Monday, August 31, 2015


Picture this: BeyoncĂ© wins yet another Grammy award.  In her acceptance speech she says “I am gorgeous, stunningly sexy, and extremely talented.”  She would obviously be telling no lies, but she would just as obviously come across as conceited, arrogant and offensive.   But if she says, “I’m blessed,” it would not reflect badly on her at all, even though, ironically, it’s a much more boastful claim!

“I’m blessed.”

On the surface, such a humble expression.  Meaning, “I didn’t really do anything to deserve all these wonderful things in my life, I’m just a humble person, but I have them because God loves me.  So I’m blessed.”

The problem is that the expression is actually the opposite of humble.  It’s arrogant and offensive.  I am by no means calling all those who use the expression arrogant and offensive, because I don’t think they necessarily intend to be anything but humble.  However, the expression itself is arrogant and offensive when taken to its logical conclusion, despite its utterer’s intentions.

As a non-believer, the expression has no place in my vocabulary.  However, those who use it are, by definition, believers in God.  So when a believer says, for example, that he’s “blessed” to have a wonderful life, he is stating that his life is wonderful because God chose to make it that way.  God chose to give him a wonderful life.  God chose to “bless” him, because God loves him.

So what about those whose lives are not so wonderful?  Have they been ignored by God?  Punished by God?  Does God not love them?  If you attribute something good in your life to God’s machinations, then necessarily something bad in someone else’s life must be also be attributed to his machinations, or else to his inaction.  So why did God choose to make your life wonderful?

The use of expressions like “I’m blessed” is similar to athletes thanking God  when they make a good play, or people in general suffixing descriptions of good things happening to them with “thank God,” such as answering “how are you” with “I’m doing very well, thank God.”  Again, humble on the surface, but arrogant when analyzed.

In the athlete’s case, let’s say we’re talking about a baseball player who hits a home run.  By thanking God, he is (inadvertently, to give him the benefit of the doubt) effectively stating that God likes him better than the pitcher who just served up the gopher ball.  And the person who appends “thank God” to expressions of good fortune is basically saying that God makes a point of taking care of him, as opposed to, presumably, others.  

Interestingly, I’ve never seen a batter blame God when he strikes out, or a person answer the question “how are you” by saying, “I’m having a terrible day, curse the Lord.”  But that obvious contradiction is the subject of another essay.

It seems natural to temper statements of personal wellness or good fortune with humility, lest we come across as conceited or entitled, or like we’re taking things for granted.  To say, for example, “I have wonderful children” would sound conceited without some added modesty.  Maybe words like “fortunately,” or “luckily,’ would properly express the fact that one does not necessarily feel worthy of one’s good fortune.  And I’m sure in most cases, people who say they are “blessed” intend to express the same humble sentiment.  But they don’t.  They express the opposite, and the expression grates on me every time I hear it.

To allow others to speak well of you and not boast about yourself is just plain good manners.  So, if you believe that God is the creator and manager of the entire universe, what can possibly be more boastful than to claim out loud that this unfathomably powerful and awe-inspiring entity has selected you to bestow its good fortune upon?

Talk about a humblebrag!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Absence of Genuine Leadership

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf didn’t understand why Donald Trump’s supporters expect the billionaire to treat them better as president than conventional politicians would.  So he wrote an article that meticulously explained why he feels otherwise, and invited Trump’s proponents to write in and spell out exactly why they trust Trump will do the right thing in Washington.  Friedersdorf promised to publish those notes that helped him understand Trump’s supporters’ motivations, which he did in a subsequent article.

The notes published by Friedersdorf are fascinating.  There are many explanations for Trump’s meteoric rise, many of them explicitly stated by his supporters and many others implicit, deduced only by carefully reading between the lines.  Trump has struck a chord among those (justifiably) distrustful of our government.  He appeals to those frustrated by political correctness run amok.  Many feel a successful businessman and shrewd negotiator will fare better as president than the career politicians that oppose him.  Others are entertained by Trump’s flamboyant candidacy, and look forward to being amused by him as president.  

Both of Friedesdorf’s articles are well worth reading, and the notes sent in by Trump’s supporters provide valuable context to his popularity.  But perhaps the most insightful explanation for Trump’s ascendance was written over twenty years ago by Aaron Sorkin, as a piece of dialog for 1995’s superb The American President.  Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox), speaking to President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas):

People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

No doubt, there is an absence of genuine leadership.  And Donald Trump is the sand.