For the Children

Humble Pie in Short Supply

January 28, 2017

Multiple Pages
Humble Pie in Short Supply

On 30 March, 1933, the great German recorder of daily life under the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer, noticed a balloon in a toy shop inscribed with a swastika. In my newspaper on 14 January, 2017, I noticed a photograph of a girl aged 8 years old (I should estimate) holding up a banner at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., with the words I am kind, smart and important inscribed on it.

Analogies are never exact, of course, and are easily exaggerated or otherwise misused. The differences between a toy shop in Nazi Germany and a women’s march in Washington are so numerous, obvious, and striking that it is hardly necessary for me to enumerate them. Suffice it to say that I am allergic (metaphorically) to the use of children for the dissemination of political messages, even when the message is one with which I agree. I think it is a form of child abuse, an example of children as a means and not as an end. Poor old Kant would turn in his grave.

The first thing to say about Mr. Trump—against whom the women voluntarily (and children involuntarily) were demonstrating—is that he seems to be doing what is unforgivable in a democratic politician, for it will make life difficult for all the others who come after him: He is keeping, or trying to keep, his election promises. Could anything better prove his complete lack of probity?

“Does anyone who is kind and clever hold up a banner to the effect that he is kind and clever?”

Now, of course, this does not in the least prove that what he is doing is right, prudent, wise, or moral: One can, after all, make a bad promise and keep it. The fact that you are keeping a promise does not establish that what you are doing is right. If I promise to punch you on the nose and do punch you on the nose, I cannot use my promise as a moral or legal justification for my action.

But let us return to the abused child in the newspaper photograph. I am sure it was intended to warm the cockles of what pass for the newspaper readers’ hearts. She was a pretty little girl well wrapped up against the cold—a little angel, in fact. And how could such an innocent as she hold aloft anything that was other than sweet and generous and, above all, correct?

However, the words inscribed on her banner were such as Uriah Heep himself might have blushed to pronounce: I am kind, smart and important. They are thoroughly odious for a number of reasons, and the parent who devised them for her child to display to the world should be at the very least ashamed of herself (for the words seem to me more likely to have been those of the mother than of the father). These days we teach self-congratulation early; and far from learning that self-praise is no praise at all, children are now taught that self-praise is the highest form possible.

The object of this new teaching is, I suppose, to prevent that most frightful and supposedly damaging of all modern psychological conditions, that of a lack of self-esteem. From being insufficiently puffed-up about oneself all kinds of dire consequences are supposed to flow, from repeatedly choosing the wrong mate to failure to progress in one’s career.

Self-esteem, however, is self-evidently an unpleasant quality, akin if not identical to conceit. Some of the most unpleasant people I have ever known were full of it, and in my experience it is perfectly possible for people to behave like monsters and still have a very high conception of themselves. Indeed, self-esteem is dangerous as a positive invitation to appalling behavior, insofar as it is not derived from any effort, achievement, or good conduct, but is self-awarded as an inalienable right like that to a fair trial.

Does anyone who is kind and clever hold up a banner to the effect that he is kind and clever? To give a child lessons in moral narcissism is a dismal thing to do, as the Oysters said to the Walrus and the Carpenter who were just about to eat them. True, the child did not frame the words on her banner herself, but she was quite old enough to know that something complimentary had been written about her for the whole world to see.

As to being important, there is a very limited sense in which this was true. But a person who went round proclaiming, “I am important, I am important” would seem to us either pathetic, as if he were whistling in the wind of his own complete insignificance, or, if he used his supposed importance to push his way to the front of a line, say, in order to be served before everyone else, very unpleasant indeed.

We are all important in an existential sense, that is to say in the sense that is meant by the religious—or should I say, by certain of the religious?—who claim that God loves us. But if we are each of us important in this existential sense, none of us is more important than anyone else, and therefore we do not have to proclaim our importance in this sense, nor ought we to. And no one, I think, would ever have claimed that the little girl was unimportant in the existential sense.

Now, clearly, from the empirical point of view, there are people who are more important than others according to circumstances. Barack Obama is now much less important in this empirical sense than he was two years ago. Your doctor is very important to you when you are ill, but much less important when you are not, whereupon your butcher, baker, or accountant takes over. But again, even when a person is important in the empirical sense, we do not find it very attractive, to put it mildly, if he proclaims his own importance.       
The little girl at the demonstration in Washington proves that Dickens exaggerated nothing when he created the character of Mr. Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit. Introducing his daughters to Mrs. Todgers (who embraces them “with affection beaming in one eye, and calculation shining out of the other”), Mr. Pecksniff says, “Mercy and Charity, Charity and Mercy. Not unholy names, I hope?”

In like fashion, the little girl’s mother says, via her daughter, “Kind and smart, smart and kind. Not unattractive qualities, I hope—and hereditary, too!”

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