Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pride and Slavery

Pride is just about the most abused emotion in politics. It may manifest itself in all areas of human endeavor, but only in politics is it applied to things that just don't deserve it.

Pride is "faith in one's own abilities based on merit." You can be proud that you got an A in calculus, or proud that you came in first in the 100-yard dash, or proud that you managed to pick up two girls simultaneously at that bar the other night, or proud that your azaleas have flourished so beautifully under your care. You can be proud that you earn as much as you do, or that you volunteer in a soup kitchen as often as you do. You can be proud of your achievements. You can be proud of what you've done.

You can't be proud of what you are. You can't be proud of an innate characteristic over which you have no control. You can't be proud of your gender. You can't be proud of your race. You can't be proud of your ethnicity or nationality or religious belief (sort of -- most religious folk adopt whatever faith they were born into). It would make no sense. It would be like being proud to be tall or being proud to have blue eyes or being proud to have blond hair.

This is why phrases like "Proud to be an American" annoy me. So you were born with US citizenship -- how is that an achievement of yours? On what basis can you derive pride from something in which you had no hand? The only people who have actually earned the right to say "Proud to be an American" are legal immigrants. The only people who have actually earned the right to say "Proud to be a Christian" are converts from Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or whatever. The only people who have actually earned the right to say "Proud to be a woman" are those who paid the reconstructive surgeon for the multiple sex-reassignment operations.

This cuts both ways. Gays had better stop talking about "Gay Pride" unless they want to tacitly concede that sexual orientation is a choice, as opposed to a genetic characteristic.

Now, perhaps I'm being a tad linguistically rigid here. It occurs to me that some people might be using pride as a refutation of shame. This alchemy produces "Gay Pride" from the base metal of "Lack of Shame at Being Gay." But is that really what people are trying to communicate? "I'm Not Ashamed to be an American"? What kind of statement is that?

Maybe (and this is what I think) people derive their pride from the achievements of other individuals that shared the innate characteristic being celebrated. "Proud to be an American" really means "Many Americans have done great things, and I'm an American, too, so I'm proud by transitivity!"

That transitivity is a very interesting phenomenon. It requires a willingness to vicariously take ownership of acts that were perpetrated by others to whom you're somehow related. It's a slippery slope.

I would bet that the vast majority of people whose SUVs sport "Proud to be an American" (or, even worse, "Power of Pride") bumper stickers are opposed to the idea of reparations for slavery. But this, too, is an idea that requires the very same willingness to vicariously take ownership of acts that were perpetrated by others -- in this case, one's slaveowning ancestors. Suddenly, transitivity seems like a bad idea.

So, you can't trumpet your pride in being American unless you're ready to pay back the descendants of any slaves that your ancestors owned.

It will be a happy day when both flipsides of this moronic coin vanish from public discourse entirely.


URaunt said...

Early in my present relationship we had an interesting discussion over the phrase "Pride goeth before a fall."
I, having been indoctrinated at an early age in one of the many Protestant variations, interpreted "Pride" as one of the seven deadly sins and therefore the phrase meant that feelings of arrogance and conceit led inevitably to one's downfall.
He, on the other hand, believed in your #1 definition of Pride, and interpreted the phrase to mean that if you lost your conviction of personal merit you were doomed to fail.
It took some persuading on his part, but now I really prefer his take on it.
I enjoy asking people who will discuss such things what the phrase means to them. It makes for interesting discussions and gives one instant insight into self image among other personal emotional qualities.

Owen T. Cunningham said...

I was about to say that it would be interesting to see how the original Hebrew phrased it; the ambiguity of the word "goeth" (which could be interpreted to mean "departeth" or "manifesteth") is the key to interpretation. However, Wikipedia has come to the rescue: Looks like your original Protestant interpretation was the intended one. On the other hand, this advice comes from the Bible, so who gives a shit, really?