This is from an excellent op-ed article in The New York Times. Titled The High-Five Nation, it discusses something that I often notice – the complete lack of humility in much of American society. Everyone who aspires to be thought of as a Southern Gentleman should read this and examine his own actions to make sure he is not guilty of this. Here are some key points from the article; take a few moments to read the entire piece:
(referring to the end of WW2) …But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity. And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches. “All anybody can do is thank God it’s over,” Bing Crosby, the show’s host, said. “Today our deep down feeling is one of humility,” he added.
This subdued sentiment seems to have been widespread during that season of triumph. On the day the Nazi regime fell, Hal Boyle of The Associated Press reported from the front lines, “The victory over Germany finds the average American soldier curiously unexcited. There is little exuberance, little enthusiasm and almost none of the whoop-it-up spirit with which hundreds of thousands of men looked forward to this event a year ago.”
The Dallas Morning News editorialized, “President Truman calls upon us to treat the event as a solemn occasion. Its momentousness and its gravity are past human comprehension.”
And there was something else. When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.
But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.
Everything that starts out as a cultural revolution ends up as capitalist routine. Before long, self-exposure and self-love became ways to win shares in the competition for attention. Muhammad Ali would tell all cameras that he was the greatest of all time. Norman Mailer wrote a book called “Advertisements for Myself.”
Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. To scoop up just a few examples of self-indulgent expression from the past few days, there is Joe Wilson using the House floor as his own private “Crossfire”; there is Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards to give us his opinion that the wrong person won; there is Michael Jordan’s egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech. Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration, you don’t even notice it anymore.
It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.