Being A Superior Person

Friday, 15 January 2010 08:00

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 23, 2005. Three weeks later Naomi Klein, her husband Avi and her colleague Andrew drove around New Orleans to photograph the partially flooded city. As night fell they could not find their way out because none of the traffic lights worked, road signs were destroyed, and debris blocked the streets. They were involved in an accident, and Naomi found herself in an ambulance on her way to hospital. She hoped they were not heading to the partially flooded Charity Hospital where the staff struggled to look after their many patients without electricity or drugs.

Ochsner Medical Center where she did arrive was an oasis of calm, though brimming with staff looking for something to do. This was, of course, a private hospital where she was given every care. When she was leaving a medical intern gave her some painkillers and she asked him what the hospital had been like at the peak of the storm. He said that he hadn’t been there as he wasn’t on duty that day. She wrote,

When I asked if he had gone to any of the shelters to help, he seemed taken aback by the question and a little embarrassed. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. I quickly changed the subject to what I hoped was safer ground: the fate of the Charity Hospital. It was so underfunded it was barely functioning before the storm, and people were already speculating that with it might never reopen. “They’d better reopen it,” he said, “We can’t treat those people here.”

It occurred to me that this affable young doctor, and the spa-like medical care I had just received, were the embodiment of the culture that had made the horrors of Hurricane Katrina possible, the culture that had left New Orleans poorest people to drown. As a graduate of a private medical school and then an intern at a private hospital, he had been trained simply not to see New Orleans uninsured, overwhelmingly African–American residents as potential patients.1

No doubt the young doctor thought of himself as being a kindly, generous person. After all, he had joined one of the caring professions and not simply gone to Wall St to get rich. But somewhere in his childhood he had learned to think of himself as being special, a person of high intelligence, superior education, culture, in all, a superior person. The blacks, his inferiors, would have to fend for themselves.

It is unlikely that this doctor and all the people like him ever think, ‘I am superior.’ Rather, this belief is taken for granted, much in the way the belief, ‘I breathe’ is taken for granted. People can hold the belief in their intrinsic superiority while quite consciously believing that they are inadequate and unacceptable. Their belief in their intrinsic superiority might reveal itself in their racist or homophobic attitudes and actions, or the way they make sure they never encounter those they see as their inferiors.

So intrinsic and pervasive is their belief in their superiority to everything they do that they never pause to question the grounds on which they claim superiority. If pressed, they might name the particular attributes that create their superiority, but be reluctant to present arguments to support their view because there are so many arguments to the contrary. Here are some examples:

  1. I am a superior person because I am so powerful.
    Power, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. If your family, your employees, the voters, the military, or your congregation see you as being powerful, you are powerful. However, people can change their minds, and with that your power vanishes. Your family might decide to laugh at you, your employees decide to ignore your orders, voters no longer vote for you, the faithful desert you. The executioner might sever your head with an axe, or hang you from a meat hook, or perhaps the pomp and ceremony that used to demonstrate your power becomes no more than a spectacle for the tourists while the media make mockery of your family.
  2. I am a superior person because I am very intelligent.
    Your IQ might be at a genius level but a high IQ is not a contra-indication of stupidity. It is possible to perform at high levels in, say, music and mathematics, but no one does well in everything.
  3. I am a superior person because I am very well educated.
    Whatever education we receive, it is based upon our particular society. Whatever we learn might be of no use or benefit in a different society. Oxbridge graduates sent to govern the colonies were hugely incompetent because they refused to learn about the societies they were governing. Any attempt to learn was condemned as ‘going native’. What happened in Iraq after the Bush Blair invasion followed the same pattern. John Agresto was the former president of St John’s College in New Mexico, and was appointed by the Bush administration to remake Iraq’s system of higher education from scratch. It was, he said, ‘the opportunity for a clean start.’ He admitted that he knew nothing about Iraq. Had he set out to learn, he would have discovered that, before the sanctions were applied, ‘Iraq had the best education system in the region, with the highest literacy rates in the Arab world – in 1985, 89 percent of Iraqis were literate. By contrast, in Agresto’s home state of New Mexico, 46 percent of the population were functionally illiterate.’2
  4. I am a superior person because I come from a very distinguished and important family.
    Having distinguished and important ancestors does not necessarily mean that you are distinguished and important. When George Bernard Shaw was at the height of his fame an actress renowned for her great beauty suggested to him that they have a baby. ‘Imagine a child with your brains and my beauty,’ she said. ‘Ah, yes,’ he replied, ‘but what if the baby had your brains and my beauty?’
  5. I am a superior person because I am very wealthy.
    Neither inheriting wealth nor winning the lottery is a sign of talent of any kind. Discovering or inventing something that is useful and beneficial can indicate a certain intelligence and creativity, but what follows can reveal all the arrogance and greed of robber barons and unscrupulous capitalists who make money out of the labour of over-worked and underpaid people. The many books that have been written about various aspects of the global economic crisis have revealed that many, perhaps most of the men who work in highly paid jobs in the financial centres see money as the sole purpose of their life. To them how much money they make is the measure of their worth as a person. Hence their anxiety about the size of their bonuses. They might spend their money on mansions, fast cars, planes and works of art, but they buy them, not to enjoy, but to demonstrate their wealth and thus their worth. They seem to be unaware that their possessions reveal a terrible impoverishment of the spirit. They are meagre caricatures of what it is to be a human being, unable to enjoy the wonders and splendours of the world.
  6. I am a superior person because my country is the greatest in the world.
    This delusion is often accompanied by the belief that God favours their country over all others. The Zionists’ claim that God gave the Jews the land of Palestine is used by some Israelis to justify the terrible suffering they inflict on the Palestinians, while many Serbians believe that it is against God’s will that Kosovo be an independent country. In countries that have enjoyed military and commercial success many of the inhabitants see such success as evidence that, because they are virtuous, God has rewarded them. Such a view requires an extensive ignorance of the country’s history. It is only comparatively recently that the UK government has included in the history syllabus in schools a detailed account of how Britain’s wealth was based on the country’s slave trade. After 9/11 many Americans expressed their puzzlement that there were people who hated America. In her book The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein summarised Stephen Kinzer’s study of US involvement in regime change operations.3She wrote,

    First, a US-based multinational corporation faces some threat to its bottom line by the actions of a foreign government demanding that the company ‘pay taxes or that it observes labor laws or environmental laws. Sometimes the company is nationalised or is somehow required to sell some of its land or its assets,’ Kinzer says. Second, US politicians hear of this corporate setback and reinterpet it as an attack on the United States. ‘They transfer the motivation from an economic one into a political or geo-strategic one. They make the assumption that any regime that would bother an American company or harass an American company must be anti-American, repressive, dictatorial and probably the tool of some foreign power that wants to undermine the United States.’ The third stage happens when the politicians have to sell the need for intervention to the public, at which point it becomes a broadly drawn struggle of good versus evil, ‘a chance to free a poor, oppressed nation from the brutality of a regime that we assume is a dictatorship, because what other kind of regime would be bothering would be bothering an American country?’ Much of US foreign policy, in other words, is a mass projection, in which a tiny, self-interested elite conflates its needs and desires with those of the entire world.4

    In his history of the CIA, A Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner told how the CIA was actively involved throughout its existence in assaults on those countries whose rulers had offended American corporations.

  7. I am a superior person because I hold religious beliefs and therefore am especially virtuous.
    Virtue resides in what we do. Having certain ideas in your head does not make you especially anything. It is what you do with those ideas that matters. Tony Blair when PM was particularly sincere about what he called his ‘faith’. Then he lied and told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and for that reason Britain would invade Iraq.
  8. I am a superior person because I know what is best for other people.
    We all have ideas about what is good for people and what is bad for people. Here I am writing about why believing that you are superior to others is not a good idea. However, there is a difference between having a general notion of what might be best, and being absolutely certain that you know how things will turn out for everyone. If people do what you tell them, reality will be exactly what you want it to be. This is nonsense. Reality never conforms exactly to our wishes, and no one knows what the future has in store. If Margaret Thatcher had really known what was best for everyone, she would have known that deregulating the City, as she did, would inevitably lead to the present global economic crisis.

When we are small children we learn many of the basic truths about the world. We learn that it is impossible to predict the future exactly. We also learn that we are inadequate, often helpless, and that other people might reject us. Feeling weak and unacceptable, we look for some kind of defence. If the adults around us suggest to us that we are superior (‘Don’t play with those black children,’ ‘Our country is the greatest country in the world’) we can seize on this supposed superiority to hide the weakness we feel inside. Being superior shows that you are not insignificant, a nothing.

To be superior you have to find some people to be superior to. Having decided who your inferiors are, you have to keep yourself separate from them in case you discover that you are not as superior as you thought you were. Thus you never get to know them. Not knowing them, you become frightened of them. To protect yourself from those you fear you attack them. You treat them cruelly.

And thus George Bush did not send help to the poor in New Orleans to save them from the flood waters, and the kindly intern stayed at home the night of the hurricane.

1. The Shock Doctrine Penguin, London, 2008, p.407.

2. ibid p.338.

3. Stephen Kinzer Overthrow, 2006, interview Democracy Now! April 21, 2006 www.democracynow.org

4. Klein p.309

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 05:55