Regardless how you feel about the outcome of this week’s midterm elections, you have to admit it’s been a great week in some respects. The mid-terms seemed to bring out the electorate rhetoric in record numbers. For me, it was like watching a meteor shower. I mean, as far as I can see, it was a perfect week for reflection about the meaning of arrogance.
Did we see arrogance in others, but not in ourselves?
Personally, I thought the President was unusually insulting this week. When he said to a reporter, “That’s a stupid question,” then repeated the comment a second time, then told her she had asked a lot of stupid questions, I saw that as extremely rude and insulting. It was for that type of comment that I did not vote for him regardless of my expectation that I might agree with a lot of his policies. When he answered a question about releasing his tax returns by saying that tax returns are complicated documents that most Americans would not be able to understand, I found the comment insulting to the American people. But was either comment arrogant?
When Steven Colbert devoted his Wednesday night Late Show monologue to insulting the President, I thought him completely unfunny and boorish. But was he arrogant? If so, was his arrogance different from that of the President?
Many would say that Trump this week was even more arrogant than he usually is, while Colbert was funny, rather than arrogant. Others would say that Trump was not arrogant, just “telling it like it really is” and that Colbert was an arrogant snob or an arrogant traitor (whichever is worse). Bottom line, I think, is that we tend to find arrogance in the passions, attitudes and statements of those we disagree with – pretty much the same places we find stupidity.
Is the concept of arrogance capable of being objectively assessed? Put another way, if Jack calls Jill arrogant, does that really tell me anything about Jill, or does it only tell me about how Jack himself feels about her? Is it possible to define the word “arrogant” so that it gives me more reliable information about Jill than it does about Jack?
This has a lot to do with why I think the President may not be the only one who exhibited arrogance this week.
My edition of Webster’s defines arrogance as “offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.” The O.E.D. defines it as “the taking of too much upon oneself as one’s right.”
Both definitions are highly subjective. When President Trump said this week’s midterms were largely a referendum on him, would it be right to say the statement was arrogant if you didn’t consider it “offensive” (Webster) or “too much” (OED)? But what is offensive to one of us doesn’t seem to offend the other. Many observers have opined that the President of the U.S. is the most powerful person on earth. If a president acts as if he’s the most powerful person on earth, is that offensive? Is it taking too much on one’s self? If a 2002 news analyst said that midterm elections have traditionally been referenda on whoever the sitting president is, we might have agreed. Could we agree, yet still find Trump’s 2018 statement arrogant? When spoken by oneself, about oneself, can an accurate statement ever be arrogant? I have the sense that it can, but only when I think it “offensive.” And when Jack finds Jill offensive, I’m back to feeling it tells me as much or more about Jack as it does about Jill.
When Wednesday night’s Late Show moved from the monologue to Colbert’s conversation with CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett, their conversation centered around the arrogance of “Trump.” I had previously noticed how the news media now tends to refer to the president as “Trump.” (With Eisenhower, it was sometimes Ike, with Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson it was FDR, JFK or LBJ. But even with Nixon, and up through Clinton, Obama, and even the first year of the current presidency, I also heard the President called “the President.” I haven’t heard the media call Donald Trump “the President” for months now. Touting his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” Garret explained that when Trump began to campaign for President, his staff made very clear that they wanted him to be called “Mister Trump.” Given Garrett’s explanation, it sounds to me as if the media’s repeated reference to him as “Trump” without the Mister is an intentional avoidance of Trump’s expressed desires, as if to irritate or disrespect him the way he irritates and disrespects them. Whatever one thinks on that subject, can the media’s statements about the people they cover ever reflect media arrogance? Can their reporting imply an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance?” Can their reporting of news suggest the taking of too much upon themselves, as their right?
During Wednesday night’s show, Garrett told Colbert that Trump’s attacks on the media had become so aggressive that it was time for the news media to ”lock arms” and support each other “because collectively, the First Amendment is what unites all of us.” I am curious whether Garrett’s reference to “all of us” meant all Americans, or just all of us in the institutional news media. Garrett was talking about the widely-viewed scene in which Trump told another reporter to sit down, he hadn’t been recognized. The reporter refused, holding onto the microphone when a staffer attempted to take it away from him. Was Trump arrogant for telling the reporter to sit down? Was the reporter arrogant for refusing to yield the microphone? Who was taking onto himself more than was his right? Does your answer depend on your subjective views about politics, or Trump, or the news media? Or is there something more objective involved?
Since Garret’s comment about “all of us” came in the context of saying that White House journalists had traditionally been in it entirely for themselves, but now had good cause to “lock arms” in dealing with Trump, I tend to think that by “all of us” he may have meant the White House Press Corps, and I was reminded of a question of law that has long bothered me.
Since my law school days in the 1970’s, I’ve heard the argument that because the First Amendment protects freedom of speech AND freedom of the press, the latter gives rights and privileges to the institutional media (“the press”) that the rest of us do not enjoy. I think of journalists refusing to divulge their confidential sources and citing other privileges based on “freedom of the press.” Some states give specific rights to professional journalists (such as a refusal to disclose sources) that us common folk don’t enjoy. Is that what the Constitution really means?
I remember one childhood day when a VW beetle in which I was riding was stopped for speeding. I had joined my friend’s family en route to a folk music festival. When my friend’s father (the driver of the beetle) pulled out his press badge, he was quickly waved on by the trooper, who apparently assumed that the flashing of press credentials gave the man a free pass to exceed the speed limit – never mind that his children were packed into the back seat with a bunch of banjos, guitars and a neighborhood kid named Joe. When this man joked about his success – at a tactic he acknowledged employing before – was he taking too much, as his right?
More generally, to some, “freedom of the press” seems to protect only those who carry such credentials. I don’t see it that way. Thomas Paine, the revolutionary icon who authored Common Sense, was a corset-maker, sailor and school teacher before publishing the pamphlet that helped birth our nation. But the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule explicitly on the question of whether the protections it has extended to the institutional media also protect the rest of us. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2014 case that an untrained, un-credentialed private blogger enjoys the same constitutional privileges as the institutional press. It was good news for untrained, un-credentialed private bloggers like me. I remain hopeful that, someday, the Supreme Court will agree. As I see it, employees of big media corporations who get press passes to White House Press Conferences have no more right to insist on holding microphones than I would have, had I been invited to the White House. I feel that if I’d been allowed into the briefing room and refused to give up the mike, I’d be taking too much on myself, as my right — which is to say, arrogant. But I have the feeling that much of the institutional press – now “locking arms” against the President – would disagree.
So, yes. while I may be wrong, I am one of those who thinks Donald Trump is at least as arrogant as any President before him, and very possibly moreso, which is saying a lot, since I can’t recall a president who didn’t seem arrogant. But at the same time, I think that many institutional journalists have reached their own pinnacle of arrogance in this divisive time. (I, for one, will refer to the President as Mr. Trump, if that’s what he wants, even as I plan to vote against him the next chance I get.)
I voted in several races and on two constitutional amendments this week without much confidence that I was voting the objectively “right” way. Yet there was one candidate for whom I cast a very confident vote, and for a reason I don’t regret. While I didn’t agree with her on every issue — maybe not even a majority of issues – her campaign ads shared a single theme: that she would work with any president, and any Congress, for what was best. She ran no “negative” ads slamming her opponent. She cast herself as someone who might listen to, and even respect, those she disagreed with. When a buddy of mine asked if I thought she really would act that way, if elected, my reply was “Probably not; but that won’t change my vote. We’ve got to start somewhere, and politicians will never behave with civility unless they’re willing to campaign that way.”
“Arrogance” comes from the Latin word rogare, meaning “to ask.” The Romans gave certain tribes the privilege of making requests (voting) first, a practice that gave rise to our word for all sorts of “pre-rogatives.” A press pass, or credential, is essentially such a privilege or prerogative – not a God-given right. To insist on keeping something you don’t have a right to is to “ar-rogate” something to yourself, which is the etymological core of arrogance. Yet Colbert and Garrett spoke of news reporter as if he were the victim of injustice — which I take as a sure sign of the media “locking arms.” So, to members of the press (including those of us who are untrained and un-credentialed): for us, my prayer is that as we rail against the arrogance of others, let us be ever alert to our own.
“Be kind,” said the philosopher. “For everyone is fighting a hard battle.”
From where I sit, it’s been that sort of week.