Hubris, defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence or arrogance”, is a human emotion that has long fascinated me. There are individuals who exercise it with alarming regularity – a certain US President whose name rhymes with ‘dump’ readily comes to mind – and it is often seen as a fatal flaw that results in someone’s downfall. For instance, Napoleon could be accused of hubris when he decided to invade Russia in 1812 and was caught in the throes of that country’s brutal winter. I also recall former US presidential candidate Gary Hart whose campaign was destroyed over rumours that he was a womaniser (he told the media that this gossip was inaccurate and challenged them to “follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” They did follow him and they found him with a ‘campaign staffer’ named Donna Rice on his boat, which was named – I am not making this up! – Monkey Business ).
A recent article in The New York Times caught my eye as yet another example of hubris. On Thursday July 12 the US Council of Economic Advisers announced that America’s long-running war on poverty “is largely over and a success.” Let me repeat this. The US has succeeded in ‘defeating’ poverty, a social ill that has plagued humanity since, well since we came down from the trees I imagine. What an incredible achievement! We should all congratulate the current administration for this spectacular deed and rush to copy whatever it is that they did so we too in our countries can ‘defeat’ poverty. Who would not avail themselves of such an opportunity?
Unfortunately I learned a long time that not everything that glitters is gold and not every news story is true (in other words there is such as thing as ‘fake news’ as a certain president whose name rhymes with ‘chump’ always tweets). Alas, this is one of those items. It turns out that the US has not come close to ‘defeating’ poverty – millions of Americans are still poor and need help – but that the current administration is convinced that these ‘loafers’ are sucking at the public teat by relying on such frivilous perks as federal housing support and food stamps (i.e shelter and food. Shame on them!) So, by declaring poverty ‘defeated’ the government can justify minimal work requirements, thus tying benefits to how many hours you put in at a job. Gee, this no longer sounds as exciting as it did at first blush, now does it?
A similar act of hubris occurred on May 1, 2003 when then US President Bush gave a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to mark the ‘end’ of the US invasion of Iraq, which had started a scant few weeks earlier. While the president did not say ‘mission accomplished’ that was what was on a huge banner behind him. We all know how that turned out, don’t we?
Statements of this nature are pronounced for all kinds of reasons: blind faith in one’s actions, a need to convince others that things aren’t as bad as they seem, a way to deflect criticism (squirrel!), an attempt to fool people, etc. It has been going on for centuries and will most likely continue.
What worries me is that we will see, and sooner probably than later, someone – maybe a president whose name rhymes with ‘plump’ – who will declare an end to the ‘war on terrorism’. He will confidently say that the war is over, decrease resources committed to it, abandon allies, and embrace the parties that intend us harm (wait! That is happening already!). We will down tools and move on to something else, blissfully happy in our ignorance that the devil of violent extremism is indeed dead.
Except that it won’t be. Our ‘defeat’ of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was followed by the rise of Islamic State. Our ‘defeat’ of Islamic State will lead to the rise of some other group. This is what happens when you try to kill an idea, and think that by killing its adherents you have solved the problem. This is also known as the ‘war on a common noun’ problem. It never works.
You’d think we would have learned by now that these ills are very complex and require very complex solutions. Then again, as humans we can’t help but make mistakes, now can we?