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FRONT PORCH: Hubris and the march of folly

It is at once fascinating and disturbing to observe how the lust for power, greed and other blinding ambitions, so often lead to folly and failure. Politicians, businesspeople and others over millennia, though repeatedly warned of their delusions, have pursued courses of action leading to disaster and defeat.

Folly is often more our companion than wisdom. It is defined as “the lack of good sense or judgment”; “a foolish act or idea: foolish behavior” and “the lack of… normal prudence and foresight”.

Folly is the grand subject of historian, author and journalist Barbara Tuchman in her sweeping book, “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” Born in 1912, Tuchman died in 1989 at age 77. She was a two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-fiction and a university lecturer.

She frames the criteria: “To qualify as folly, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. … Secondly a feasible alternative cause of action must have been available.”

She continues: “To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.” A review of her book at www.stoneschool.com/ Reviews/MarchOfFolly. html casts the criteria as such:

“… Acts have to be clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organization or group pursuing them; conducted over a period of time, not just in a single burst of irrational behavior; conducted by a number of individuals, not just one deranged maniac; and, importantly, there have to be people alive at the time who pointed out correctly why the act in question was folly (no 20/20 hindsight allowed).”

Tuchman recalls a variety of examples of historic folly:

“Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick?

“Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counsellors that the harm done most be greater than any possible gain?”

Protestant Secessions, the British loss of its American colonies, the American debacle in Vietnam. Along the way she also provides lesser examples of folly.

Tuchman’s criteria have been tweaked by others to address quite a number of contexts, some as epic as George W. Bush’s Iraq War to other less grave follies in government and politics. Successive political parties and governments here at home have pursued folly, some more vigorously than others.

Often, temporary victories intoxicate, blinding a group to impending disaster and grave danger ahead. In the U.S., the Democratic Party kept nominating presidential candidates who were sure losers, until Bill Clinton recast and steered the party to victory.

Democrats were initially delighted with the nomination of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis as the party’s 1988 presidential nominee. They were fairly certain that they could defeat the Republican nominee George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan’s successor.

Their groupthink and delusion proved politically fatal. Bush went on to run a more effective campaign and trounced Dukakis, who was not the strongest candidate for the Democrats. It was after the 1988 shellacking that the Democrats pulled their heads out of the sand and nominated a viable candidate.

Folly should not be confused with failure to achieve various objectives, such as certain setbacks and defeats by those struggling for equality, including women and gays and lesbians, though some tactics in these struggles might prove folly.

For Tuchman, self-interest is defined as what is in the long-term best interest of an organization or group, not the narrow or benighted interests of a few who seek to use an organization or government to pursue their overweening ambitions or to exact revenge or banish past ghosts.

Tuchman describes the mindset of those prone to folly:

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

The book review at www.stoneschool.com notes the role of those who warned of folly and the likely disaster on the horizon:

“In the case of the Trojan Horse, the … role is played by Laocoon, a blind priest, who chastises Trojan leadership the moment the wooden equine is found. ‘You can’t bring that thing in here,’ he says, ‘it might be full of Greek soldiers’.

“Later, as it becomes evident the will to bring it in is strong, he suggests helpfully, ‘Well, if you’re going to bring it in, at least poke it with a spear and see if anybody yelps.’ “

He was of course ignored. The resulting defeat of the Trojans could have been prevented. Those who divined that they knew better and who convinced themselves that they were more clever than others, could not countenance their fatal error, despite numerous warnings, and until it was too late.

The book review notes: “The third section of the book is entitled The British Loss of North America and treats the American Revolution from a rarely-seen perspective: that of an avoidable and silly loss of valuable colonies occurring primarily due to stiff British necks (upper lips being of no service).

“The extent to which the war was unpopular in Britain is covered, as well as the many Laocoons decrying the idiocy of antagonizing the colonists, including some viewed in the American version of events as villains.”

One has to distinguish in history and life what is a real victory and what may be a Pyrrhic victory. This requires discernment and wisdom, which Tuchman defines in the spheres of politics and government as “the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information.”

Those who ignore common sense and readily available information in the public domain in the pursuit of overweening self-interest, often look back and wonder how they could have been so wrong, after convincing themselves of their own delusions.

The apocryphal tale of Marie Antoinette’s instruction that the peasantry should eat cake, suggests the extent of delusion and absence from reality of some drunk and giddy with their own sense of power and the prowess of their intellect.

Intellectual acuity does not necessarily translate into good judgment, restraint and prudence. Indeed, intellect can be so fetishized, ignoring streams of wisdom from myriad sources, including the experience of others offering warnings and red flags to those blinded and deafened by euphoria.

The author Willa Cather advises, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they have never happened before.”

One of these stories is hubris. In the Western classics from Icarus to Oedipus, Antigone, Macbeth, King Lear, Cleopatra and others, excessive pride or hubris, “a belief that [one] is somehow above the fates, or in control of destiny”, typically leads to failure as one is ensnared by one’s own unbridled arrogance.

Throughout history there were political leaders, generals and their advisers, convinced that they were marching to victory, but instead were about to march themselves and others over a cliff.

Even after folly is revealed, some erroneously still believe that they followed the right course of action. Such is the march of folly, which keeps repeating itself.


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