A world in need of humility

A world in need of humility

The presidents of Pakistan and South Korea need to exercise more humility, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Los Angeles --- The practice of sincere humility, especially by the high-flying, is not particularly in fashion these days. But it is precisely during economic and political tension that more frequent and fervent expressions of it might serve to smooth over some tough spots.

After all, being truly humble can serve to downsize egos that otherwise will uproot minor molehills and mushroom them into major mountain ranges; pure egomania may be the cause of as many crisis escalations as root causes.

"Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues; hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance." That insight came from St. Augustine more than 1,500 years ago, but the thought applies with a vice-like grip today to those who act as if they are inherently more important than the rest of us earthlings -- or who feel entitled to living their life out as royalty when so many people all over the world are scraping to maintain even a simple roof over their serf-like heads.

Prime example number one: I give you Pervez Musharraf.

As a Muslim, Pakistan's president isn't about to sink his teeth very deeply into his St. Augustine. But he can look to the Koran for guidance on humility. Here is one thought (25:64): "The true servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth humbly, and when the ignorant address them, they avoid them gracefully by saying, 'Peace'!"

But this career military man seized the presidency in 1999 and doesn't want to give it back, no matter what anyone says, including the Pakistani people. Two main reasons lie behind this arrogance. One is that Musharraf believes his wisdom as president is essential to Pakistan's future. The second reason is that U.S. President George W. Bush believes that Musharraf's presidency is essential to America's future.

This latter assessment ought to be enough to shake everyone's belief, even Musharraf's! In fact, fewer and fewer Pakistanis agree with Bush; they want their president to go. This puts them at odds with the U.S., which once again props up a strong-man in a foreign country against the wishes of the people who live there.

But Washington always knows what's best for others, right?

Example number two: I give you Lee Myung-bak. As a Presbyterian, the new president of South Korea can dip into the New Testament for thoughts on the humility issue. He urgently needs to review such teachings: Before taking office earlier this year, he was known in the private sector as "the bulldozer" for his 'my-way-or-highway' style. Those who had to work with him affirm the extreme validity of the tractor-moniker description.

But what gets by in the industrialized private sector -- especially in the rough-and-tumble environment of a gigantic Korean chaebol -- doesn't always fly in the public arena. Just months after his landslide victory, Mr. Bulldozer hit the brick wall of negative public opinion. South Koreans want policies explained, not rammed; they want a humbler leader, not the second coming of an old-style dictator common to Korea prior to 1987.

Earlier this week streets in central Seoul were filled with countless Koreans protesting Lee's decision to resume imports of U.S. meat products. Their beef is that THOSE American exports may not be safe enough to eat. The lifting of the Korean ban on such imports was part of a package deal called the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. But now the U.S. Congress doesn't want to pass it, and the South Korean government, given all the protests, may not even want to touch it any more. For his part, President Lee is calling for a morning calm of national unity while promising, for the first time, to be "humble before the people's voices." Interesting

Here's prime example number three: Americans who are foreclosing on multi-million-dollar homes because they can't meet the mortgage payments anymore. This is even happening to a famous former late-night American TV talk show host (and evident former multimillionaire) who has been in the news with much moaning and groaning about his fate.

He's not the only American who has been in over his head and faces the loss of his overpriced home, of course. The root of all evil, as they say, is money, and now some Americans who once appeared to have plenty of it before seem to have not enough of it now. But the culprit here is not so much about the sagging economy as sagging humility. Too many of us Americans forgot about staying grounded with a proper humility for the years we enjoyed a life of leveraged luxury.

Like a Musharraf who equates himself with Pakistan itself, or a Lee who thinks he can push Korean voters around like intimidated corporate underlings, the American consumer has been committing the sin of happy hubris that now looks to be turning, for many of them at least, into unhappy humiliation. The antidote to humiliation is this: self-imposed humility. It is a life-long virtue that can work for all of us, not just for heads of state.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.