Hubris has had a variety of meanings over the centuries. In ancient Greek it referred to defiance of the gods or violence intended to degrade or humiliate others. In modern English it means arrogance that denies the natural limitations of an individual. Over the past year, we have witnessed both the ancient and the modern applications of the word. We have also experienced unimaginable accomplishments and witnessed unspeakable depravity. 

For many Americans, surviving the Covid-19 pandemic will remain the greatest accomplishment of the year. For the astronomically inclined, the launch and deployment of the Webb space telescope and the successful Artemis moon mission are obvious highlights in the American exploration of space. Medical innovations, from minimally invasive surgical procedures to advances in CRISPR-Cas9 [no need to look it up] gene editing techniques, are too numerous to list.  An economy that continues to bounce back from the pandemic has again proven the strength of American financial institutions.

Unfortunately, the year has also been littered with acts of hubris, whether one uses the ancient or the modern meanings of the word. The continuing efforts by leaders of middle eastern and Asian countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, to relegate their female citizens to little more than reproductive activities and to demand upon threat of death in some cases that women abide by oppressive, antiquated restrictions on their activities, education, and dress codes show no signs of abating. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine continues with Russia’s ruling elite exhibiting no interest in stopping the slaughter.

At home, the volume of antidemocratic, antisemitic, xenophobic, and otherwise deranged discourse increases daily. Many of our elected representatives have been revealed to be coconspirators in an attempted coup that nearly succeeded and many still regard as a dress rehearsal for a more successful attack on our democracy in the near future. The integrity of candidates running for office is in decline and sound bites and fictional accomplishments are now populating the résumés of candidates.

George Santos, a newly elected member of the House who will be representing the people of Long Island, New York, achieved a level of mendacity remarkable even for a politician. During his campaign, according to multiple news sources, he lied about his education and diplomas; he lied about his business activities and employers; he lied about his family history; he even lied about his religious affiliations. Investigators currently suspect that he lied about his primary residence, the source of financing for his campaign, and his contention that he has never been convicted of serious criminal activities. In a country that is exceedingly forgiving for misstatements, unfounded claims, and unkept promises made by politicians, Santos has redefined the extent to which an office seeker will go to get elected.  The person for whom the people of Long Island voted does not exist. Santos crafted a fictional persona and claimed that identity as his own.

Politics has typically involved a high level of absurdity, but there are several other areas in which human activities targeting absurd goals have become mainstream. One such area is skyscraper construction. Each year the competition between nations or cities for the bragging rights to tallest building in the world continues unabated. Since the tower of Babel construction failed because of communication problems, foolish investors and ambitious engineers have set their sights ever higher. That we can see the entire planet from windows on the International Space Station has not satisfied the mere mortals who want to look out their living room windows from ever higher in the sky and test themselves for acrophobia, the fear of heights.

Currently the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in the city of Dubai on the northern coast of the Arabian peninsula. It stands 2,723 feet tall and has 163 floors. A variety of other Arabian and Chinese cities have attempted to go higher with their own towers, but none has succeeded yet. The Burj Khalifa has held the title of tallest building in the world since it was completed in 2010. It also is distinguished by numerous innovative and unique design characteristics and its low occupancy rate. Despite efforts to fill it with paying customers that started well before construction was completed, the Burj tower is still 29 % unoccupied.

Investors may point out that the Empire State Building in New York City had similar problems attracting renters when it was completed in 1931, and that building remained thinly populated for so long that it was often called the Empty State Building. It was (and is) a meager 103 stories high and was open for business just as the Great Depression began. It was several decades before it was eclipsed by other towers around the world, including the twin towers of the original World Trade Center.  In its day, the Empire State Building was a remarkable engineering accomplishment and the Burj Khalifa is even more so, but the absurdity of building the Burj Khalifa in Dubai suggests that people have not learned much since the debacle at the tower of Babel.

The Empire State Building is built on a block of granite, called Manhattan, that emerged from the ice when the glaciers of the most recent Ice Age retreated. The Burj Khalifa is built on desert sand that is routinely swept up by blinding winds. The engineers and architects given the task of building the Burj needed to compensate for the lack of bedrock to attach it to and the challenge posed by winds that would buffet the entire structure. Added to these challenges was the desert heat. Without specially designed, reflective windows and massive auxiliary buildings to house and manage the air-conditioning infrastructure, occupants of the building would literally roast as the outside temperature routinely exceeded 120 degrees F. The fundamental problem for this massive tower is that its location was chosen for visibility, rather than suitability.

That hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent to erect this unneeded and impractical structure in an unforgiving location is not surprising. There undoubtedly will be taller and more ridiculous buildings competing with this latest version of the world’s tallest building. Bragging rights are priceless. Hubris is human.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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