When Hubris Stands In for Humility

Charlie Sheen, Julie Taymor, LeBron James, and Chris Christie were all flying high — until some very public come-downs. Michele Willens wonders why celebrities today don’t feel accountable for their mistakes

Is hubris the new humility?

Recently, we have seen a number of well-known folks slide — temporarily, I am sure — down the rabbit hole from presumed infallibility. There is no pleasure in watching this (well, maybe a little of the guilty kind). One would like to think there will be some kind of lessons learned. I’m referring here not to those with limited talent — think reality shows — who have managed to rise beyond where they have any right to be. I am speaking of those with enormous ability who mistakenly think they are above reproach.

Cockiness, arrogance — whatever you want to call it — is not new. But it does seem to be back in vogue. And what’s interesting is not who has fallen and how far, but how each seems to be handling the fall.

I loved Broadway’s The Lion King as much as the next grownup child, even if I am not among those who proclaim Julie Taymor a creative genius. Her dismissal from the Great White Way’s Spiderman has not been pretty, but is it any more offensive than spending $65 million on an unfinished and mediocre product? (Not to mention putting actors in physical danger.) Who among us is beyond feedback, or assistance? I have yet to hear Taymor utter one sentence about possibly sharing some of the blame, and I mourn the dozen smaller and more original works that could have been performed for the money squandered on Spidey.

Bear with me now while I speak of a basketball star, one who even those without teenaged sons will recognize. Lebron James has taken periodic public beatings of late. Clearly, other teams and players hit slumps, but they likely did not buy an hour on national television to announce a team change and proclaim invincibility. Those who gave Lebron a zillion-dollar contract likely feel the “not a clutch player” argument will pass, and still believe he is well worth the money. If anyone will ultimately pay a price, it will, as usual in sports, be the coach. (Does Julie Taymor know anything about basketball, I wonder?) Here too, we are dealing with pure and unique artistry — but while we are reading about tears in the locker room, we are not hearing of regrets about speaking too soon and too loudly.

On the other hand, we have all heard far more about and from Charlie Sheen than we ever expected to. Unlike the others, his issues may be emanating from drug-induced places. All the same, the lack of anything resembling humility is astonishing. The man — who is talented but can hardly be considered without equal in his field — got paid $2 million an episode and is now bringing down a lot of less fortunate people with him. He is ranting and raving and boasting and blaming. Anyone heard “I may have made a mistake” or “I am sorry” in there?

The list goes on. There is Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who seemed untouchable. That is, before a recent New York Times article pointed out the numerous inaccuracies behind his assertions about New Jersey’s state of affairs. We had all thought, finally, that here was a politician who told the truth about the painful prescription for these times. And he was fat! Couldn’t he have just continued to do his job and focus on his facts and figures? (If not his figure?) Nope. When asked if he would run for President in 2012, the Governor said not yet but that if he did, he could win.

Sometimes, it is more than an individual at play here: for example, Glee, the Fox series, is slipping off its pedestal and a little spanking seems in order. “In some ways, Glee’s slips are typical of shows that become too hot too fast,” wrote USA Today. Not only has the show become preachy, sloppy, and self-satisfied, but its cast members have become omnipresent and just plain tiresome.

I am not one to knock self-confidence. In fact, I envy it. But there is a fine line between healthy bravado and a feeling of faultlessness: that you know best, therefore others should trust, vote for, invest in, or watch you. The columnist David Brooks has been writing quite a bit about this subject lately. Comparing Eisenhower‘s final, and Kennedy’s first, presidential speeches in 1961, he wrote, “Kennedy’s speech was an idealistic call to action. Eisenhower’s was a calm warning against hubris.” Brooks said they both captured a moment — but he particularly praised Ike for seeking “the right balance.”

Balance is always the best goal. One can be an exacting perfectionist and supremely confident — but it comes off better, and brings better results, when mixed with at least a touch of open-mindedness and modesty. One would think women would automatically have less of the hubris gene than men: it’s our instinct to apologize quicker, (perhaps too soon) to be less sure of ourselves, and more willing to ask for help. And we have too often seen what happens when one of us is taken down. Hillary Clinton, who entered the presidential race smacking of the preordained victor, didn’t really become an admired contender until she was brought down to earth. I would hate to say her tears helped, but we all know they did … and bravo for letting them show. Tina Brown, the dynamic editor who just (relatively quietly) took the helm at Newsweek, has confessed she over-celebrated when starting Talk magazine. (Which shortly thereafter stopped talking.) Dare we say Tina has become a tad more endearing — not so much for being taken down a notch as for admitting to it?

On the other hand, how well has Oprah — arguably the country’s most powerful female — behaved when de-powered even momentarily? The host-turned-magazine-turned network preaches taking responsibility for one’s own actions. Yet note how long it took her to admit she may have mistaken a great fiction writer for a memoirist, or that her loudly trumpeted school for girls may have too hastily chosen its leader. (Angelina Jolie funded a girl’s school in Afghanistan, but who knew?) Oprah deservedly represents the possibility of self empowerment, but that need not exclude the slight possibility of human error.

If these and others had not faced some unpleasant comeuppance, might they have changed for the better — if at all — on their own? It is possible that Julie Taymor would have finally ended up with something less than disastrous after a few more delayed openings and another $10 million. But because of hubris, it is now in someone else’s hands. Lebron will probably justify his inflated salary and ego and learn to be part of a unit — but the glare of the less-flattering spotlight cannot be fun. Charlie Sheen may finally get real rehab and be rescued by some network that figures you can’t buy this kind of publicity. Then again, maybe not.

In the meantime, let’s hope their stories will serve as warnings. No one is invulnerable; let the work speak for itself. And let humility come back into fashion.

Editor’s Note: Michele Willens is a journalist and playwright who coined the term “tweens” for the New York Times. She is editor of FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change, a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearance.

5 comments so far.

  1. avatar chipgiii says:

    “Charlie Sheen, Julie Taymor, LeBron James, and Chris Christie were all flying high — until some very public come-downs. Michele Willens wonders why celebrities today don’t feel accountable for their mistakes”

    Is it just celebrities?  I suspect not.  We shouldn’t confuse popularity with greatness.  You may even find that entertainers and athletes are negatively correlated with greatness. 

    • avatar Karleen S says:

      No, it’s not celebrities.  I have a coworker who will never admit to errors, but readily grab at any glory possible.  If the glory turns out not to be so glorious, the fault lies in everything else but her.  She will walk away from jamming the copier for someone else to encounter it and fix it, and even if you SEE her do it, she’ll say she didn’t, or say it was imperative for her to return to her desk rather than take the time.  But if you then say you’ll watch the phones while she fixes it, she expects a ticker tape parade for doing something she should have done in the first place, and would not have done if she hadn’t been caught.  And all the while never once a mea culpa.

  2. avatar Dianne Lopp says:

    There is a line from Camelot that I want to quote to people at least once a day (sadly, narcissism has permeated all of our culture, in every walk of life).  Guinevere says to Lancelot upon meeting him for the first time, after he has trumpeted his virtues as a knight par exellence: “But have you jousted with humility?

  3. avatar Jim Martin says:

    There is nothing new about this phenomenon. It is not even more common than it used to be; it is just celebrated more in the media.

    Nearly three thousand years ago the richest man and one of the most powerful and celebrated kings who ever lived wrote, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” His name was Solomon, and he learned that lesson the hard way.

    Every one of the people mentioned in this article, and every one of the billions not mentioned in it, will learn exactly the same lesson sooner or later. There ARE no exceptions.

  4. avatar Jim Martin says:

    I realize that I’m entering these comments so long after the article’s publication that no one will read them, but that’s okay.

    I think Ms Willens is mistaken in including Julie Taymor in this group. Hers is an entirely different situation, and her behavior is entirely different. I suspect that Ms Willens was trying to add some gender balance to an equation that she admitted is naturally weighted in favor (or disfavor, whichever way you look at it) of men. But that attempt, while honorable, may be impossible. Hubris – blind arrogance that has little or no basis in genuine merit – may be an exclusive right we males alone enjoy.

    Unlike the three males in the headline – whose positive attributes are of marginal value at best (and even that is a very generous stretch), Julie Taymor is a person of very great talent and exceptional artistic vision. What drives her to excess is not what drives an arrogant politician, a semiliterate athlete, and a third-rate comedian with talented relatives to preen like demented peacocks.

    Julie Taymor is driven by exactly the same kind of genius that drove Orson Welles to make Citizen Kane the way he saw it and bankrupt the RKO studio in the process. His “hubris” failed in the short term just as Taymor’s has; whether hers will be vindicated in the long term is yet to be seen.

    Julie Taymor is not guilty of hubris but of being possessed of a gift that will not let her settle for what makes the beancounters and critics comfortable. As anyone can tell, I admire her greatly. $65 million is a small price to pay for giving her an opportunity to exercise that vision, and the fact that those who invested that money did not reap the return they wanted is irrelevant: it’s not as if her excesses took food out of the mouths of starving babies. I’d much rather see that money “wasted” on her than reap gazillions more from Disney or Andrew Lloyd Webber schlock.

    The fatal flaw in Spiderman is not Julie Taymor but Bono and The Edge. They are the ones in that mess who are guilty of hubris if anybody is. Like Charlie Sheen, they are mediocre talents who got in way, way, way over their heads.

    The only serious mistake Taymor made was investing her great talent in trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But – Hey! – she tried the same thing with the Beatles (other celebrated, arrogant mediocrities) when she made Across the Universe, and, by God, she did it! She made a transcendent, astonishing, brilliant movie out of some of the most banal songs ever written. She does not belong in with this ratty bunch of arrogant losers.

    Ms Willens should have saved Julie Taymor for an article about geniuses who were so far ahead of their times and so far ahead of the mediocre pack around them that they looked like arrogant failures when in truth they were not. She belongs with Welles and Van Gogh (although poor Vincent never bankrupted anybody but himself), not with Sheen and Christie and LeBron James, whoever he is.