On Vanity and Pride and Bragging

All is Vanity
Painting by Charles Gilbert (1873-1929)

Praising oneself (or one’s children) inordinately is something that is frequently practiced but never condoned. All the sacred sources that I could find, religious and secular, with the only possible exception of Ayn Rand, condemn the practice. “Pride cometh before the Fall,” or words to that effect, expresses the professed attitudes. Our language generally implies a negative evaluation of “braggarts,” of “vanity,” “vainglory,” and “boasting,” with positive evaluations of the “unassuming” and the “modest.” But practice, as I said, is often different.

The question is, in a world that depends so much on selling and buying (of goods and esteem), could we do entirely without just a bit of exaggeration, say just now and then ? When I want to sell, say, a new automobile, can I say that what I have to offer is just about as good, or maybe a little inferior, to the wares of my competitors ? American law allows “puffery” in advertising, defined as an exaggeration that no reasonable person will take literally, but it does not allow misrepresentation, which, presumably, may mislead. Some “exaggeration,” when it does not mislead, is something we seem to have accepted and are willing to live with. (Of course outside the sphere of advertising legality, or even within it, the line between “puffery” and misrepresentation may often be far from clear.)

Granted that bragging is something we all do to some extent some of the time, at least three important questions present themselves. First there is the extent, insistence, and sheer volume of claims made at any one time. A second question is how customary or expected an incident may be, considering community standards. Finally, there is the question of the veracity of the claims. I am mostly interested in claims that are 1) insistent and shrill; 2) relatively rare, i.e. not customary in the given circumstances, and 3) essentially lacking in veracity. (Lawyers might see a three-prong test here for what is flagrant bragging.)

Disclaimer: My observations and conclusions are not based on systematic research. Nor have I been able to find such systematic research in the literature, pace Erving Goffman and his school of “ethnomethodology.”

The Groves of Academe

To some extent, self-promotion by academics is as necessary as self-promotion in any other field. It’s hard to imagine a scholar advancing in his own field — receiving necessary research grants, obtaining good graduate students, achieving promotions in the academic ladder, etc. — if he does not spend a certain amount of time informing others of his accomplishments. As long as the interactions take place among peers, who can be assumed to understand the difference between meaningful accomplishment and embroidery, there is little opportunity for vainglory. But when self-promotion is directed to people outside academia proper, the door opens to claims that are no longer veracious, or are, at least, borderline veracious.

Before the internet, it was difficult to see who does the unacceptable bragging. Information tended to remain local, or confined to small circles of insiders. But now, when so many professors have their own websites, the braggarts — for better or worse — can be observed far and wide. I will give just one case study to illustrate what can go wrong. Although I don’t cite the name of the individual, the details are all based on the information given by the person’s websites.

Professor X. is at a large denominational university. He is the chair of his department and he also holds other administrative posts at his university. He has at least three websites, which, in addition to the more customary material of such sites, also feature

a. “downloadable publicity shots of Dr.[X]”
b. the claim that he is frequently consulted by the media on matters of public interest
c. the claim that he has had “conversations” with a former president of the United States
d. his schedule of occasional lectures at other universities now and in the future. (One such appearance, claimed by X to have been a “Keynote Address” to a learned society was listed on the website of that society as no more than an address.)
e. the fact that one of his books had “forwards” (sic) by two well-known (but controversial) men
f. testimonials of his work by a number of well-known (but controversial) public figures
g. laudatory descriptions of these public figures
h. details of X’s travels in various parts of the world
i. nomination for a prize that he did not ultimately receive
j. lavish self praise (“Professor X’s work extends beyond the … analysis usually offered by the media to encompass the essence of spiritual evolution…”)

This material, as I see it, adds up to the portrait of a flagrant academic braggart, using the three-prong test that I have suggested:

1. There is high “volume;” the claims are shrill, insistent, numerous
2. The claims, taken together, do not seem customary in academia
3. They lack veracity, at least by implication. Professor X. claims, by implication, that praise by the cited well-known personages is relevant to his own scholarly merit. Of course other scholars in his field cannot be misled by such claims, so to them the claims may be no more than “puffery,” material that reasonable men will ignore. But Professor X. addresses himself, by his own insistence, to people outside the scholarly community. When addressing this larger audience, Professor X’s claims lack veracity.

Professor X is a braggart, flagrantly so.

The Synagogue World

I know very little about Orthodox and Reform synagogues. I have been a member and guest at a number of Conservative groups over the years, and find, when it comes to a bar or bat mitsvah, that every one of these youngsters, to believe the rabbi, is always the brightest, the best, the most learned, the most selfless of all creatures. The volume of this praise is high and the veracity, obviously, is low. But here is the problem: this bragging seems customary in the Conservative community. Which community standards should be operative: that of the Conservative world, or that of the larger community ? In other words, is this synagogue practice an instance of flagrant bragging ?

I will end my little disquisition on boasting on this uncertain note, just to prove my own modesty: I don’t have all the answers.

It is clear that flagrant bragging, as the Parsonian sociologists used to say, serves important “functions.” The world would certainly be different without it. But I myself think that it is at least useful to identify bragging, especially flagrant bragging, because the practice impinges so importantly on the ethic of truth. Even if we do not wish to be “moralistic” and condemn bragging (God forbid !), we should at least know the difference between a braggart’s account and that of someone more restrained by the truth.

Sabeel and Halper and Ellis

A group of Christian anti-Israel people, “Sabeel,” has the support of two Jewish opponents of Israel in this video: Mr. Jeff Halper of Israel, and Mr. Marc Ellis of the United States. To hear Mr. Ellis’s noteworthy oration, be sure to watch the video to its bitter end. For material on the American friends of Sabeel, see an earlier posting.

Ellis is employed by Baylor University. He has descriptions of himself as professor there and also as provost. He has furnished yet another description for his post as Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. All stress his many accomplishments, and give details of the praise he has received from famous men like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. There are also “downloadable publicity shots of Dr. Marc H. Ellis.” A more critical appraisal of him is furnished by Steven Plaut.

Update, 9/9/09: Read Plaut’s new material about Ellis, Tony Judt, etc.

Truths and Lies — The Language of Hate, ct’d.

Pravda [‘The Truth’], Central Organ, Communist Party of the Soviet Union


“Werner, you LIE,” a gentleman screamed at me, at everyone, at a faculty meeting some years ago. The screamer was someone I had known for years, and our children were friends. But he was a leftist, and I was not, and he didn’t like my opinions on an issue that he construed as political.

I must say that I was startled even though I knew then as I know now that to extremists anyone who disagrees tends to be a “liar.” Professor Noam Chomsky has been pleased to call me a “liar” and a “pathological liar,” both in print and in private correspondence. The accusation that an enemy is a “liar” is also commonplace in Nazi and Communist propaganda. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf speaks of Jews as liars as if that is no more than to be expected (p. 324 in the Manheim translation). Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Bolshevik Communism in this respect as in so many others, speaks of the “renegade Kautsky” as not only stupid and venal but also, and not least, a liar. (“The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,” originally published in 1918, is available, for instance, in The Lenin Anthology, ed. by Robt. C. Tucker, 1975).

Seldom are there mistaken opinions in the world of extremism; opinions tend to be either “correct” or outright lies. In the current debates on the Iraq war, the Left has concluded that “Bush Lied, People Died.” Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post has pointed out the factual difficulties with this proposition, but whatever the factual basis or lack thereof, complex political questions, to people who are not extremists, can seldom be reduced to a simple question of truth versus lie.

Martin Luther in 1520.
Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder


Before Hitler and Lenin, even before Professor Noam Chomsky, it was Martin Luther who castigated those he hated as “liars;” Chomsky and these others can justly be considered latter-day Lutherans in this respect.

Luther’s 1543 work “On the Jews and their Lies” is described as follows in Wikipedia:

In the treatise, Luther writes that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.”[1] They are full of the “devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,”[2] and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut …”[3] He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness,[4] afforded no legal protection,[5] and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.[6] He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.”[7]

Most later commentators have pointed to a continuity from Luther’s thought to that of the Nazis and modern anti-Semitism, though there is, of course, a crucial difference: Luther did not not seem to have a concept of “race” in his animosity toward the Jews. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that there are anti-Semitic sites on the internet today that promote Luther’s book and make it available to the public.

But whatever the genealogy of modern anti-Semitism, which is not our concern here, it would seem that Luther — so influential in the development of modern Germanic languages — must be counted as one of the fathers of today’s use of “lie” and “truth” in the arsenal of vituperation.

This Lutheran use of the couplet “truth” and “lie” confounds two usages of the terms, both of which are common, but which are usually kept apart.

1. The most ordinary meaning of “truth — lie” is descriptive. “The dog ate my homework,” assuming he did not, is a lie. “I never did my homework,” assuming that in fact I did not, is the truth. I will call this the secular-rational meaning.

2. The second meaning of the couplet comes to us from sacred scripture. A clear example is in John 14-6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Here “truth” is not so much descriptive as it is an affirmation of faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, speaking to one another, might ask “how long have you been in the truth ?”. This is their way of asking for the length of adherence to the JW organization. ( Lynn D. Newton has compiled a glossary of Jehovah’s Witness in-speech.) Similarly, “lie” is not a statement that is contrary to fact but is rather an attribute of the devil:

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and standeth not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. (John 8-44)

This second meaning is religious, emotive, non-rational. There is no problem in understanding this usage in a religious context, which is its natural home. But the problem with the Marxists and other extremists is that they do not provide the context in their polemics to signal clearly their non-rational meanings in their use of “truth — lie.” It would seem that these polemicists and propagandists are not themselves aware of the confusion. Their world is made up of virtue and evil, as is that of the sacred scriptures, rather than of truth and untruth in any empirical sense. Such propagandists, even when professors at prestigious universities, seem to simply confound truth with virtue (as they see virtue), untruth with evil (as they construe evil). Their mental life is different from that of people who engage in rational debate.

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