The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

Pride has been called the sin from which all others arise. Author Michael Eric Dyson discusses his book on the subject and the complexities and ambiguities of this deadly sin.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Of the seven deadly sins, theologians and philosophers reserve a special place for pride. Lust, envy, anger, greed, gluttony and sloth are all bad, the sages say, but pride is the deadliest of all, the root of all evil, and the beginning of sin. But then there's parental pride, pride in one's work, pride for your school or your city or your country. Of all the deadly sins, writes Michael Eric Dyson, pride is most likely to stir debate about whether it's a sin at all.

The complexities and ambiguities of pride form the final installment in a series of short books presented by the Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library. It's author reminds us that he has a lot to be proud of, his teachers, his family, the books he's read and written. Pride is self-respect and self-esteem, he says, but then warns that pride is arrogance and hubris as well.

Later in the program, Disney deals a play-by-play man for rights to a nearly forgotten cartoon character, and the soundtrack of the Olympic opening ceremony. But first, pride. Is it a virtue, or a vice? Is it an engine of excellent or the onramp to the road to perdition? If you have questions about individual pride, collective pride, black pride, white pride, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Social critic and writer Michael Eric Dyson is professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He's also an ordained Baptist minister, and he joins us now from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia, undoubtedly with snowy shoes. Nice to have you back on the program.

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Professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author, "Pride"): It's good to be here, brother Neal.

CONAN: Why, when this series was proposed, you write that you really had to have pride. How come?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor DYSON: Ain't too proud to beg.

CONAN: No.

Professor DYSON: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Because I had been thinking about pride in a number of venues and a number of different faces, so to speak, with a number of intentions, not the least of which was the ability to talk about black pride...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Professor DYSON: ...and to speak about pride in family, and pride in nation, and pride in community and tribe in nuanced and a complex fashion. So, since I had been thinking about that subject and writing about it in a variety of guises over the years, I felt this was a natural thing for me to do.

CONAN: And in the process of writing this book, you identify all these different kinds of pride, and you've just listed a few. Did you come to a conclusion as to whether pride is a sin or not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor DYSON: Yeah, well, I think I wanted to say, you know, as Yogi Bear said, I came to the fork in the road and took it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, yeah. You know, on the one hand, of course, there's extraordinary amount of literature and theological and philosophical reflection about the viciousness of pride, about the way in which unmitigated gall, unmitigated temerity, unabashed hubris, the incredible forms of pride that lead to a destruction are worth listening to and remembering, and especially when it's applied, as I do in my book...

CONAN: Hmm.

Professor DYSON: ...to a concept of nationhood, but not simply pride in nation, but a kind of nationalism versus a patriotism that I try to draw distinction between. On the other hand, I think there's enormous sources of support and affirmation for the fellow feeling that accompanies a job done well, or pride in doing one's job with excellence or pursuing a particular moral end for good purposes. So, I think, in that sense, pride is both a vice and a virtue, and it depends...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Professor DYSON: ...upon how you cut it as to what you see it as.

CONAN: One of the interesting quotes in your book: "Thinking to highly of yourself is a sin. Thinking well of God and others, and therefore, of yourself, is a sacrament."

Professor DYSON: Yeah. Well, I think, in the sense that, you know, in my own tradition, my African-American religious tradition, more specifically than that, there's black Baptist tradition, we were always warned against the belief that one's own intelligence, or one's own moral excellent were the predicate for one's pride. One had to forever forestall a recognition of one's own virtue by admitting that one had to genuflect, bow before the altar of God.

It is only insofar as the gift that God gave you reflects itself in you that you were willing to embrace it, and recognize its excellence. So, on the one hand, you could acclaim that it was good, it was virtuous, it was powerful, but not because of anything that was inherently good about you, but what was reflected in you and through you, so that one becomes an instrument and a vehicle of the Almighty, and as a result of that, one can acclaim that to be good, because God is good.

CONAN: Hmm. You mentioned the word hubris, which is, of course, a Greek word, which I, you always see it translated as overweening pride. I had never seen the Latin translation which is superbia, which, of course, sounds like a little town right outside of Philadelphia somewhere, but, in fact, is Latin for hubris. I never understood that.

Professor DYSON: Yeah, when you think about, too, superb. You know, I'm thinking about some derivations. When you say something is superb, of course, it's the ultimate...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Professor DYSON: ...in compliment. But at the same time, as you say that superbia also is about the regions, and to borrow your suburban metaphor, the regions that ring around an appropriate sense of pride, but that are always beckoning with vicious intent, and certainly vicious consequence.

CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in this conversation about pride. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Michael, Michael calling us from, where is this? Boston, Massachusetts.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

MICHAEL: Yes. I'm speaking, of course, as an atheist, a secularist, but it's always seemed to me that one reason why religions tend to be down on pride is because religion operates somewhat as a protection racket, in that they say you're, you know, you're really nothing. Oh, but with the help of God, you can be someone.

Professor DYSON: Mmm.

MICHAEL: And I think they basically have to pull people down in order to build them, in order to claim they have a solution to that later on.

Professor DYSON: Hmm. Well, I think that that certainly may be the case and certainly has been the case for some religious cultures and religious peoples. On the other hand, I think another virtuous function of this religiously informed conception of pride is that it keeps people from investing, over-investing zealously and exaggerating the importance of institutions, say, like politics or culture, even the church, which accrue to themselves enormous forms of power that are rarely interrupted, except when people see that, no, the seat of your power, the source of your authority is not in you, but it's in God.

Black people, for instance, who were put down systematically and lacerated, lashed even, with vicious forms of self-degrading reflection, said, no, you can't make us believe we're nothing. We believe we are something, because God's love and spirit in us makes us feel good, makes us feel capable, and therefore gives us a source outside of your authority to draw upon. So, I absolutely agree with your, with the caller's first analysis, but that doesn't exhaust the potential or possibility of response from within religious circles as to what pride functions as.

MICHAEL: I'd like to say that I do think there's a strong difference between pride in things for which one hasn't worked at all, like your race or your ancestry, and pride for things that you've achieved, of course, with some humility, because you stand on the shoulders of the people underneath you, and you don't have control over what talents you're given initially.

Professor DYSON: Well, no question. But even, it's a bit more slippery than that, right? Because things for which you don't work, like race, well, race's meaning is never settled upon entry into existence, upon birth. The meaning of race depends upon the interaction between human beings and cultures and societies as to the meaning of that.

So, in this case, especially in an American society where race has been a marker of degradation or seen, especially blackness, as a floating signifier for that which is not excellence, racial pride is a very hard, fought-for virtue. And sometimes, of course, to be sure it can become a vice, but a virtue that is the manifestation of a determination to identify with the things that are healthy and uplifting.

So, I don't think that it's a given. The myth of the given there has to be dismissed, and I think that it is something that the people have to work very hard for in order to achieve.

MICHAEL: Yeah, but, you know, things like the Irish, and then later the Italians and Jews and Poles, for that matter, becoming white in the common language...

Professor DYSON: Mm-hmm.

MICHAEL: ...that's a matter of just buying into the top of society without, you know, black people are never going to become white, so we better just drop the category if we could.

Profesor DYSON: Well...

CONAN: Well, talk a little bit about, you do write a lot about this...

Professor DYSON: Right.

CONAN: ...white pride, which you describe, as well as black pride.

Professor DYSON: Yes.

CONAN: This is the moment.

Professor DYSON: No doubt. Well, I think the caller is absolutely right in terms of, in one sense Noel Lignadia(ph), and others, Dave Rotiger(ph), Ted Allen have written about the assent of whiteness, and, you know, buying into whiteness, and, you know, leaving Irish, Polish, Italian roots. In particular, ethnic enclaves and cultures, and coming to America where the crucible of race pulverizes the ethnic particularity of Italian identity, or Polish identity, and so on.

And it becomes white. It becomes all together white, because the politics of race in America are about black and white, so to speak.

But yeah, on the other hand, though, blackness does signify, in serious fashion, and is not up to me as an individual black person whether we should have the category or not. I'd be perfectly willing to surrender the negative connotations of race all together. But, you know, I keep trying to leave it, but they keep dragging me back in, as they say.

The reality is, is that race signifies, almost in an objective fashion, beyond the intent of the individual user of race. So, even if you want to disclaim the notion that race will have any impact on you, say as a person of color, there could still be objective conditions.

Say, for instance, somebody in the KKK hates you, or some bigot wants to do something, or you happen to be on a roof top down in, you know, Louisiana. And for five days, you are stranded and abandoned. The issue of race keeps asserting itself with lethal intensity in America, and it's not up to the personal discretion of the individual person. It's a collective reality, and it's a group reality in a society where race continues to make a huge difference.

So, I'd love to have the luxury of, you know, sloughing it off, but the reality is race has objective and very empirically-based consequences that I can't just dismiss with the wave of my hand.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. And, as many listeners will be aware, Michael Eric Dyson has another book out right now. It is about Katrina.

Professor DYSON: Yes.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds before the break, but I wonder if, as you were writing these two books, you saw a lot of resonance?

Professor DYSON: Oh, absolutely right. The fact is that those people who were abandoned down there in New Orleans, black and white, French origin, Spanish origins and African origins, had an enormous sense of pride to maintain a sense of survival in the midst of a culture that was basically anemical or hostile to them.

The black people who were left down there, 134,000 of whom were without cars, still had enough pride to muster the might to get to the, you know, to the Convention Center, or to the Super Dome.

But they also had the pride of place. They wanted to stick to their, you know, native terrain. Some of them didn't leave because, by darn it, this is my home, I want to stay here. I've got enormous pride in it, because if it gets washed away, that's all I have in the world. And that's a significant source of pride as well.

CONAN: We're talking today with Michael Eric Dyson, whose most recent book, will claim credit for it, is Pride. It's part of the Seven Deadly Sins series published by the Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library.

If you'd like to join our conversation, 800-989-8255, or zap us an e-mail talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan, we'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about Pride, the last deadliest and most ambiguous sin in the Oxford University Press Series on the Seven Deadly sins.

Our guest is social critic and writer Michael Eric Dyson. Of course, you're invited to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Let's get another caller on the line. Roberto, Roberto calling us from Portland, Oregon.

ROBERTO (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me on the show, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

Roberto: I was wondering to what extent the problem with the definition of pride has to do with limitations in our language. Because, you know, I'm from Puerto Rico, and in Spanish, we have two words. One is a kind of positive connotation, and one a negative. Soberbia, which sounds like superbia...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTO: ...is the negative one, and orgullo is the positive one. And I'll take my comments off the air on that.

CONAN: Okay, Roberto, thanks for the call.

ROBERTO: Thank you.

Professor DYSON: Well, there's no doubt that language both enables and precludes, both inhibits and allows to flourish. So, I think that you're absolutely right.

That give how the language operates and here we can take a kind of Vichtensteinian(ph) philosophical approach to say, yep, that language is very important. It constitutes the identity itself. It sets the limits. But it also circumscribes, with boundaries, what we can say and not say, what we can mean and not mean.

However, I think that the language is kind of elastic when it comes to conceptions of pride. Because if, as the caller has just talked about within, you know, Spanish and being Puerto Rican. There are many definitions, shades, and nuances of meaning that the language allows to, in one sense, allows to occur.

So, if for instance, when you think about, we can use the same word, we don't even a different word...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Professor DYSON: ...right? Say the difference between pride or hubris, and the like. We could say the word pride itself signifies in so many multiple fashions simultaneously. So, you can say your pride, you know, pride goes before the destruction, a haughty spirit, or before a mighty fall, as the Bible would say.

On the other hand, Curtis Mayfield would sing, I'm so proud, I'm so proud of you and the pride we have. So that the language itself is tricky, here, because the very self-same word that is used to denote something negative, is the very self-same word that is used to denote something positive.

So, it's even trickier within English when you have pride stretched out horizontally, but it means so many different things at the same time. And it can shift up even within the same paragraph to mean something positive and something negative.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Professor DYSON: And I think that's the beauty that's the delivered ambiguity. And that's also the kind of irritating ambiguity for many people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But even pride that everybody, universally, would accept is that justifiable pride: a fatherly pride in a new baby.

Professor DYSON: Right.

CONAN: If you succumb to the temptation, this pride can become arrogant, over-weaning, a sin.

Professor DYSON: Oh, absolutely right. It's a very good point. And I think that it, so it's more than the language. It's also the social practice to which the language is attached. And it's the kind of behavioral norms that we evoke that either reflect our religious or our moral sensibilities.

Because, after all, as I talk about in the book, if Aristotle was speaking about the mean between the two. You know, you don't want to have too big a head on the one hand. And yet, he would argue that, look, if you are trying to pretend through false humility that you are not as great as you're supposed to be...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Professor DYSON: ...then you're committing a sin as well, because you're refusing to live up to the greatness that is inherent in you.

So even that kind of false pride, that false humility, I should say, is itself a sin, because it refuses to acknowledge the fruitfulness of your pride.

CONAN: We're in a pride/logic loop here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor DYSON: And I'm just proud of that.

CONAN: Let's see if a listener could help us out. This is Sandra. Sandra calling from North Omstead, in Ohio.

SANDRA (Caller): Hi, nice to be on your show.

CONAN: Nice to have you.

SANDRA: Well, I sort of agree with your guest, and I would have to say that pride can have its good and bad sides. I'm proud of my daughter when she does something good in school, and I tell her I'm proud of her. And I would say that, in that sense, I used to be happy when I heard that from my parents.

But I think pride, say in a marriage, can be very destructive, because I can say from my own experience, if I find myself sort of, you know, very proud at the moment, and I should be the one to go over and talk to my husband, or apologize. If I listen to my, how should I say, proud feelings, I find that we don't end up anywhere, you know in a good place.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You don't...

SANDRA: So I would say that in that sense, I think pride in a marriage, in certain relationships like that can be very destructive.

CONAN: Hmm.

Professor DYSON: Yeah.

Sandra: I would have to say that they're different. You know...

CONAN: Different reflections of, I guess a similar quality, wouldn't you think?

Professor DYSON: Right. Yeah, absolutely. What strikes me there is that, of course, pride in one's child is beautiful. But you can have pride in a marriage, too, that doesn't have to be destructive.

Her point is very well taken. That is, pride as the inability to acknowledge that one must make the first move. That you have to have a kind of encompassing humility that says, look, even though I may believe that I'm in the right here, ah-ha pride sticking itself up, I won't allow that feeling to prohibit me form going to my mate and making the first move, the first gesture toward, you know, reconciliation or rehabilitating lost emotion in the relationships.

So, the point is that, yeah, that kind of pride can be destructive, and the lack of a sense of balance and approach to that relationship can be destructive.

On the other hand, you can be so proud of the virtue of your relationship so, in the positive sense, and so proud of the magnanimous gifts that flow from that relationship, that you don't want anything to stop it, even your sense of pride.

So, ironically enough, one sense of pride can trump another sense of pride. One is a virtue, one is a vice, depending upon the situation.

CONAN: Sandra, oh, go ahead, I'm sorry.

SANDRA: I would just say, I mean, I completely agree with that. I think I'm proud of my marriage, obviously, and proud of this relationship, but I sort of give thanks to the Lord for that. I think that all good comes through him.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SANDRA: And just like your guest said, pride, in that sense, where you don't have the humility to go over, and even though you think you're right, I think, in that sense, that's when it's very destructive, so...

Professor DYSON: Yes ma'am, amen.

CONAN: And good luck with that, Sandra.

SANDRA: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Let's go to Susan, Susan calling us from Phoenix.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi there, this is Susan in Phoenix, and I am so nervous. I hope I can get my thoughts collected, here.

CONAN: No more than nervous than we are, Susan. Go ahead.

SUSAN: Oh, good. Well, I'm calling in a bit of a disagreement with an earlier caller, who had said that religion utilizes pride in order to keep people down. And although I think that's a pretty easy conclusion to draw when you're not in a religion, or dropped out when you were in high school, I think that's pretty, you know, that's kind of an obvious conclusion to draw.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SUSAN: But, I really think that the demonization, I guess you could say, of pride in religion, comes from early Catholic roots with aestheticism and mysticism, and, you know. In Plato, seeing this realm as basically false compared to the realm of the forms.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SUSAN: You know, and I really think that that's where the lack of pride comes from. Seeing as, this realm isn't even real. So, it's really the realms of the form that we need to exist in, and really, pride has no place in that realm, because, you would have pride in earthly things which aren't even real.

CONAN: Hmm.

SUSAN: And I really think that that's where Catholic roots, where Catholics get the putting down of pride.

Professor DYSON: Well, yeah, that's a very interesting argument. I try to trace, in the first chapter of my book, the kind of religious and philosophical roots of pride. You know the Augustian, that's a mystic, Gregory, of course, earlier bishop, Evagrius of Pontus, and so on and so forth...

SUSAN: Exactly.

Professor DYSON: ...to think about the roots of pride. So, in that sense, I think that there is an ongoing argument about the relative place of pride, and the recognition of God as the superior power, and that human beings who fail to recognize that superior power are attempting, like Satan himself, to displace God, and therefore fall from heaven; the angelic heights of enlightened engagement with God, to a despotically willful place where they have rejected and repudiated the conception of God.

So, in that sense, a religious conception certainly can be used to acknowledge the sinful place of pride. But it also can be used, I think, if I take the first call, the caller with whom your disagreeing, right.

SUSAN: Right.

Professor DYSON: I think that it can be used religiously to justify and sanctify a status quo, or to sanctify and justify a religious sensibility or body of belief that wants to police the mindsets and the perspectives of those who fall within its religious order.

One thinks now of Evangelical pieties that are afoot in contemporary Christianity. Outside of even, say, Catholicism, where the rain of a certain kind of religious authority suggests that pride operates to the degree that people refuse to acknowledge the superiority of their religious viewpoint.

Think about Pat Robertson on the 700 Club, and the enormously difficult and problematic deployment of the notion of pride there. Anything that challenges, I think, a middle of the road evangelical piety that is mainstream, and quite frankly, Republican right-wing, ends up being sinful, but everything that falls within that circle ends up being good. I think that could be a function of the protection racket that the first person talked about.

SUSAN: And I do understand what you're saying. And I think that that's bad, and it's been an abuse of the roots of religion, really, and I do understand what you mean.

CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson, you point out at one point, the different arguments that the two sides, parts of the two sides use, in rallying the troops around their arguments about abortion, for example.

Professor DYSON: Oh, absolutely right. You know, because some people say, well, you claim to have enough insight to know when life begins or ends, so how can you make a judgment about when life ends or begins and do you think you're God. On the other hand, the opponents of such a viewpoint would say, no, it's not that we think we know when life begins or ends, it's the fact that you tried to exhaustively define what life is and you cut it off after, you know, when a child is born, you have no more investment in that child's life and as a result of that you begin to valorize the conception of life that is prenatal, so to speak.

So, the warring sides in the abortion argument, or in the Civil Rights argument, about the proper use of force or love or justice in a public space all have to do, ultimately, with the roots of pride and how one understands the function of a certain sense of arrogance, or hubris, as we've been calling it, as it functions in politics. And I think that's part of the, both the enriched argument that we often have, and also part of the complexity of that argument that we often miss, in blunt force objects like you're proud, you're not proud, you're good, you're not good, you're bad, you're not bad. And I think that's where the problem comes in.

SUSAN: Okay.

CONAN: Susan, thanks. Oh, I'm sorry, did you have something else?

SUSAN: I was going to just thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much.

SUSAN: Thank you, have a great day.

CONAN: And you did great for your first call.

Professor DYSON: You did very well.

SUSAN: Thank you. Bye.

Professor DYSON: Absolutely. Bye.

CONAN: And just a question. As we've been discussing pride and the other deadly sins, as if sin is a term that has a lot of meaning in the world today.

Professor DYSON: Yeah, right, exactly. That's true. I mean, you think about Karl Menninger's book, Whatever Became of Sin, and that was written, you know, I don't know, 30, 40 years ago. So, it is true that the notion of sin, as falling short of the mark, sin, as failing to live up to one's obligation, or more specifically and concretely sin as the manifestation of a will that is against God, has resonance in many of these religious communities, but it certainly takes on different meanings in different contexts.

I mean, after all, don't the Muslim brothers and sisters who are now protesting the cartoon drawing in Denmark think that it is an absolute sin for anybody to make a representation of Muhammad, or of a deity, of their deity. And, you know, for the same people it is a sin not have the ability, that is the people who draw the commercials or the cartoons or the people who defend them religiously, it is an equally egregious sin not to have the freedom to express oneself and what's on one's mind. So, yeah, sin is a slippery slope and it certainly is a shape shifting term that depends upon the context to fill in the blanks about what it looks like.

CONAN: We're talking today with Michael Eric Dyson about his new book Pride, part of the seven deadly sin series from the Oxford University Press. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get another caller on the line. Excuse me, I've hit the wrong button there. This is Martay(ph). Martay's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MARTAY (Caller): Speaking. Good afternoon gentleman.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

Professor DYSON: Good afternoon.

MARTAY: Mr. Dyson, this is in no relation to God and such, but I'm from New Orleans, I'm a new transplant to Charlotte from New Orleans after the hurricane. And I was just curious to know why you sort of linked pride to people staying in New Orleans as a source for them staying there. And I ask that because being so familiar with New Orleans there's so many poor people that the hurricane having hit at the end of the month, they were simply unable to leave due to financial reasons.

Professor DYSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: Many, I don't think we need to categorize everybody, but yes.

Professor DYSON: Right, right. Yeah, well, I argue in my book, Come Hell or High Water Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, that 134,000 people in New Orleans indeed were not able to leave at least because they didn't have cars. Now, all of them who didn't have cars, of course, I'm not arguing that everybody who didn't leave didn't have a car, because some people who had cars perhaps chose not to leave. I am arguing, however, as you have just now pointed out, that there are very empirically verifiable financial reasons and economic reasons why people were there. They weren't stubborn, they weren't stupid, they were stuck. But some chose to stay. What I'm suggesting, however..

MARTAY: Exactly, so, yeah.

Professor DYSON: Right, absolutely. Yes, ma'am. But I'm saying that some did choose to stay when I talk about pride, because people outside might not be able to understand, why would people want to hold onto that? What's in the 9th Ward? Those poor houses? Well, I'll tell you what, 54 percent of people in the 9th Ward owned their own homes. Now, you might think they're crappy and shoddy, but they owned them. It was theirs. So, that's what I meant by pride.

Like I'm proud of the fact that this is mine. This is my piece of territory, and if it gets washed away, you know, it's mine. And they were right, right? Many of those people turned out to be right because now that their property has been washed away FEMA is not helping them out, the federal government is not helping them out, the local government failed them. And so they were right to be concerned about what would happen and their investment. That's what I meant by pride. It's an investment of emotion.

MARTAY: (Unintelligible) in the aftermath, absolutely.

Professor DYSON: Yes ma'am.

CONAN: It's interesting. I saw a sign erected in one of the worst Protestant slums in Belfast, this was twenty-five years ago, sometime ago, I'm pretty sure it's gone, but this was eighteenth century housing, no running water, electricity has just come in in the last twenty years. And over this street was this sign, This We Shall Preserve.

Professor DYSON: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: There you go. There it is.

MARTAY: That beauty of New Orleans.

Professor DYSON: Yeah. Well, you know what, it's mine, it's what I've generated and, you know what, this terrain is more than about a physical lump of clay. It's more than about mud. It's more than about environmental toxicity. It's also about a spiritual investment. These are spiritual geographies invested with huge transcendent meanings that people associate with them. This is where I've grown.

I met a woman friend since when I went back down to New Orleans, about three weeks ago, who came back, Darlene Matthews, she came back from Houston where she was, you know, on FEMA, but FEMA was mistreating her. She came back, she said I'd rather be here, in a condemned home, with twenty-five people in a three bedroom project, because it's what I know. It's the people I know. It's a land that I've come to love and despite whatever people say about it, it's mine. And I think that's the kind of sense of pride to which I refer. But I don't deny at all the point you made as well.

MARTAY: Yeah, I wasn't attempting to argue what your point was at all. I was just wondering where you were coming from, that's all.

Professor DYSON: Yes ma'am.

CONAN: Well, Martay, thanks very much for the call.

MARTAY: Well, thank you sirs. Have a lovely afternoon.

Professor DYSON: And god bless you in your own pilgrimage back home as well.

MARTAY: Thank you. Thank you. I'm looking forward to that day.

Professor DYSON: Yes ma'am.

MARTAY: Bye bye.

CONAN: We're talking, bye bye, we're talking with Michael Eric Dyson, we'll have more after a short break. Plus, how a famous rabbit crossed paths with a famous sportscaster and how an Olympic town became funky town. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today we're talking with Michael Eric Dyson about his new book, Pride, the seventh in a series on the seven deadly sins. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, or send us an email, talk@npr.org. And let's go to Shawn. Shawn's calling us from St Louis.

SHAWN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Okay.

SHAWN: I just, well, one I wanted, I had another comment that came to me. The whole thing of pride and homeland, kind of a slippery slope given the whole Mideast thing and the seemingly never-ending turmoil there. But to get back to my original comment, if we look at, you know, it's just a comment, if we look at literature and we see the examples of pride, say in Oedipus Rex, where he's literally blinded and then he hands it down to his daughter, and that's the reason she's, you know, killed by pride. But if we bring that to a more modern day kind of concrete example, you look at sports players who seem to almost rip apart their team and destroy that family bond through their own, you know, selfish pride, and their own sense of self worth that is not in any way humble. And just that comment, you know.

Professor DYSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, I'm here in Philadelphia and...

SHAWN Well, that's (unintelligible).

Professor DYSON: Yeah, yeah. My man, T.O., comes to mind.

CONAN: He isn't in Philadelphia.

Professor DYSON: Right. Exactly. The most recent example of that. And look at it...

SHAWN: But not (unintelligible).

Professor DYSON: Right, and you see the manifestation of the multiple registers of pride there, because in one sense the good sense of pride produced that body chiseled like Adonis, since we're evoking Greek gods here, chiseled like Adonis, an incredibly Herculean will that forced, that allowed him to come out in the Super Bowl last year. The one before this one of course. And perform at the height of his ability because of a desire, a commitment to the team that was incredible. So that pride was a collective pride that allowed him to participate as one of many.

The pride about which you speak, that I think is just as effectively wrought here and just as destructive as the other one was good, is the fact that now his own desire to get his way lead him to destroy the pride of the quarterback Donovan McNabb or attempt to do so. And to wreck the pride of the team as a team. So the same function of pride or at least I say the same word functions in different ways. The same concept functions either in an edifying sense or in a wholefully destructive one.

Now, about your first comment, however, in terms of homeland, it's not just in the Middle East. I think America has a great dose of this as well, as I write in the fifth chapter of my book about the difference between being patriotic, which is loving one's country in an edifying and in a very vividly ingratiating way, and then nationalism, which is my country right or wrong, which is the belief that my country is the only means by which the norms of justice and democracy can be measured. And I think that's the slippery slope that America especially walks on now in the aftermath of 9/11.

CONAN: And you write about it in terms of America seeing itself as the exceptional nation. America as seeing itself in an earlier manifestation, manifest destiny.

Professor DYSON: Oh, absolutely right. I mean, America believing that God gave it the right to be the moral cop of the world or at least to embody the virtues of democracy and also the virtues of self-righteousness. I mean, self-justifying righteousness, politically speaking, and how that manifests itself in very shameful and powerful fashion. And I think that that history has carried us forward and unfortunately even in our own present day I'm afraid that this notion, this kind of post-modern notion of manifest destiny, has shown itself up with our ability, not only to do stuff in foreign lands, but right here in America.

I think the president's use of wiretapping is an extraordinary example of hubris. The belief that he is a monarch ruling over people as opposed to an employee hired by the people, for the people. And I think this recent example touches on the incredible hubristic impulse that not only Mr. Bush but the people around him, Mr. Cheney, Secretary Rice, have enflamed. And I think that's a very dangerous precipice upon which we find ourselves presently.

CONAN: Shawn, thanks very much for the call.

SHAWN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And finally, Michael Eric Dyson, how do you check your pride?

Professor DYSON: Well, that's a very interesting conversation. I think we have to have enough pride to put ourselves in positions where others are allowed to check us. You have to have structural humility, by which I mean, you put yourself in a position where you're constantly being self-critical, where others are being critical of you, not in a destructive fashion, but in a healthy and uplifted fashion, so that you make certain that your particular instincts, ideas, identities, and intelligence, and gifts serve a greater good in not simply oneself, but at the same time that one is able to draw down from the fruit of one's own work a sense of pride that is sustaining.

And I think that can only come in community. And I think people have to check you. You have to have good friends. You have to have neighbors. You have to have loved ones. And you certainly have to have fellow workers and employees but especially a tight-knit circle of intimates that give you a sense of your possibility, but also help rein you in when you're, shall we say, voyaging in too deeply into the terrain of pride.

CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson, as always, thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Professor DYSON: My friend, always good to be here. I'm so proud of you, Brother Conan.

CONAN: I'm proud of you, sir.

Professor DYSON: Thank you, my friend.

CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson is a social critic and writer, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined us today from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. His book is Pride, the final installment in the series published by the Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library on the seven deadly sins.

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