Some deadly sins are better than others. Take gluttony. By definition it seethes with excess and over indulgence. And greed, with its inherently selfish motivations, carries no positive overtones whatsoever. How would one depict gluttony or greed in a positive light? Not easily. Twenty first century people, in line with their medieval ancestors, would probably still classify these behaviors as "sins" or at least as "darn bad things". But the other "sins" remain different, and people today would probably only call them "sins" when taken to extreme. Truly, too much anger, sloth, lust, or envy can result in behavior destructive to self and others. But in small quantities they can provide motivation to action or emotional release. Unlike gluttony or greed, each of these remaining sins can be depicted in a positive light when not taken to excess. Pride shares this characteristic. Fatuous overzealous pride makes for a rather unpleasant and potentially self-destructive person. But the right dose of pride can inspire and provide self-worth. Modern pride then swings more to the "less deadly" side of the deadly sin continuum.
Michael Eric Dyson thoroughly explores this "better" deadly sin in five short chapters. He draws on his direct experiences of both racial pride and what he has seen of overwrought nationalism. The former represents a potentially good form of pride (again, if not taken to extreme), the latter demonstrates pride's ugly side spilling over into myopic vanity. Dyson sees both forms at work in today's world.
The first chapter deals with pride from a historical perspective. Pride once held a notorious spot in the litany of sins. The Greeks, until Aristotle, termed it "hubris" and found it a menace. Much later, Pope Gregory I called it "the root of all evil" and Augustine and Aquinas held equally disparaging views. Pride kept people from God, so went the argument, and opened the door to other sins. Thus, humility became the state in which one fell into grace with the Lord by becoming truly subject (or subordinate). In great contrast to this long tradition, Aristotle held pride in some esteem. Dyson points out the Aristotelian notion of "the proud man... who thinks himself worthy of great things". But this proudness shouldn't stretch too far. Examples of overstretching in the forms of religious fundamentalism, nationalistic arrogance, power, and wealth get discussed.
Dyson then turns autobiographical as he discusses his experience with pride. He is proud of his reading and writing skills, and books helped strenghten his will in hard times. The writings of Melville, Dostoyevsky, Morrison, Solzhenitsyn, Ellison, Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others helped lead him to his position today of social critic and ordained Baptist Minister. So Dyson has had some very positive experiences with pride.
The next two chapters juxtapose white and black pride, in that "white pride is often the vice that makes black pride necessary." White pride, often taken for granted and infrequently up for discussion, can lead to self-loathing for blacks. Dyson quotes terms like "whitewishing" and "white water is wetter" as symptoms of white pride successfully squashing out black pride. Other signs include the long struggle between light and dark skinned blacks. Though historically the prejudice fell in favor of lighter skin, Dyson notes that today darker skin has come into vogue. He then discusses his conflicting emotions at the appointments of blacks high up in the Bush administration, feeling proud to have blacks so high up, but simultaneously feeling repulsed by their political views. He has some very nasty words in particular for Condoleezza Rice. With equal venom, he attacks what he calls the "black elite" (e.g., Jack and Jill and the Links), condemning their disdain for lower class blacks while attempting to better the interests of their own kind exclusively. The discussion ends on a happier note with the Oscar victory speeches of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2002, and the rise of Kweisi Mfume (a US Congressman from Maryland now running for the Senate). One of the challenges going forward, Dyson claims, is to not allow white pride to distort or squelch black pride.
In the final chapter, Dyson deals with national pride. Here he attacks those that have disfigured a healthy love of country into narrow minded nationalism in post 911 America. A new form of PC, "Patriotic Correctness", has swept the nation following the fall of the twin towers. This chapter in particular deals with what Dyson sees as "pride gone bad".
This majority of this short book deals with pride mainly from a racial and political perspective. Dyson uses his own experiences of racism and nationalism to frame his arguments. Some of his observations and opinions may jar readers. In particular, supporters of the Bush administration may fulminate while reading the final chapter. But Dyson supports what he calls "critical patriotism", which he thinks needs to thrive for democracy to work. But sometimes relentless pride gets in the way and bats it down as heretical. His final chapter stands as a dire warning of what can happen when national pride runs amok. And it also demonstrates the dual nature of the prickly "sin" of pride. It has the strange power to make the healthy into a destructive force almost without notice.
"Pride" is thick with argument, stories, and criticism. Though not everyone will agree with Dyson's conclusions, he constructs an interesting ride through the subject of pride from certain perspectives. And though the discussion wanders and digresses in places, it always returns to its subject: that bizarre "sin" that no longer seems like a sin, pride.