There is a show on SBS from PBS in the US. It is a news service started by Jim Lehrer and another. It features a weekly news analysis by Mark Shields and David Brooks. I have been a big fan of this segment for about fifteen years. There is nothing like it here or in England. Mark Shields is with The Boston Globe and has a Democrat leaning (and had been an enlisted man, as had Jim Lehrer) and David Brooks is at The New York Times, and has a Republican leaning. What they do not know about politics does not matter, but more importantly each is a gentleman and a man of compassion – and intellect.
David Brooks has just written another book, The Road to Character, which I have just started to read. He says that there are CV virtues – what you have achieved, and eulogy virtues – your character. The trick is to get the balance in favour of what counts – character.
But we are getting it wrong. We are in the age of the BIG ME. Brooks has an anecdote. While driving home, he listened to a radio program Command Performance. It was broadcast the day after VJ day. All the big hitters like Sinatra, Dietrich and Cary Grant were there. What struck Brooks was the prevailing mood of self-effacement. Bing Crosby – and they did not come any bigger than him – summed up the mood. ‘Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.’
Brooks sat and listened to the end of the program and then went inside. He turned on the TV. A wide-receiver was tackled for a two yard gain. The defence went into a self-puffing victory dance. ‘It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.’
It is a great story. I wrote a book called The Humility of Knowledge, but we do not speak of humility any more. If you said someone was humble, he might belt you. People do not do humility – especially big-noters or big-hitters. So, instead of saying that someone is humble, which might get you something between a leer and a sneer, we just say that they are not a big-noter. Just compare Rod Laver to any current Oz tennis player.
On pages 8 and 9, as far as I have got, we get the following. ‘Humility is freedom from the need to prove that you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space – self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.’ He quotes an Archbishop of Canterbury, and a psychologist who referred to an ‘almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.’ (I do not know whether he cited Socrates.) Montaigne said: ‘We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.’ That should be in neon lights in all professional and government rooms in this country. Brooks says:
That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.
That, if I may say so, is wisdom.
Brooks gives some scary indicators of the BIG ME. Middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jesus Christ came second – between Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton. That is enough to make anyone sick.
I read that just before lunch, during which I read in the AFR about Marissa Mayer. She is on any view a big hitter and a big noter. She is the CEO of Yahoo and collects about $60 million US a year. The article says that ‘she blazed a trail in the US in 2012 by giving birth while holding the top job.’ She is now expecting twin girls at the age of 40. She said: ‘I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago….and will be working throughout.’ She will not take Yahoo’s 16 weeks paid maternity leave.
I brought up two girls with their mother and it is the hardest thing I’ve done.
Do you think Marissa Mayer would understand the word ‘humility’? Do you think that her daughters will be glad that she puts CV character so far above eulogy character?