Monday, July 09, 2007

Pride is prejudice.

My wife thinks I'm wasting my time. And yours. At least when I go off on what she calls "airy tangents" like my feelings on race and such.

"These things you think and write about," she says, shaking her head in exasperation, "may make sense as ideas. But they go totally against human nature. They have nothing to do with real life and how people live it...and how they'll continue living it. So it's pointless. Just a lot of talk."

My wife has never been shy about making the case for my detachment from reality—and trust me, she was doing it well before SHAMblog came along. The most immediate source of her ire, however, was a discussion we had over the weekend about pride. See, I think the concept of pride is widely abused in American culture. I don't think pride makes sense unless you're talking very narrowly and specifically about pride in something you did—and even then I think there are limits, including many conditions that need to be met, before one is entitled to feel pride in the commonly understood sense*. (It also behooves me to point out that the first dictionary definition of pride is actually pejorative and almost mocking in tone: "a high or inordinate opinion of one's own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct....".) Certainly it strikes me as bizarre to feel pride about something someone else did, whether it be a child of yours, your spouse, a close friend...or a member of "your race." That last, as it happens, was the starting point for Sunday's discussion with the wife.

Though race and ethnicity aren't exactly alike, I've posted before about my Dad's endeavors to imbue me with pride in my Italian heritage, and how frivolous I deemed those efforts, even as a small boy. What did Da Vinci have to do with me? So what if "his blood still ran through my veins" (doubtful to begin with)? He pioneered the design of the parachute, not me; he painted the Mona Lisa, I didn't. And anyway, was it his Italian-ness that caused or catalyzed such triumphs? Clearly not, or else people in 15th Century Italy would've been making parachutes and churning out Mona Lisas left and right. He was simply Leonardo Da Vinci (or "L-Dee," as per the pop conventions of today), one individual of great talent; his achievements had/have nothing to do with Italy, other Italians, my father, or me. In fact, if you take the deterministic view, his achievements didn't even really have anything to do with him. They just happened, as they had to happen in accordance with the dictates of some grand, steadily evolving cosmic blueprint. He was the mere instrument of their occurrence. By that theory—to which I happen to give a lot of credence—the circumstances that would produce the Mona Lisa were already in play, and immutably so, long before Leonardo came along. The first brush strokes for that painting were set in motion when the Earth cooled, or before.

It is for similar reasons that I believe the whole idea of racial pride is not only illogical but counterproductive. Once again , it may be helpful to shift the focus away from race for a moment, to something like...religion. And we don't have to fall back on the likes of radical Islam to make this point. Because here's a simple truth: You cannot simultaneously be Catholic and also fully respect someone else's right to be Jewish. (The Catholic Church, speaking through the Pope, gave us still more evidence of this late last week.) Oh, you can say you can, and may even think you can—but you can't, no matter how ecumenical the Vatican liked to sound in its public rhetoric during the Pope John Paul era. If you truly believe that Catholicism is the path to heaven, then you cannot accept any other path as equal; you probably can't even accept any other path as legitimate. I mean, for Crissake (I say that quite pointedly), this is salvation we're talking about—whether your ticket is punched for heaven or hell; whether your eternal kimono is made of silk or asbestos. You either think you know The Way or you don't. To embrace Catholicism is to reject Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhism, and all the rest. Even the Episcopal Church; maybe especially the Espiscopal Church.** Literally and figuratively, there are no two Ways about it.

Racial pride is like that. It's not often these days that you hear the phrase "black is beautiful" spoken aloud; BiB was distinctly an outgrowth, and identifying verbal trademark, of the revolutionary 1960s and '70s. But that same mindset is very much alive, often employed in inner-city schools to imbue kids with good feelings about their supposed heritage. And it remains part and parcel of the African-American Studies programs that are well-entrenched on college campuses nationwide.

Technically and theoretically, one could argue that BiB, evaluated as a raw concept, conveys no automatic implication that "white is less beautiful." In practice, however, it makes no sense to sell the idea that black is beautiful if you don't intend to mean that "it's good to be black" or even "black is better." Think of it this way: If one's motivations are pure—if what one means to say is, "As groups of people go, we're all really the same"—then why not say exactly that? (By definition, of course, we can't all be "beautiful," since beautiful is a superlative. It's like telling kids that they're all special or exceptional. Nonsense. If everyone is exceptional, no one is.) If you insist on bowing to the concept of race, then at the very least, why not teach or informally present lessons that show all different people, of all different races, doing good works? Especially at the college level, why do we need a separate curriculum to cover black achievement? At best, that's pandering. At worst, it's racism. (Incidentally, have you ever listened to noted scholar and intellectual darling Cornel West? Try it sometime. And tell me if, in his own subtle and high-minded way, he is not as dangerous as David Duke.)

Like the nonstop parade of Italian imagery my father put before me (Dad conveniently left out a discussion of all the mobsters and ne'er-do-wells), the attempt to inculcate so-called black pride by immersing kids in stories of black inventors, painters, poets, performers, politicians, philosophers, etc., promotes a link between color and achievement—that there's something about blackness, per se, that helped yield those results. Some might argue that the black pride movement is necessary because the self-esteem of young blacks has taken such a battering—that they "need a little something more" to bring them back up to normal levels of self-worth (an attitude that sounds more than a bit patronizing, to my ear). First of all—again, as I explain in Chapter 10 of my book—the much-ballyhooed link between self-esteem and success has become highly suspect in recent years. Counterintuitive as this may sound, there is no proof that high levels of self-esteem lead to good things; in fact, there is a sizable contingent of people with high levels of self-esteem who do some very, very bad things. (Seems that a fair portion of the thugs who, we used to think, were "driven to crime by low self-esteem" believe, on the contrary, that they are "special" and that life "owes them.") More importantly, you don't correct one flaw by substituting another. You don't tell pretty lies in order to paper over what you see as an ugly truth. Especially when all you end up doing is reinforcing the idea of race and then driving wedges between the various races you've just reinforced. (And if you find yourself doubting what I’m saying here, turn things around for a second: Imagine a course in White Pride. How's that grab you? Doesn't sound so "innocent" and "uplifting," now, does it?)

When I think about group pride in all its forms, I'm reminded of the on-campus atmosphere at Brooklyn College during the early '70s, when I attended. Between the Black Power crowd and the Young Zionists and the Jews for Jesus and the coeds in Women's Studies and the guys who marched in the Puerto Rican Day Parade—and even the nascent Gay Pride movement—we took a campus that could have (and should have) been a true melting pot and turned it instead into the Balkans. People decided which lunch table to sit at based on which bloc or group they belonged to.

Pride is prejudice. Race-consciousness is, or inevitably leads to, racism. That's just how it is. I dare say, it's "human nature."

* Give you a quick example. When I hit a double in one of my weekend baseball leagues, I enjoy it, sure—but I don't really feel pride, because I realize that I'm only playing a low-amateur version of the sport, that I'm not really one of the best hitters in the league, and that it's not like I hit that many doubles overall. So while I savor the experience in the moment, I wouldn't exactly call it "pride" in the classic sense.... And yeah, I know what you're probably thinking: God, it must be terrible to be Steve, and overthink everything in this manner. You know what? Sometimes I kind of agree.
** Popularly known as "Catholic Lite," the Episcopal Church has developed, uh, mass appeal for many Catholics who find the Vatican's policies and politics a bit too strident and judgmental.


RevRon's Rants said...

"Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one's status in the eyes of others; And shame is fear of humiliation at one's inferior status in the estimation of others. When one sets his heart on being highly esteemed, and achieves such rating, then he is automatically involved in fear of losing his status." -- Lao-Tzu

I believe Lao Tzu did a pretty good job of assessing the nature of pride, and his assertions are borne out pretty well in current attitudes. If I am proud of my children, it is because at some level, I feel that their actions reflect well upon my efforts at raising them. Once I get over myself a bit, I realize that they have become their own persons *in spite of* my efforts, as much as *because* of those efforts. I confuse the respect I feel for them with the respect I wish for myself.

There has been much discussion on this and Connie's blog about a marketing writer we know quite well, who is constantly pointing *proudly* to his accomplishments and material acquisitions. It is no small irony that he has called himself the "Buddha of the Internet," and even claims to encourage Buddhist wisdom, when his every highly-publicized act runs completely counter to what the Buddha taught. Holding Lao Tzu's lesson in mind while observing him is, to put in mildly, enlightening.

My own heritage is Russian/Hungarian/Irish/German. While each of those cultures has contributed to humanity's progress, they have also contributed to less-than-savory events throughout history. As Steve points out, how can I claim *pride* in the positive accomplishments without equal *shame* at the misdeeds? The entire effort is a waste of energy.

Were I to attempt a summary definition of pride, I would say that it is synonymous with arrogance, and equally unjustified.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't gonna say anything to this, but then you mentioned Cornel West, and I couldn't help myself:

I was on to that guy from the very beginning. As a matter of fact, listening to him helped start me on the road away from race-consciousness. His s**t was so obvious. Like listening to old Eldridge Cleaver speeches. Take away the BS - or don't - and he's creepy as all get-out. That snakely-slippery speaking style with that gap-toothed grin? It gives me the shivers.

About "overthinking" everything: naw, you're just observant. Couple that with being a writer and you're valuable.

Like you, I was raised with race-consciousness, and had to claw my way out - fight my way out, many times: I'll never forget being forced into a fist-fight to defend my right to listen to Led Zepplin. "Haven't you seen 'Roots'?" the guy yelled as he blind-sided me - hilarious. (And is anyone starting to understand the sources of my violent imagery?) Keep it up, Steve:

I hear you - I need you - and, I think, you're "right on the money".


Anonymous said...

That paints a goomy picture. And that whole determinism thing sounds like a SHAM too.

If everything is set in motion and left alone, the equation of life as we know it unsolved.

What set that thing the set everything into motion?

What thing set that thing in motion that set everything else in motion?

And, what set that third thing that caused the second thing to set that thing that set everything in motion -- ad infinitum?

Steve Salerno said...

Look, your regression of causes is, of course, the big flaw in determinism, and historically has played havoc with all philosophical attempts to explain life. But by the same token, it's also the big flaw in a more orthodox, Supreme Being-based view of life. The idea that god/God was simply "always there" (so don't ask any pesky questions about where it all started, as the nuns would always put it) isn't very intellectually satisfying either, after all.

Steve Salerno said...

And incidentally, I still don't understand why people insist on painting determinism as "gloomy." Determinism/fatalism (in the pure sense of the word) merely argues that whatever happens had to happen--and whatever is going to happen, is going to happen. So? Why does that portend a gloomy outcome? And even if your entire life is preordained, as long as you don't KNOW what's preordained (and you don't), what's really the big deal?

RevRon's Rants said...

If everything, every act, and every circumstance were indeed preordained, the most appropriate and logical mindset would be one of futility. Why bother playing, when the score is already finalized. If I win, that's great. If I lose, that sucks, but I can't do anything about it anyway, so why try?

If one is comfortable with such a scripted existence, I guess it wouldn't seem so gloomy. However, if one has aspirations, and dreams that stretch beyond the probable (or even the possible), anything that diminishes the incentive to strive toward the realization of those dreams would be disheartening, to say the least.

I can't help but wonder if adherence to a belief in determinism might be borne of depression. Not trying to analyze anyone here; that's just how I would describe the emotional state that would be prerequisite to my adoption of a determinist belief system. Your mileage may vary.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I play baseball every weekend. I play in two leagues, and dare I say that those games are the highlights, the high points, of my day-to-day life. (I'm looking at "events" here as being separate from "people"; I'm not implying that mere ball games are more important to me than loved ones. I'm simply saying that, among the broad spectrum of things we DO, those ball games are quite meaningful to me.)

The outcomes of those games are already set; they were set long before my father even taught me how to play baseball. (They were set long before baseball existed.) I truly believe that. There is nothing I can do on the field that is going to change those outcomes (because whatever I'm going to do on the field has already been accounted-for and built into the master plan, as it were). That doesn't dampen my enthusiasm a bit, because I don't KNOW what the outcome is, and I don't KNOW what role I'm going to play in it.

You see, to me, all of life is like the final moments of, say, the Miss Universe Pageant: The votes have already been counted. The outcome is certain. But we just don't know it yet. That doesn't take away any of the joy or the excitement. Indeed, to me, it intensifies I discover, on each new day, what was in the cards all along!

RevRon's Rants said...

I guess if that's what blows your skirt up, more power to you. Wouldn't sit well with me, however.

Obviously, we perceive some things pretty differently - and I shall magnanimously refrain from advising you as to the error in your thinking. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, allow me the liberty of tossing one more log onto this fatalistic fire. Some time back I wrote a memoir for the Washington Post in which I recalled (and tried to put into perspective) some of the interpersonal issues between my youngest son and me. The piece contained, at one point, a succinct explanation of my feelings on determinism/fate and the utter absence of free will. On the morning the story ran, I received an exasperated phone message from an editor with whom I'd often worked.

"You're nuts," she said, "to think everything is scripted. There's just no way!"

"I stand by what I wrote," I told her when I called back. "You have no choice in anything you do. Right down to the breakfast cereal you eat in the morning."

"Oh really," she said, rising to the challenge. "Well, tell you what. Normally I eat oatmeal. But today, just to prove a point, I'm going to decide"--she gave the word special emphasis--"to eat corn flakes. So what do you think of that, Mr. Fatalism?"

"Well," I told her, "if indeed you do go on to eat corn flakes, the only reason you're doing it is to prove a point to me. In the context of this conversation we're having. And you're doing that because of the piece you read this morning. Were it not for that piece, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And you'd have nothing to prove to me. And you'd be eating your oatmeal as usual. Your basically obstinate nature figures into it, too. You're the kind of person who doesn't want me to have the last word--so you have to do something to
'show me I'm wrong.' None of that is 'choice.' In fact, that's exactly the sort of combination of circumstances I'm referring to in arguing for destiny."

I'm oversimplifying, of course. The conversation went on much longer than that, and involved many more elements: the fact that corn flakes, for example, had to have been invented in the first place in order for her to be able to "choose" to eat them. But you get my drift.

Anonymous said...

"Because here's a simple truth: You cannot simultaneously be Catholic and also fully respect someone else's right to be Jewish."

Sigh. Wrong - completely wrong. I know you'll argue with me, but this doesn't even hold up to basic logic. Because all true Christian religions (including Catholicism) respect freedom of choice, you can indeed be Catholic and fully respect someone else's right not to be. People do it all the time.

You may also want to avoid hyperlinking and making sidebar comments to what the Pope actually did/said recently unless you know what you are talking about. If you're just reading a few mainstream news articles about it I can assure you, you don't.

I really enjoy your blog - but sometimes you get on a rant and make a lot of sidebar comments that you think strengthen your position, when they only weaken and distract from it. JMO.

RevRon's Rants said...

You're a good guy, but your editor was right. :-)

We'll probably always disagree, but I still hold out hope for you!

Steve Salerno said...

JMO, this is one instance where I stand by what I said 110 percent. If you truly subscribe to a religion, that rules out other religions. By definition. We're not talking about "tolerance" here--we're talking about belief at the core level. For a Catholic to fully respect Judaism (or vice versa) would necessarily entail the ability to be BOTH a practicing Catholic and a practicing Jew at the same time. Which would make you, of course, a practicing nothing.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone feel dizzy yet? How many times are we going to beat a dead horse?

RevRon's Rants said...

"If you truly subscribe to a religion, that rules out other religions."

My teacher told me when I was leaving the Temple to look in any religion for the silver thread that runs through them all. He said that anything apart from that silver thread was a creation of man, not the Divine. Thus, following my religion *precludes* "ruling out" any other.

A practicing nothing... Has a nice, humble ring to it. Too bad it hasn't caught on. :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

Anonymous - When I tire of a conversation, I find the most appropriate thing to do is to disengage from it & seek one more to my liking, rather than quell the one I've ceased to find entertaining. I find that to be the fairest action, both to myself and to those who choose to remain engaged.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Ron. I do go on about a few things, I know. But no one forces anyone to listen. And really, the lack of a willingness to fully intellectually engage is at the heart of SHAM's broad appeal. Some of these horses can never be beaten enough, in my view.

Anonymous said...

Sooo . . . you're standing by your comments 110%, huh? Absolutely positive that you're right and I'm wrong? Huh. Sounds like pride. ;)

Anonymous said...

In an effort to lighten the mood, as a practicing Catholic - yes, Steve, I follow and trust the rules - I'd like to offer the following two jokes for consideration. Please - don't anyone get their knickers in a twist over them - they're only jokes...

Here we go:

A good, decent, honorable man passes away and finds himself side by side with St. Peter, who is welcoming him into heaven. First thing Peter says, Welcome. This is your new home - let me give you the guided tour.

They walk along many corridors, with many closed doors, and noises clearly audible behind each.
They pass one where they hear lively discussion and disagreements being voiced politely. Peter says, That's where the Presbyterians are. They love intellectual debate and discussion.

Next room was full of spirited dissention and voices raised, making passionate pleas for one idea or another. Lutherans, said Peter. They're always trying out new ideas and thinking of ways to reshape the rules.

Next they passed what sounded like a raucous and fun crowd: Baptists, nodded Peter. They understand music and fun, praise and laughter, that's for sure.

Just up the hall the next room was filled with lively discussion, music, clapping and the vibrations of people dancing. Those are the Jews, Peter said. They really enjoy celebrations.

They passed many, many other rooms, filled with many, many groups of people who followed different paths into this place called heaven.

They passed one more room and Peter cautioned the newcomer, Oh, careful now. We need to tiptoe by this one very, very quietly. This room has the Catholics; they think they're the only ones here. ;)

And here's one more:

Two men on plane found themselves seated behind Sister Mary. To amuse themselves, they began a loud and spirited discussion about how they can't seem to avoid running into Catholics wherever they go. They listed city after city, country after country and no matter what, they couldn't seem to avoid hordes of Catholics. They found them everywhere.
Having heard enough, Sister Mary turned around in her seat and, looking them squarely in the eye, said: Why don't both of you go to hell?? There aren't any Catholics there.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, dont forget to tip your waitresses.....