In 1980 Mac Davis, the song writer who penned such hits as “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” for Elvis Presley, “Watching Scotty Grow” for Bobby Goldboro, and the oft recorded “I Believe in Music,” hit number three in the charts with his solo “It’s Hard to be Humble.” Today in our first year seminar on America’s future (this unit discussing Anne Marie Slaughter’s book on American values) we discussed humility, something that seems to be lacking in American politics these days. (This also means that two blog entries in a row reference an LP from the year 1980 — that was unplanned!)
Humility means having the strength to acknowledge both ones’ strengths and ones’ weaknesses. It’s not false reluctance to take credit for success, or naively taking the blame for something that’s gone wrong. Humility is honesty, it’s having the capacity to admit mistakes and errors so that one can correct them, and not be afraid to apologize for past misdeeds. Humility comes from strength; the weak man or woman feigns perfection and flawlessness in order to hide what he or she knows will embarrass or cause self-disgust. A strong person can recognize and admit errors, even embarrassing ones.
In this light we talked about the alleged “apologies for America” made by Barack Obama. Oft trumpeted by the right, supposedly President Obama went on a world apology tour, saying America is sorry for all the misdeeds of the past. Now, if that were true, I’d have no problem with that. To be able to apologize is to me a sign of strength, as noted above. But the fact is, there were no apologies made. This right wing “meme” has become so entrenched that almost everyone thinks Obama apologized (and many probably have no problem with that), but he didn’t!
The far right Washington Examiner attempted to document Obama’s “apologies” with a “Top Ten” list. Yet if you read through the list you have several times where Obama admitted the US made mistakes in the past — and most of these are uncontroversial admissions — but never once is there an apology. The audacity to publish such a list when it’s obvious not one apology is there is amazing. Some are even bizarre, like number 6:
“I don’t believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure.”
That statement is a statement of fact, almost everyone should be able to agree with it. Or number 2:
“We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect.”
To admit that we are not perfect is the same as an apology! To read this list is to laugh at the absurdity of the claims, yet many Americans take it seriously, and find it horrifying that a US President would admit his country was not perfect. In short, many Americans have lost a sense of humility about our country and our values.
That is weakness. Only a weak person fears admitting mistakes. But it’s clear many people prickle from foreign criticism of the US or claims by pundits that we’ve done wrong. To these people admitting error is somehow agreeing with foreign critics and taking an anti-American stand. But just like the person who takes even just criticism as a personal attack, such folk are deeply insecure about the US. They don’t want to ask hard questions because that means people they disagree may have a valid point. Often they claim “such statements make al qaeda’s leaders feel good” or “boost morale” of the enemy. Excuse me? Why would anyone care about how enemies “feel,” as if an enemy “feeling good” is somehow harmful to us. Not only do they likely not notice, but a strong person doesn’t fear that an opponent might feel good and thus choose not to be honest. More important is what we as a country do and how we act, regardless of how others “feel.” I also don’t buy the “boost morale of the enemy” argument. President Obama’s admission that we’re not perfect boosted US prestige because he was stating things that are obvious.
For the US to refuse to admit past misdeeds in Latin America would be pathetic, everyone knows the historical facts, not to acknowledge them would seem not only weak, but petty. If you knew someone who was so afraid that he or she would be seen as weak by others if they admitted any error, and thus they constantly boosted and said only good things about themselves, excusing or ignoring any mistakes, you’d probably not take that person as a friend. It’s arrogance, it’s hubris, and it leads to self-destruction.
At home lack of humility undercuts the very capacity of our democracy to operate. Humility means recognizing that the other side, be it the Democrats or Republicans, have good points and a perspective worthy of considering. Only the arrogant dismiss and demonize the other side, thereby assuring an inability to cooperate or compromise. If our two parties get engulfed by arrogance, and if ideological jihad replaces pragmatic problem solving, we’ll not solve the problems facing the country, and drift into an abyss. Without humility we won’t respect the freedoms of others, tolerate those different than ourselves, see equal opportunity as a goal, and put justice over political whim. Humility is an essential aspect of all our core values; we lose our humility and we lose part of what it means to be an American.
As a superpower, it may have become hard to be humble. Yet humility is essential if we are to come together as a nation to solve the problems we face, and to work with the rest of the world to combat terrorism, address environmental issues, and try to build a peaceful transition to the future.
I’ll end the post quoting the final verse of the Mac Davis song:
I guess you could say I'm a loner, a cowboy outlaw tough and proud. I could have lots of friends if I want to but then I wouldn't stand out from the crowd. Some folks say that I'm egotistical. Hell, I don't even know what that means. I guess it has something to do with the way that I fill out my skin tight blue jeans. Oh Lord it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way, I can't wait to look in the mirror cause I get better looking each day To know me is to love me I must be a hell of a man. Oh Lord it's hard to be humble but I'm doing the best that I can.