In the ancient poem Beowulf, the eponymous hero went about the Scandinavian countryside battling dragons and beasts and sharing his bold exploits with all who would listen. Such boasting was standard fare in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, a way for warriors to assert their bravery before facing an enemy, and confirming it after the sword was wiped clean.
Politicians have long taken to the time-honoured boast. Modern campaigns have become self-congratulatory orgies, with candidates throwing around elite degrees and family pedigrees with reckless abandon. What else are stump speeches but laundry lists of inflated accomplishments and promises of glorious victories?
In the era of Twitter and Facebook, however, boasting has taken a digital twist. You may have seen one example making the rounds online last week.
On the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALS, Barack Obama’s re-election team released a brief video advert. It’s called “One Chance”, and it’s narrated by former president Bill Clinton. During the 90-second spot, Clinton extols Obama’s decision to raid the Pakistani compound, saying that he took the “harder and more honourable path” that day.
Ah yes, the boast by proxy (this is still boasting).
Over some dramatic music, a question soon pops up: “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” Mitt Romney surely knows. Cue the counter-boast, “Had I been president of the United States,” he said at a press conference, “I would have made the same decision the president made.”
Joe Biden, Obama’s number two, has even adapted the theme into a catchy slogan, “Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive.” It’s a boast of an almost medieval nature. We’ve vanquished the monster! We’ve saved the industrial damsel in distress!
A boast, a gloat, a pat on one’s own back – is this ever justified? Is it ever useful? At what point does self-celebration shed its skin of innocence and become something unpleasant and outright objectionable?
If the past week’s events have been any indication, we’ll soon find out. Surely even Beowulf would have been impressed.