The Limits of Humility: Obama’s Well-Judged Acceptance

The Limits of Humility: Obamas Well-Judged Acceptance

It wasn’t Barack Obama’s fault that the Nobel committee awarded him the Peace Prize, and it needs little imagination — looking at the first reactions to the honor in the U.S., which were hardly positive — to believe that the award was one that he would rather not have had granted. But granted it was, and Obama had to say something about it. Without being showy or dynamic, his brief speech in the White House rose garden did the job.

Obama said that he was both “surprised and humbled” by the award, and there’s no reason whatsoever to think that he wasn’t. But that word “humbled” is an interesting one to think about. Humility is a virtue — except when it isn’t. We think of it as one of the attributes that make up a certain quiet acceptance of one’s lot, even saintliness — think of Pope John XXIII. At the same time, what the books call false humility — the act of constantly saying how unworthy one is, which is a not-so-subtle way of provoking someone else to exclaim, “Oh! But you are!” is one of the most annoying of all character traits. Uriah Heep, the creeping, upsucking piece of dogsh-t in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield — forever telling everyone how ‘umble he is — must be one of the most loathsome figures in world literature.

Another distinction: we may want our national leaders to be personally humble, just as we would like them to be kind, generous, and take out the cat litter each night. But we do not really want them to be politically humble. Passivity and resignation in the face of challenge may, in some religious belief systems, represent an admirable surrender to the will of the Almighty. But we do not elect leaders to be monks. We want them to do things. The world leader who actually is a monk, the Dalai Lama, never stops doing things for his Tibetan people and for others; he donated the money that went with his own peace Prize to Mother Teresa, hunger-relief in Africa, and a university dedicated to peace in Costa Rica.

Indeed, the world is full of examples of leaders who, quite genuinely, had humility as a goal, until events forced them to abandon it. In his election debates with Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush said that the U.S. should act as a “humble nation,” the better to win the support of others for its policies. Sounded great. But Bush’s commitment to be an international shrinking violet did not survive the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and nor should it have done. What the U.S. and the world, wanted and needed in response to 9/11 was not quiet contemplation; it was noisy vitality.

That is why Obama’s acceptance of the award as a “call to action” was well judged. Let’s be honest — as he was: he hasn’t earned the Nobel prize yet. If he does one day live up to the citation in the award, it will be because he was the opposite of humble: because he braved the enmity of some of his supporters by dedicating himself to peace between Israel and Palestine; because he backed his words against nuclear weapons proliferation with action to stop it; because he reminded Americans, with John Donne, that no man is an island, and that poverty, despair and hunger anywhere diminishes and indeed threatens those who are not poor, not hopeless, and not hungry. Humility is fine, in the quiet of Obama’s room, with his family, in private. But not in his public life: the life that he shares with all of us; the one to which we convey, for his allotted span as the most important political figure in the world, our aspirations for the future.
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