The downside (we hope) of hubris

Detail of "Echo and Narcissus," by John William Waterhouse.

Detail of “Echo and Narcissus,” by John William Waterhouse.

Hubris  (hju·bris)  1. pride or arrogance 2. (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.

Or, if you’d like a different definition:

Headline: “Interior secretary says Obama may bypass Congress on monuments”

And not to beat a dead horse, but hubris basically means knowing you’re right, that everyone else is wrong, and that you’re justified in breaking the rules if they get in the way of what you want. Rules, after all, only apply to people too unsophisticated to know what really matters; and when you’re super smart and have perfect knowledge the rules need not apply to you. The right course of action is self-evident to the enlightened few. Just ask Narcissus or Niobe or any of those other old Greeks who judged themselves equals to the gods.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell personifies this notion of ultimate knowing when she takes a kernel of truth and turns it into a cob of policy by selectively reading a law, and then interpreting it to fit what she has already determined is “right.”

I know that’s become the norm with this administration, from selectively enforcing immigration and marijuana laws to deciding which parts of Obamacare matter in the political moment, but it’s the definition of hubris to claim they know better than everyone else – and especially those who were sent to represent the people – what’s best by golly and if we have to bend the rules to shove it down the rubes’ throats they’ll thank us in the end. Or maybe they won’t. Who cares? We’ll have shouldered our burden of taking care of flyover country.

So what about bypassing Congress and unilaterally declaring new monuments? Section 2 of the Antiquities Act states:

The President of the United States is authorized, in his
discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic
landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other
objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated
upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government
of the United States to be national monuments and may reserve as a part there of parcels of land…

This presidential prerogative has been used since the early 20th century to put brass plates on buildings, fences around battlefields, and variously preserving other items at little cost to treasuries or freedoms. But what Jewell and so many others leave out in their quest to preserve enormous tracts of otherwise usable land is that Section 2 goes on to say:

…the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.

“The smallest area compatible” was clearly never meant to mean entire counties, as it has been used lately in designating areas as monuments. That’s what the Wilderness Act does, along with national parks, national forests, and other designations that clearly apply to vast tracts of land.

But of course those actions also clearly require the approval of Congress. Well, not really since the invention of wilderness study areas and things like that. But those equally suspect set-asides just reinforce the point that some people want to bypass the inconveniences posed by our Constitution to impose what they know is “right”: That’s hubris.

In the Greek tragedies, those humans who took on god-like senses of self-worth were eventually brought down to size by the very gods they sought to imitate. Now let’s not get crazy. I’m not comparing Congress or even public opinion to any gods – ancient Greek or not; but let’s hope the hubris of this administration and its allies meets a suitable fate and they come to realize they’re not smarter than the rest of us just because they’re temporarily (I hope) in power, and that the rules apply to them as much as to the rest of us poor rubes in flyover country.