If That’s All Right With You – A Modest Manifesto

My "Happy Shoes" series seems to have faded out one episode before I meant it to. Oh well, maybe I’ll get back to it soon. Meanwhile, here is a something a little different, which owes a lot to various posts by Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling.

The names of Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov do not appear in most lists of 20th century heroes, but they should. After all, who else could claim to have literally saved the world?

Arkhipov’s moment came during the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 27, 1962, when he was an officer on a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine. When the submarine was bombarded by an American ship an intelligence officer on board thought "that’s it – the end" and the captain gave the order to prepare to fire a nuclear missile. Had the missile launched, nuclear war would have begun, but firing a nuclear warhead required the approval of three officers and Arkhipov prevailed on his fellow officers to wait — and things calmed down. When the story became public in 2002 Thomas Blanton, director of the US National Security Archive, said simply: "A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world".

In 1983, Stanislav Petrov was monitoring the Soviet early warning satellites for signs of a US attack. His instructions were clear: if he detected missiles targeting the USSR he was "to push the button and launch a counter-offensive". But when the system showed five missile launches in the US all headed towards the USSR, sirens blared and warning lights flashed, and a room full of people waited for him to push the button, he didn’t. It didn’t look right to him and he reported the alarm to his superiors but declared it false. Petrov was right: the signal was a false alarm triggered by the satellite itself, and a war was averted.

You could hardly find two more unheroic heroes. They were not powerful generals or strong warriors, they were mid-level functionaries in the Soviet military: small cogs in a very big machine, far from the centres of political power. And their actions were not the decisive, bold gestures that we expect from heroes but were cautious and sceptical. When others demanded action their heroic response was to say "let’s wait and see".

We should value modest people such as Arkhipov and Petrov more highly. It is time for modest people to get the credit they deserve.

Look around. It is easy to see what kind of character traits we value. We nourish "leaders" all the way from elementary school (where programs select "leaders of tomorrow") through university scholarships and on into the adult world. We heap admiration on those who succeed in reaching positions of power. We encourage single-minded ambition with every book or show or speaker that tells you to "find your passion" or "follow your dream". We applaud extroverts for their gregariousness and self-confidence.

On the other hand, we undervalue traits such as meekness, generosity, doubt, introversion, a sense of balance, gentleness, irony and competence. In short, we reward arrogance and punish modesty. (I don’t mean modesty as in women covering up their bodies so that men don’t get excited, of course, I mean modesty as in a sense of limits, lack of pretension).

These unbalanced values distort many aspects of our culture. Consider heroism. We search for our heroes among those who are "exceptional" (climb higher mountains, score more goals, make more money…) but a different and better idea of heroism is possible, in which heroic acts are those that reveal our humanity. Arkhipov and Petrov are two examples. For another, consider the 17th century inhabitants of the village of Eyam (rhymes with dream) in Derbyshire, England. I heard of this from John Trevor‘s song "Roses of Eyam", as sung by the wonderful Roy Bailey. The song records how the villagers gave up their lives when bubonic plague arrived in Eyam by sealing themselves off to make sure the  disease did not spread to the surrounding areas. The number who died varies according to the telling: some say 259 of 333, some 318 from 350, but there was no doubt that those who sealed themselves off had little chance of survival. There was nothing grandiose here – no rewards, no trophies, no immortality save of the most simple kind. And yet how much more heroic these unknown people are than, say, Bill Gates or Bono.

James Joyce realized that our common humanity is at the core of heroism. By building the greatest novel of the twentieth century around a day in the life of a Leopold Bloom — a middle-aged, cuckolded, advertising salesman — Joyce highlighted the epic nature of everyday life. And he is right; the great things in life are universal. Birth and death, giving birth, caring for others: you don’t need to explore the remote corners of the world to find these things, yet what can be greater? As Chris Dillow reminds us, Thomas Gray knew the value of modest lives. In his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" he surveyed the graves of the "rude Forefathers" of a hamlet:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor

The poet reminds us of the importance and nobility of modest work compared to the contributions of those who enjoy "the pomp of power".  Dillow again: "All the essentials of life come from the little people who clean the streets and make our food. The humblest binman has done more good for me in the last 10 years than [Tony] Blair’s managed." Or, as I read in a cookbook, "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star".

We would have better politicians and CEOs if a sense of service – an inherently modest quality – rather than "leadership quality" was seen as a character trait to be rewarded, and if they recognized that their success comes as much from luck and the quirks of history as from merit. And even those who do reach the pinnacles with good motives must be treated with suspicion. Power of all strands does, after all, corrupt, and those who see power are the most vulnerable to corruption.

Public discourse suffers from the same warped perspective. Those who parade bold visions and big ideas gain much of the limelight, but such efforts often have more to say about the vanity and presumption of their authors than about the reach of their intellects. A discourse based on big ideas is prone to being diverted by demagogues. Flashy writing and speaking does have its place, but mainly as popularization, and it means little if not built on cautious and detailed work carried out by those with more modest aims. The devil is often in the details and the world can more often be seen by looking closely at a grain of sand than by scanning the far horizon.

Vanity is linked to what must be The Word For 2007: "passionate". At every turn it seems that we are told that the way to happiness is to "find your passion". Companies boast that they have a "passion for excellence". Be all you can be. Follow your dream.

Such ideas are literally self-centred, and are the opposite of the modest life. When you are the star of your own life, those around you are reduced to supporting roles. Who, I cannot help but wonder, is paying for that dream? Who is finding the children’s clothes while you are busy finding your passion? Usually it is the family members who have to suffer the absences (physical and mental) of the dreamer. Conor Cruise O’Brien has been called "the greatest living Irishman", yet in a trip to Toronto in the 1990s he was without his family for once, and he was at a loss. Why? Because his family members usually handled the money, the arrangements, the mundane details of his trips. Surely no one who gets those around him to do the drudge work can be considered "great".

Passion not only leads to a self-centred life; it is also the enemy of scepticism, of doubt, and of reflection. To be passionate is to be blinkered. Evangelists, monomaniacs, and demagogues are as passionate as anyone, and follow their dream wherever it takes them. But they are terrible role models. We would do better to emulate those who make and accept the compromises of a modest life; those who treat people around them with respect, who accept that others have dreams too and that, if we all give a little, we may not reach our dream but we may have a better world.

It’s not that we should cast down the extrovert and immodest. Every parade needs a leader and, as the saying goes, "you can’t lead a parade if you think you look funny sitting on a horse". Movies need stars and some rock bands benefit from a little swagger, but the point is that the starring role, while it grabs the spotlight, is just one of many that combine to produce the finished event. The star cannot shine without a supporting cast. Every great band needs its rhythm section, every orchestra its second fiddles. No politician gets elected without dedicated campaign workers and no matter how comfortable you feel on a horse, you can’t lead a parade all on your own because that’s not a parade. We need to remember that music, parades, and other events are collective efforts, and value those who feel more comfortable behind the scenes together with those who revel in the spotlight.

Of all roles, perhaps that of the spectator is least appreciated. Being a spectator is seen as passive and uninspired: how often do you hear the phrase "mere spectator" contrasted with "active participant"? Yet us spectators have an essential part to play too, because great events are made great by their spectators. What is a cup final without the fans? A rock concert without the crowd? A festival without the festival-goers? Or consider books: novelist Zadie Smith recently wrote that "A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour  required on either side is, in the end, equal… Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you".

Extroverts, as Jonathan Rauch says in a widely-read essay, dominate public life. "This is a pity", he goes on, "If introverts ran the world, it would no doubt be a calmer, saner,  more peaceful sort of place." Yet introverts get little respect:   

Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded", "loner", "reserved", "taciturn", "self-contained", "private" – narrow, ungenerous words.

There are good reasons for this. Extroverts, after all, are in a good position to spread the idea that being outgoing is a good thing. Introverts, on the other hand, are not well suited to evangelize the virtues of quiet.

Restoring a balance will not be easy, because it demands immodest behaviour of modest people. It is difficult to promote the quiet virtues in a world drowning in the verbiage of the loudmouthed. Does it even make sense to stage an outspoken demand for modesty (if that’s all right with you?), a brash call for humility, a blunt demand for subtlety, an uncompromising plea for flexibility? Can we be unequivocally on the side of doubt? Does it make sense to spout a monologue on the benefits of shutting the hell up?

Probably not. The very idea of a manifesto is, of course, immodest. But I think it could be saved by something that is lacking in this attempt, which is irony. Perhaps someone else can do a better job.

We should be able to speak up while accepting the limits of our own arguments if we acknowledge (with Leonard Cohen) that "there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in." Contradiction is an opportunity to learn rather than a debate to be fought. Thesis and antithesis are the beginning of synthesis. In exploring both sides of contradictions and arguments we learn to see both sides of a dispute, empathize with hurts and griefs that are not our own, and start to see the cracks in our own beliefs. And that must surely be a goal of any modest agenda – although not before we get the immodest down off their high horses and get them to shut up for a minute.

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  1. Well, it’s an interesting sermon, but it *is* a sermon.
    One thing which leapt out at me:
    “by sealing themselves off to make sure the disease did not spread to the surrounding areas …”
    This sounds to me like making a virtue from necessity. That is, if you’re in a plague-filled village in medieval times, you’re going to have a hard time getting anywhere, because anyone in the surrounding countryside is likely to kill you on sight, BECAUSE YOU MIGHT HAVE THE PLAGUE!
    Just think of the news reaction caused recently by the guy who had drug-resistant TB – and he wasn’t even much infectious. Take it up a few orders of magnitude.
    Thus given the alternative of being sick and on the road and hunted, and being sick and at home and not hunted, it’s not too hard to pick the latter choice. Though I can’t believe *nobody* tried to make a break for it .
    Sorry to rain on the nice sentiments, but the fiction there seemed a bit over-the-top.

  2. Seth, what you’re predicting didn’t actually happen. I think you’re importing American post-apocalypse fantasies into the actual historical reality.
    (So it’s ironic that you’re calling history fiction and fiction history)

  3. Actually, if anything, I’m guilty of importing the modern understanding of contagion. The plague was certainly apocalyptic for the era.
    “Whole communities were wiped out and corpses littered the streets as there was no one left to bury them.”
    “Incubation took a mere four to six days and when the plague appeared in a household, the house was sealed, thus condemning the whole family to death! These houses were distinguished by a painted red cross on the door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on us'”
    “Samuel Pepys in his Diary gives a vivid account of the empty streets in London, as all who could had left in an attempt to flee the pestilence.”
    C’mon, if someone did run away from Eyam, what were the villagers going to do? They sure weren’t going to send out a search party. How would they even know the difference between someone ill who crawled off to a field to die, and someone still healthy who decided every-man-for-himself? They’d probably just record anyone who left as “assumed dead (coprse location not known)”.
    Everyone sticking together to likely die in noble self-sacrifice is “glurge”. It doesn’t stand up to critical thought.

  4. Seth. On it being a sermon – it’s a fair cop. Good point.
    On Eyam. First you suggest no one fled because they would have been killed on sight, and then you say that people must have fled because no one could stop them. Are you going to choose a horse and stick to it or switch around?
    It is well known that (i) there is a village called Eyam :-), (ii) a lot of people died there in 1665 to 1666 from the plague, and (iii) from soon after the events, there are written and oral stories of self-imposed quarantine at the suggestion of two local clergy (William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley).
    Did no one flee? Who knows – although it does seem that nearby villages were spared the brunt of the plague. There is a spectrum of stories of course, from complete solidarity and almost 100% mortality to something more modest. I’ve no way of knowing where on the spectrum the truth lies and I’m sure that some versions are romanticised. But that’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and I don’t see any reason to doubt that it was an episode of heroic self-sacrifice by a large number of villagers.
    BTW I enjoy your comments at various sites on web 2.0 and agree with you on most of them.

  5. there’s something unsatisfactory about this. A false modesty. According to this the most heroic people are ones of who’s existence we’ve never known. In which case how do we follow their example?
    Can you be a hero on your own? Isn’t part of being heroic the public expression of a particular virtue, in which case being an unknown hero, even a modest one, is an oxymoron.

  6. Nice one, Tom.
    Your modesty aside, I’ll procure a horse any time you are deemed parade worthy

  7. Several interesting arguments, but I am not convinced that all of the various traits that you celebrate here (introversion, modesty, skepticism) usually go together. For example, I would call myself an “immodest,” skeptical, introvert. I think that many of writers share this combination of traits.
    I guess I have the biggest problem with linking together skepticism and modesty. Isn’t skepticism (the desire to think things through for yourself without going along with the prevailing wisdom of the crowd) inherently self-confident and immodest?
    Stanislav Petrov is a hero of skepticism, but was his heroic act — in which he trusted his own judgment instead of following the orders of his superiors and the expectations of his peers — modest?

  8. Nice “sermon”. The Kite Runner tells a fine story about a “servant-hero”.
    I am told by a historian that there is a prison wall in Rome with a drawing of a man with a donkey’s head hung on a cross, and an inscription saying something like “Alex worships his god”. The historian tells me the drawing must have been made by a Roman soldier, mocking a Christian prisoner. Apparently the Romans found it difficult to understand how early Christians could worship a crucified man.
    It’s interesting how, against a Roman/Greek culture that celebrated the strong and powerful, a man who taught his disciples to “love your enemies”, and who had come to serve, and not to be served, could inspire a movement that spread across the Roman empire.

  9. Thanks Tom, let me return the compliment and say I enjoy your writings overall.
    I actually do mean both “horses”. Note I didn’t suggest *no one* fled. Rather, it’s a decent, but not exactly heroic, argument, to say: “*If* you flee, you’re going to be alone, hard traveling through very hostile territory, with no help if you do get sick. If you stay, you’ll have whatever medical care and supplies are around.”. In that situation, I think *many* people could be persuaded to stay, by what’s in fact an appeal to self-interest, not self-sacrifice. Moreover, given that historically there were quarantines imposed, it’s reasonable to wonder (can’t prove it, but think about it), if there was some sort of carrot-and-stick from the regional authorities that agreeing to quarantine meant getting supplies from outside, but fleeing meant being treated, well, like you had the plague.
    [Note fleeing a small village is different from fleeing London – lots of people are going to and from a city every day, but anybody on the road in the boondocks will be significant]
    That said, human nature being what it is, it’s highly likely there were dissenters who decided they’d rather take their chances and get out of town. And neither they nor the village authorities had an incentive to talk about it.
    The quarantine was undoubtedly a good idea. I’m disputing that it was a case of people deciding en masse to sacrifice themselves for others. It seems to strain credibility, and made me wonder how much of any other cited virtue was true.

  10. Thank you Vasili

    Link: Whimsley: If That’s All Right With You – A Modest Manifesto. The names of Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov do not appear in most lists of 20th century heroes, but they should. After all, who else could claim to

  11. OK, here’s what the Eyam Museum says (no link, Typepad would only eat it):
    “William Mompesson was the newly appointed rector of Eyam and, with his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, he persuaded the villagers to enter voluntary quarantine, bury their own dead and even worship outdoors to limit the spread of the disease.
    “People in the surrounding area sent provisions to the people of Eyam which were left on the village boundary.
    “The death toll was terrible – between September 1665 and October 1666, no fewer than 76 families were stricken and 260 people – perhaps a third of the population – met an awful, pained death.
    “Some families were wiped out. Others left just a single survivor – like the Hancock family at Riley Farm, where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children in just eight days.
    “The sufferings of the families – the Coopers, the Hadfields, the Syddals, the Thorpes, the Blackwells, the Talbots, the Mortens, the Kempes, the Merrills, are recorded on their houses around the village.
    “When the Plague finally loosed its terrible grip on the village it left a population of more than 400 people who once again needed to make their living.”
    That’s a fair amount of evidence, which tends to point the same way as the mythical version (although the death toll wasn’t 100%, just a mere 33%).
    It’s possible that if you dug around in local records you could qualify it along the lines Seth suggests – “The Smiths, on the other hand, made a run for it as soon as they heard the news. Selfish bastards, we never talk about them.” But I don’t think it’s warranted to assume that things weren’t like that, particularly on the basis of no evidence but 21st-century assumptions about ‘human nature’.

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