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A little levity about arrogance
by Clifford A. Schaffer

Some of us are destined for greatness. And the others . . .

There are a certain number of people in the world who believe, for whatever reason, that they have the one true answer to some major problem of their time. For a few of them, the belief is strong enough that they charge off like Don Quixote, arrogantly determined to make the whole rest of the world conform to their view of reality. For a tiny, rare percentage of them it is an actual historical truth that they have the one true answer to a major problem. By far the majority, however, are just plain, garden-variety nuts destined to go to their deathbed thinking they almost had it. If you happen to be a person so afflicted, how can you tell whether you really are one of these unique people in history, or just a plain, old nut?

Consider, for example, the true story of Emperor Joshua Norton.

Joshua Norton was a businessman in San Francisco in the 1800's. In the 1840's, just before the Gold Rush, he tried to corner the market on rice and failed. He went from being very wealthy to being destitute overnight and the experience completely shattered his reason. A couple of months after this event, he put on a formal admiral's uniform, complete with gold braid and epaulets and strode in to the office of the newspaper. He handed the editor a large, official looking proclamation which stated in quite formal language that, due to popular demand, he hereby declared himself Emperor Norton I of San Francisco, California, and Mexico. He bade all his subjects show him loyalty and the other courtesies due a person of such eminent stature.

From the pictures of Emperor Norton, it is immediately apparent that this guy has gone around the bend and ain't coming back. His eyes pointed in different directions, and neither one quite caught straight ahead. His uniform was formal to the point of almost gaudy and, at the same time, it was quite apparent that he and soap were not of regular acquaintance.

The editor, with a rich sense of humor, decided to publish the proclamation on the front page of the newspaper, in all seriousness. The citizens of San Francisco, being what they are, immediately decided that this sounded like a good idea and, by unanimous acclamation, accepted Norton as their Emperor. It is undoubtedly the only time in history they ever had an unanimous vote on anything.

He reigned for about forty years. During that time he ate in all of the finest restaurants and slept in the finest hotels for free -- because he was the Emperor. He had three seats permanently reserved in the front row of the San Francisco opera house -- one for him, and one each for his two dogs. Twice a year he would review the police and fire departments as they paraded by, and then he would make a grand speech to the assembled crowds. He printed his own money, which was accepted in business establishments around San Francisco as legal tender. When bicycles first came out, they got him a bicycle, too, and he looked all the more daft because of it. When one of his dogs died, 10,000 people turned out for the funeral to console their grief-stricken emperor. When the Civil War rolled around, he graciously offered his alliance and military support to Abraham Lincoln, who politely declined.

Make no mistake about it, the Emperor Norton was as good a loony as you have ever run across and I can't help feeling that a man who was that intelligent must have had some idea of just how completely nuts he really was.

Now here's the problem. During his reign as Emperor, Norton came up with three major ideas:

1) He called upon the other leaders of the world to join him in forming a League of Nations where disputes between nations could be resolved peacefully.

2) He suggested that parts of San Francisco Bay be filled in to make more room to build.

3) He proposed that a suspension-span bridge be built across the spot where the Golden Gate stands now. He even laid out a complete design that looks remarkably close to the bridge that was built sixty years after he died. He correctly predicted that only a suspension span bridge would have the strength to span such a large stretch, and the flexibility to stand up under the extreme stress which would be placed on such a structure. He did this at a time when the only suspension bridges ever built were rope bridges in remote parts of Africa.

Of course, when he proposed these ideas, the response was long and uproarious laughter -- the Emperor was up to his old tricks again. In time, all of his ideas became reality. At the time, no one believed him.

It has occurred to me that Jesus must have had the same problem. Think of what must have happened when he showed up for his high school reunion.

"Hey fellas," He says. "You'll never believe what happened. It turns out I really AM the Messiah."

"Yeah, right," his school chums say. "If you're the Messiah, where's your Porsche?"

That's probably why he spent all his time doing miracles like turning water into wine -- nobody took him seriously until he showed up with the booze.

So put yourself in Emperor Norton's position and consider what you might do. Suppose you are strolling down the street one day and a big bolt of lightning comes out of the sky and blasts you right out of your shoes. When you come to, you are thoroughly convinced that you have the one true insight which, unique among men, has given you the answer to one or more of society's most troubling problems. What are you to do?

If you keep quiet about it, the world could be missing one of the best emperors ever to come along. Everyone loses, including you.

If you act on it, tell everyone about it, and attempt to install yourself as emperor then you could do some real good for both you and posterity. Certainly, if you can really save the world then it seems almost a moral obligation to try. Of course, if you try, you have to face the fact that, statistically speaking, it is far more likely that you are a nut than an emperor, and far more likely that you will be laughed at than taken seriously. There have been lots and lots of nuts, and only a handful of emperors.

So what should you do? I think the only thing you can do is act on the belief, keep an enormous sense of humor, and be content with the fact that you might wind up in the encyclopedia next to Emperor Norton. But that's just my take on the situation.

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