The Tall Poppy Manifesto

...The second thing that strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude of life. The smile of the people in the photographs is symbolic of one of America’s greatest assets. He is friendly, confident, optimistic, and without envy. ~ Albert Einstein on America, July 1921.

The great Greek philosopher Socrates (c.470 - 399 BC), one of the most widely known figures in Western philosophy, was a victim of the Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS). The philosopher was a critic of the Athenian hegemony which led to trumped-up charges and imprisonment, trial and death from hemlock. This is an exaggerated form of TPS and not uncommon at that time or the ensuing early centuries. The customary Athenian manifestation of TPS was ostracism.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a cultural metaphor in Anglo-sphere countries symbolizing a field of poppies wherein the tall one is cut down so that all are uniform; in society, the exceptional person is cut down. Semblances have existed since the beginning of man and are observed in primitive to sophisticated cultures and countries. It is literal but occasionally figurative in some totalitarian countries. Countries have varying metaphors or words to describe the phenomenon. It tends to be familiar in egalitarian cultures like Australia, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries.

TPS may not be as straightforward as the metaphor and can be quite complex. Envy, which is divided into 'good' (motivated to emulate) and 'bad' (motivated to cut down), is the most common emotional stimulus of the cutter. A person with 'good' envy (social justice) is compelled to cut down a Tall Poppy who became egregious; a person with 'bad' envy cuts down the Tall Poppy because they want to improve their own or the group’s self-image. One’s point of view or bias (especially political) sometimes makes it difficult for the novice to discern if the cutter or the Tall Poppy is flawed but the cutting down is evident.

The United States is one of the few countries where TPS is not recognized but that does not mean it does not exist. Firstly, one only sees what the mind knows. Secondly, Americans have enjoyed good envy for centuries. We were a land of opportunity and abundance. We envied (good envy or emulation) our neighbor and improved ourselves. No country has our Bill of Rights, Constitution, individual rights or meritocracy which promoted good envy over bad envy. These were the foundations of the American Dream. We were upwardly mobile, regardless of class: our jobs, wages, homes, health and well being. Each generation had the opportunity to improve upon the former. This was our Manifest Destiny, our culture.

Presently, we are not so friendly, so confident, so optimist. Our good envy has been transformed into bad envy which leads to TPS. The middle class was accustomed to rising wages which led to lifestyle improvements. Low-income people earn less in real dollars than they did in 1980. Middle-income individuals earn just 6% more. The middle class is stymied; not only are they not moving upward but maybe moving downward. The lower earners are hamstrung. Much of the populace is mired in the same situation with no chance of upward mobility. Bad envy is most prevalent in uniformity where there is no path for advancement; one may only advance, relatively speaking, by cutting others down.

The Spanish philosopher Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora stated: “Envy canceled [tall poppied] fewer great men in Europe in the sixteenth century than in its twentieth, and one of the reasons America has become so powerful is that it has been able to instill a morality of emulation [good envy] that neutralizes the growing possibilities of envy.”

Our Founding Fathers were preeminent. Jefferson aided the French in their quest for democracy which then became the model for much of Europe. Now we have retrospectively tall poppied all our Founding Fathers and seem to prospectively cut down most of our late twentieth and early twenty-first century leaders.

My book will describe American-style TPS in context to other countries. The reader will learn the signs and symptoms of TPS in order to diagnosis it. Since envy is intimately involved in TPS, it and related emotions are discussed. TPS is mainly an emotional state. Understanding behaviors and modifying them may be the first step in returning to good envy and preventing the spread of the TPS.