Overconfident

How often have we witnessed the following scenario in sports? Our team is on a winning streak and have been playing well, winning seven out of the last nine games. They are starting to believe in themselves and their confidence is high. Today they play a team with a losing record they have beaten five times already this year.  No sweat! This is a piece of cake. We have our “ace” pitcher going for us, he is pitching well, and he has beaten this team three times already this year. In addition, the opposing pitcher is known to give up home runs and our team has been hitting homers at a record pace. As I said. Piece of cake.

Only the cake is spoiled by the fact that the other team wins in the bottom of the ninth inning by a “walk-off” single scoring a man from second base for the winning run. Our team hit only one home run and our ace pitcher had a bad day. Another one got away.

The gods on Mount Olympus are watching with broad grins on their collective faces. This is, for them, just another example of humans’ over-confidence. The Greeks called it “hubris,” but the name is less important than the fact that another sports team has been hoist by its own petard. The team that should have had a cake-walk fell on its face and slinks to the locker room to shower, make excuses, and forget the loss over a beer or two. Or three.

This scene is not all fiction, of course, though the team will not be mentioned in order not to embarrass the Minnesota Twins. But the point is that this sort of thing happens on a regular basis in sports and yet we fail to see the broader implications. I am here to point them out.

They have to do with the smug self-assurance that seems to infect those “winners” in power who see only success in imagining conflict with other nations they regard as their inferiors. After all, we have the weapons, including nuclear weapons, and armed forces around the globe waiting for orders to attack. No one is as sure of themselves as we are and the swagger is visible as is the sound of the bloat and rhetoric that spews from the mouths of our leader(s) as swords are rattled and chests puffed out.

The Athenians had the same sort of swagger when they sent the major part of their remaining forces to do battle with Sparta and her allies in Sicily toward the end of the very long, protracted Peloponnesian war. Thucydides described it for us in detail, as he lived through it, and he saw it as a tragedy, just like the tragedies the Greeks loved to sit and watch and agonize over in the theaters. One more example of hubris, one more victim of over-confidence, or excessive pride. But, surely, tragedies happen on the stage and in books. Not in real life? Right? Wrong.

We see it every day in our sports teams, and the results are predictable. In fact when I was watching the hype prior to the game described above I sensed that my team was about to lose. And they did. “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall,” according to Proverbs. And yet we ignore this truth when we look around outside the sports arenas because, perhaps, we lack critical acumen and are ourselves caught up in the hype and fail to realize that the swagger on the international stage by those in power can only result in one thing: tragedy. Losing a baseball game is no big deal. War is a very big deal. And given today’s advanced technology and the stupidity of those who push the buttons, no one will win the next one.

Crippled Government

From the day Barack Obama was elected, the opposition party pledged themselves to thwart his every step. And given that Obama has proven to be a rather ineffective president, it could be said that the pledge worked like a charm. But what the division has brought about is a government that simply cannot get it done and on the international front it must make this country look like living proof that democracy won’t work.

The upcoming international meeting on climate change in Paris is an interesting case in point. Take the following snippet from a recent opinion piece on the internet:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is trying to negotiate a legacy-making climate change pact this coming week in Paris with one hand tied behind his back. Congress can’t even agree whether global warming is real.

Scientists point to the global agreement, years in the making, as the last, best hope for averting the worst effects of global warming. Obama has spent months prodding other countries to make ambitious carbon-cutting pledges to the agreement, which he hopes will become the framework for countries to tackle the climate issue long beyond the end of his presidency in early 2017.

But Republicans have tried to undermine the president by sowing uncertainty about whether the U.S. will make good on its promises. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP leaders have warned other countries not to trust any deal Obama may strike; other GOP allies are working to nullify Obama’s emissions-cutting steps at home.

What this means is that while the rest of the world knows that climate change is caused in large part by human activity and that this activity must be changed soon or the planet faces irreversible damage, the Republicans in Congress are tied to their pledge to oppose every step the president takes and, tied as they are to Big Business and Big Oil, are determined to scuttle any possible agreement the meetings might produce. America will be seen by the rest of the world as a chicken without its head, fluttering about aimlessly and blind to the obvious facts that everyone else has come to accept. And this fluttering chicken threatens us all.  The bottom line is the Republicans don’t want to take any steps that might “cost jobs” in spite of the fat that global warming could be reduced simply by committing this country to alternative, clean energy — which would produce thousands of jobs and save the planet at the same time.

Sitting on the sidelines as we do, it is clear that the machine of government is horribly broken. If Obama were a stronger president who knew how to wield the power his office potentially holds, perhaps this would not be the case. But faced with the fact that a weak president is opposed by stupid, small-minded men and women in Congress who are pledged to undermine his every step, we may be forced to admit we live in a country that, alone, stands in the way of a workable plan to save this planet from devastation.

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

Road Rage

Since we live in a very small town with very little in the way of grocery stores, my wife and I almost always drive to the larger (small) town of Marshall nearby. It normally takes us about 20 minutes because we like to take a county road that runs in a small river valley through which the Redwood River flows (more nearly the “Redwood Brook,” but folks in the Midwest don’t know about brooks). On our trips we are always alert for wildlife. A pair of eagles nests in the region year-round and we often see them and their offspring. We have also seen a great many deer, pheasants, wild turkeys, raccoons, box turtles on the pond (when it’s not dry), and the occasional snapping turtle. In addition, there is always a host of bird life. The trip, as I say, is supposed to take about 20 minutes but it can often take twice that long, depending on what’s going on in the river valley. We always come armed with binoculars and drive slowly through that area.

Not long ago we had stopped on the road to watch a group of wild turkeys. I must admit I had been driving very slowly and had failed to check my rear-view mirror because the turkeys were putting on a show and the road hardly ever has anyone else on it so traffic is seldom a problem — which is one of the reasons we take the road. But this time I was alarmed by loud shouting, including profanity, coming from a red pickup behind me that drove into the oncoming lane where the driver put down his cell phone and stopped to open his window and read me the riot act. Now bear in mind that this road is so seldom traveled that this man could sit there in the oncoming lane for 30 seconds or so to chew me out. He could have stayed longer.  But chew me out he did, to my everlasting humiliation and chagrin. I smiled and pulled out my AK-47 and shot him apologized, feeling sheepish and angry at one and the same time.

The point of this brief anecdote is to suggest that if I had an automatic weapon in my vehicle I can imagine myself sorely tempted to pull it out and at least threaten the man with it, which in retrospect would have been very stupid indeed.  He was being boorish and bellicose and my instinct was to respond in kind — and I am not a violent person. I don’t like confrontation and I wouldn’t ordinarily think about shooting a pheasant or a wild turkey, much less another human being. But he was way out of line, given the situation, and at that moment I could imagine doing just that. In fact, I can see why people who carry weapons use them and it makes me more concerned than ever that our gun laws are so lax and that so many people are not only able but eager to carry a loaded weapon with them wherever they go.  It doesn’t take a genius to predict that the number of gun deaths in this country will continue to escalate, to the dismay of those survivors who have to attend the funerals of their loved ones killed by a hand gun — and to the delight of the gun manufacturers who are reaping such huge profits from our collective stupidity, anger, and fear.

The Ridiculous and The Sublime

A brief story in Yahoo News tells of the ridiculous behavior of some people:

OSHAWA, Ont. – A southern Ontario man says he will fight the $5,400 bill he got from a fire department for rescuing him after he went through the ice while fishing.

Neil Robbescheuten, 62, was ice fishing on Lake Scugog earlier this month when a dense fog rolled in and he became disoriented trying to find his way back to the shore.

The Oshawa man says he went through the ice in a marshy area near some bulrushes so he was able to pull himself out onto a tree stump while he called 911 and three firetrucks responded to rescue him.

He later received the invoice of $5,392.78 for the rescue and says he plans to fight it because he worries it will make people think twice about calling emergency services when they’re in trouble.

Scugog Fire Chief Richard Miller says . . .  the temperature was warm and rainy that weekend and the local conservation authorities had issued warnings urging people to stay away from bodies of water.

I don’t believe for a minute Neil’s claim that his concern here is that others will not call for assistance if they fall through the ice — as though they will be thinking of Neil and his plight as they struggle to free themselves from peril. More than likely Neil is just pissed off because he got a bill for the help he received in extricating himself from the ice. Or he is just embarrassed. Let’s face it, he did a stupid thing in face of the fact that warnings had gone out to stay off the ice and he went out anyway.

We seem to have yet another example of a man who simply doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his own actions and would prefer to turn attention elsewhere — his own and that of others who hear about his experience. He chose to ignore warnings and go ice fishing when he shouldn’t have done so. He has no one to blame but himself and should shut up and pay the firemen — and be thankful they came and pulled him out of the water. Indeed if everyone were punished who took unnecessary chances that require others to risk their lives to save them there might be fewer stupid people doing risky things. I would suggest that Neil might be a good candidate for this year’s Darwin Award for stupidity. If they gave awards for ingratitude, I would certainly nominate him for that as well. No wonder he wants to direct attention elsewhere.

While mulling over Neil’s behavior, however, I came across the following story that restores my faith in human nature. It centers around  a group of 13 members of the University of Iowa’s AirCare unit who were returning from a memorial service in honor of three of their members who were killed in a helicopter crash. After their meal, as they waited for the check at Applebees, the waitress told them the bill had been taken care of. She showed them a note written on a napkin by an anonymous patron:

“For all you do and in memory of your team mates … This meal is on us.”

From the ridiculous to the sublime! We need to read more stories about the good that people do and fewer stories about stupid and ungrateful people like Neil.

Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.