Sunday, July 13, 2008

Book Notes: Pride by Michael Eric Dyson

Someone at OUP had a bright idea when preparing their series on the 'so-called' 7 Deadly Sins. That was, to ask Michael Eric Dyson to address the subject of pride. The ingenuity of the idea is that for a writer whose career is so inextricably linked to the notion of 'Black Pride' as a virtue - he would bring unique angles to addressing it as a vice.

Dyson's take on the subject is that pride is a 'virtuous-vice' something which is both profoundly necessary and profoundly dangerous. He points first to the virtuous nature of pride, of pride taken in one's work, in one's community and the dreadful consequences of a complete lack of pride. Then he turns the reader's attention to the damage of unrestrained, damaging pride, when it is used by the haughty, arrogant as an attitude which justifies a whole host of injustices.

Unsurprisingly the lens through which Dyson addresses his subject is the African-American struggle for civil rights in the USA. Thus the damage of a lack of pride is seen in a range of self-loathing behaviours he has observed amongst his own community - when they have mistakenly accepted the majority culture's constant assertions of their inferiority. He cites, for example, the way in which in the community of his youth a social hierarchy based on paleness of skin existed amongst the black community. The needed antidote to such tragic assimilation of prejudice, is he argues the corrective of a proper black pride. Correspondingly, when Dyson turns to the dark side of pride he sees it as the pride of the oppressor, of the pride of the white supremacist, or the passive supporter of the white dominated status quo - or interestingly the pride of the burgeoning black middle classes who he claims are assimilated into a system which uses them to justify the ongoing indefensible injustices of society. He does not shy away from naming names from Bill Cosby to Condoleeza Rice either.

Dyson writes intelligently and wittily, drawing from Aquinas on sin before God to Martin Luther King on the distortions of national pride which lead to war. He laughs at phrases he finds silly like "non-fiction", saying that it is about as useful a description as calling life "non-death"! Or take the following paragraph from his section on national pride:

If Martin Luther King's actions against the [Vietnam] war prove anything, it's that there's a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the critical affirmation of one's country in the light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it's in error. Nationalism is the uncritical support of one's nation regardless of its moral or political bearing. patriotism derives from the word 'patria' or the non-competitive love of ones' country....... In this view patriotism is 'self-referential' while feelings of nationalism are inherently comparative - and almost exclusively, downwardly comparative.

Good stuff that - and stingingly as relevant in the war on terror as in the Vietnam war against which Dr King railed. Where this book is weakest is in its treatment of pride as a sin against God. While it is brilliant in its anthropological, historical and social commentary on the uses and abuses of pride - its weak point lies in a failure to fully mine the problem of pride as the primary sin causing ongoing human separation from God, of the fall, and our need of grace. As such it does not make the necessary forward step from identifying the sin to achieving true repentance towards God. As such the experience of 'conviction of sin' in which the sin of pride is revealed in one's heart in all its horribleness finds no place in his work. This adds an imbalance to an otherwise challenging, thought-provoking book.

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