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The Price of Arrogance

In a recent NFL game, a receiver caught a touchdown pass in the end zone. He immediately did his dance and held up his index finger to indicate, “We’re No. 1.” Unfortunately, his team was behind by three touchdowns with less than five minutes to play, and they were certain to lose the game. But never mind, “We’re No. 1.”

When Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed, crowds gathered and chanted, “USA, USA.” We killed the bad guy. We’re No. 1.

There have now been a number of Republican presidential debates. Watching them is like watching “Jersey Shore” or the “The Real Housewives.” We sit and wonder: how bad can it really get? In all these debates, there is a subtext to the candidates’ responses to every question. It is that the United States is automatically and eternally the best, No. 1, the leader of the entire world, maybe the whole universe. And, if there are problems, it is because Obama is screwing things up. We belong right up there on top. God wants us there.

More than 2,000 years ago, the historian Herodotus said, “All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for over-weaning pride.”

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Two thousand years, and not all that much has changed. American arrogance has increased with the rise of the far right in our country. The question of exactly what we are No. 1 in is conveniently ignored. And anyone who focuses on our problems must be guilty of one of the following sins: falsifying facts, blaming America, or in President Obama’s case, going around apologizing when we should be chest thumping.

Once you accept the notion that we are automatically the best, everything else becomes simple. We have the best health care in the world. Why mess with it. That this statement is demonstrably false is irrelevant.

Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Let’s “take it out.” It will be simple, just like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The economy is in deep trouble, with slow growth and vast unemployment. Simple. Cut taxes and unleash the genius of American businessmen and financiers who will get things rolling again. Just as they always have in the past. The important thing is to always understand that we are entitled to be No. 1, the world leader, whatever that means.

Arrogance blinds us to reality. Once you buy into the notion that God made the United States the “shining city on a hill,” you are in deep trouble. Unfortunately, it is also a pretty easy sell. Everyone wants to be No. 1, to believe that they are the best, and we all want to live in the shining city on the hill. Who wouldn’t?

But, when you believe these things, you also begin to believe that the rules don’t apply to you, that the ship will, in the end, automatically right itself (as soon as we get rid of Obama and the liberals.) But, as we are finding out, the rules do apply to us. And before we knew it, we weren’t so shiny anymore. There is a basic message here. If we want to square American “exceptionalism” with reality, we are going to have to do some things differently in the future.

Americans who travel abroad and who go beyond sightseeing tours are often quite shocked these days. Not only in Europe, but also in the so-called developing countries, we see infrastructure that puts our decaying physical plant to shame. Whether it is airports, train stations or roads, we have fallen far behind, in some cases to the point of embarrassment. It is also interesting to talk to people who have gotten sick abroad. They almost invariably praise the quality of health care that they receive and comment on how simple things are. Cell phones work better in most other countries than they do in the United States. And, particularly in Europe, you see signs of green technology in use almost everywhere.

It is useful to note that the Virgin Islands, with the exception of some relocating mainlanders, has never shared this arrogance. That is probably because the territory, like Puerto Rico and the other colonial possessions, has often been on the receiving end of it.

Anyone who has spent time in the territory – as well as many other places – has seen this arrogance in action. It takes the forms of “daddy knows best,” and “we’re here now, just pay attention, and everything will be alright.”

Then there is the kind of condescension that takes the form of trying not to look condescending. This last one often includes putting the word “man,” with a West Indian inflection, at the end of every sentence and trying to speak in patois after 48 hours on the island.

The reaction to something bad, such as arrogance, is quite often itself bad. In the Virgin Islands, the reaction to arrogance has taken three unhappy forms. The first is bad imitations. Think of the Senate, a double whammy, since it is a bad imitation of a terrible model. It would be interesting to have C-Span televise the U.S. Senate and the V.I. Senate side by side. Viewers could then vote on which was more pathetic and most deserving of the award for pomposity, mediocrity and pretension. Kind of like, who is your favorite Menendez brother?

A second kind of reaction is rejection of outsiders, a form of circling the wagons. In the Virgin Islands, this form has even been given a name. It is to be “spampanatoed,” a reference to the Education chief recruited from – and then, shortly afterward, driven back to – the mainland. This reaction is particularly damaging because, contrary to popular opinion, the territory does not develop enough leadership and management talent to run its large and complex agencies and institutions.

And, as word of this hostility to outsiders spreads, the available external talent pool inevitably shrinks. Finally, it is hard enough to run big agencies and organizations without spending time fending off attacks because you weren’t “born here.”

The third kind of reaction is quite simple: it is reaction itself. Most people correctly associate reactionary politics with the far right. But there is also a liberal and left reaction, and it is on permanent display in the Virgin Islands. A certain level of resistance to change is inevitable and probably even good in preventing hasty and ill-devised actions. But in the name of protecting certain achievements, such as job security, any change or adjustment is viewed as a major calamity, threatening all previous gains. And, as many Virgin Islanders will tell you, whatever the proposed change is, it won’t work anyway.

The United States is being severely damaged by an arrogant reactionary movement that seeks to undo social and economic gains going back to the New Deal of the 1930s. We don’t know how this will turn out.

In the Virgin Islands, its own peculiar form of reaction threatens the future by blocking change and sticking with approaches that have not served its citizens well for a long time. While arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears, some times the reaction to it can bring us to tears as well.

Frank Schneiger
Nov. 23, 2011

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