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Sunday, October 17, 2004

The president of unreality.

Ron Suskind's cover story in the New York Times Magazine deserves your immediate attention. For one thing, President Bush is really giving "faith" a bad name:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Bush's "faith" — I'd call it brutal credulity, since it's about as thin a sort of religious devotion as I've encountered — isn't only at war with the "reality-based community." It's also intent on marking a dividing line between "true" Americans and, well, folks like me:

And for those who don't get it [i.e., Bush's "faith"]? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ''You think he's an idiot, don't you?'' I said, no, I didn't. ''No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!'' In this instance, the final ''you,'' of course, meant the entire reality-based community.

Of course, the people in the "big, wide middle" of the country — which isn't really a place so much as a state of mind — are being had by this president's outrageously misplaced faith. And Jeff Sharlet observes how barely Christian it is: It's not faith in Jesus or faith in God that Bush talks about; it's just faith, or, more simply, "my instincts." His faith may be dressed up in Evangelical garb, but Sharlet says it's essentially the solipsism of the New Age. He calls Bush "our magical president."

Reading Suskind this morning made me dig out my copy of Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith and Daniel Goleman's Vital Lies, Simple Truths. Tillich would be useful from a theological point of view since the confidence Bush wants people to feel in him and in the purity of the American "homeland" constitutes idolatry, but Goleman describes the phenomenon that seems most threatening in the Bush White House: groupthink — in which, he writes, "a small, cozy group of key decision-makers tacitly conspired to ignore crucial information because it [does] not fit with the collective view. The result of such biased decisions can be a disaster." Indeed.

Groupthink is not an argument against groups, but rather a danger signal of collective pathology, a “we” gone awry. Groups are a sensible antidote to the risks of a single person’s making decisions that are skewed by personal bias. A person alone is vulnerable to sways of emotion, or to blind spots arising from social prejudices, or to a failure to comprehend the complex consequences of a seemingly simple decision. In a group, issues can be aired, other points of view considered, additional information gathered and weighed. When they work at their best, groups can make better decisions than would any single member. But groupthink skews group thinking. . . .

The first victim of groupthink is critical thought.

Whether in a therapy group or a meeting of presidential advisers, the dynamics of groupthink are the same. Typically, talk is limited to a few courses of action, while the full range of alternatives is ignored. . . . The ignored alternatives are never brought up, no matter what advantages they might have. No one consults expert information that might offer a sound estimate of losses and gains; facts that challenge the initial choice are brushed aside. The group expects success, and makes no contingency plans to deal with failure. . . .

Loyalty to the group requires that members not raise embarrassing questions, attack weak arguments, or counter softeheaded thinking with hard facts. Only comfortable shared schemas are allowed full expression. (180, 183)

Goleman wrote these passages twenty years ago. The example he offers in the very next chapter is the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It's chilling to imagine an entire administration — and two wars — bent now into the inflexible shape of groupthink because President Bush won't allow anyone — not even himself — to question his chosen course of action. That's not faith; that's stupid.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 17 October 2004 at 10:41 PM

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