we’ll survive. If not, we’ll perish. It could go either way. But two facts are certain. Survival won’t come without change, and change won’t come without humility.
Saving the world is a physical problem, but it demands a spiritual solution.
Tom Rosshirt served as foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore and later as national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. He is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a communication firm in Washington, D.C.