How Hubris Hurts:My keynote address to the Mid-American Model United Nations

Welcome once again to the Mid American Model United Nations. As we begin our 23rd conference, I am honored to be able to address such a great group of students, teachers, and staff.

It’s not that I really need any reminders about how long I’ve been doing this, but as I look out at the audience and see my grandson, I realize that at last there’s a reminder about my age that I look forward to seeing.

Last year when I addressed this Assembly, I praised the work of the teachers who take the time to bring you here. I pointed out that as our state government continues to assault public education, the challenges to staying involved in MAMUN and other extra-curriculars will only increase for teachers. I’m sad to say that in the last year, all of my worst fears about the future of public education continued to come true and I now hold my breath each time I realize how fragile our education system in this state really is.

As I stand here before representatives of the world’s nations, I can’t help see how some of the problems around the world are worthy metaphors for what’s going on in real life politics here in our state. As members of the United Nations, we have all agreed to honor the rights of individual nations to form their own government and to control their own internal affairs. It’s not just lip-service. It is one of the fundamental principles of our organization.

At the same time, member states surely disapprove of how many other countries conduct their affairs. This disapproval ranges from pesky annoyances to activity that is completely unacceptable at any cost. While direct intervention in these affairs are rare, and usually come at a huge cost in both money and lives, nations often try in other ways to change the behavior of countries with which it disagrees. Not all of these measures are overtly coercive. There can be positive incentives for nations to comply with international norms. Trade, credit, grants, etc., can all be used to bring a wayward nation back into the fold.

When being nice fails, nations can choose to use the United Nations Security Council for sanctions and even military intervention in order to force its opponents to comply. Short of Security Council approval, nations can still take matters into their own hands and intervene, hoping to sort out the international law issues later.

But throughout all of this, there remains a tacit tolerance for the variety of governments, cultures, religions, etc that spread out across our globe. Hindus might wish their neighbors were a little less Muslim; Capitalists might wish economic and strategic opponents where a little less socialist, Muslims might wish the western cultures weren’t so darn pushy when it comes to spreading culture…and on and on. But ultimately most nations understand that you can’t make everyone look like you, worship like you, speak like you, etc.

Every once in a while, however, a nation rises in prominence due to any number of factors. New technology, great leadership, a willingness to exploit other people all can contribute to the building of an empire. Throughout history, we have seen many of these empires come and go. They build enormous wealth and power, defeating their opponents, sometimes without even firing a shot. The less advantaged simply assess that it is easier to capitulate than it is to fight. Regardless of whatever horrors have been used to gain their power, the empire inevitably comes to believe that it has some monopoly on what is “right” and what is “just.” So genocide, slavery, plunder and the like become simple things to explain away…necessary costs toward a much more glorious end.

Then, like the famous athlete who awakens each morning to a newspaper and an internet filled with praise for his latest exploits, empires begin to believe their own press clippings. They come to believe in their invincibility and the appropriateness of just about anything they do. Great athletes have great privilege. Great nations have great histories. When something comes along that doesn’t fit the image that has been created for them (or even by them) the athlete and the great nation have no tools to see the error of their ways. This is hubris and it is nearly inescapable for any person or any country or any political party that has come to believe that even reluctant support from opponents is a license to behave in any manner they wish.

At the height of its empire, the British were glorified by their legions of authors, playwrights, and poets. People were actually led to believe that the plundering of Africa and Asia by the British was a calling from God! Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” and other glorifications of “Manifest Destiny” are about all the evidence you need to see how hubris had consumed the consciousness of the British Empire. It’s easier to see now that the British are no longer the mighty empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, how much horror was brought to cultures around the world in the name of British hubris.

I think similar observations could be made about the Soviet and American empires of the 20th century. The greatness achieved by these nations came at the expense of many millions who were enslaved and exploited. On American plantations and on Soviet collectives people with no say in how their labor would be used, helped build economic giants who each came to believe they had a monopoly on what was right and what was just. And their hubris nearly brought a nuclear holocaust to our planet.

Neither side could see how an independent nation could ever believe its Cold War opponent was anything less than evil. Such are the trappings of hubris when your mind is closed to the possibility that you are not, in fact, driven by the purest intentions.

On a smaller scale, we are seeing this same sort of hubris in our state. When one political party comes to believe in the complete righteousness of its programs, it becomes incapable of seeing the costs of its failures. When teachers are demonized and unions are blamed for every ill in both the economy and in education, it can only be because of the hubris of the politicians making these claims. If you are not capable of considering that the things you are pursuing might not, in fact, be in the best interests of the people, you are doomed to long-term failure. And you’ll be bringing your society down with you.

Author Peter Beinhart compares the hubris of nations to the hubris of Icarus as he begins to master the wings of wax and feathers his father had crafted for him. A cautious start as a flyer is replaced by exhilaration as Icarus learns that he can, in fact, fly higher than his father told him he should. In his self confidence he fails to notice the wax melting and the feathers falling from his wings until it’s too late. As he crashes into the ocean to his death, no amount of hubris can keep him airborne.

Beihnart warns Americans that “it is only when we abandon our false innocence and unearned pride that we can look around at the bits of feathers and wax that still surround us, and begin, carefully, to build wings.”

The lessons of Icarus apply to many. They certainly apply to nations who are trying to carve out a legacy in this world. They certainly apply to political parties in power who are trying to mold our state into the great place it once used to be. And, yes, they even apply here at MAMUN as delegates begin the long process of trying to find compromise and solutions to vexing problems. If you bring hubris to the negotiating table, your work here is certain to end in failure. If, on the other hand, you reject your false innocence and your unearned pride and look around at each other as equals in the world arena, perhaps you can in fact gather enough wax and feathers to craft solutions that will have us soaring into the next generation.

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2 Comments on “How Hubris Hurts:My keynote address to the Mid-American Model United Nations”

  1. Brian Blackney March 18, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    Nicely written, nicely delivered. Very timely regarding the application of history to the present. Thanks for the information and inspiration.

  2. Richard Scott March 20, 2013 at 12:55 am #

    Hubris is important and an important character trait in Greek history. I think if it as either an individual or a group holding themselves opposing the gods. Poor Icarus, the Callow youth… His ambition and pride led to his fall. Nations fall when they have faith that they have the right to be godlike…the ultimate hubris

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