More Doubts

Via Glenn Greenwald, here’s a lovely column from yesterday’s Washington Post by Joel Achenbach asking people to give doubt a chance.

Doubt has been all but outlawed in contemporary Washington. Doubt is viewed as weakness. You are expected to hold onto your beliefs even in a hurricane of contradictory data. Believing in something that’s not true is considered a sign of character.

This is what I’m trying to get at in the Wisdom of Doubt series, which is not just about religion. Here’s a paragraph that goes along nicely with yesterday’s sermon:

And now even the doubters have become overly certain. Look at all the atheism books on the bestseller lists. In “God Is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens writes, “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.” But it’s hard to think of a public intellectual more certain of himself than Hitch. (Carl Sagan was certainly no believer, but he once told me, “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.”)

The point I tried to make yesterday was not that there’s something wrong with not believing in God. I don’t believe in God either, so I can’t very well fault it. This is not about whether atheists or the religious are “right,” but about fanaticism as defined by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (1951; see previous post for quotes from the book). My point is that fanaticism (and its cousins, absolutism, dogmatism and certitude) about anything is destructive, and I’m against fanaticism in all its forms, no matter what the fanatic is fanatical about. If you oppose one fanatic but make excuses for another because he’s on “your” side, you aren’t seeing the big picture.

Anyway, Achenbach’s column is genuinely excellent and I hope you take the time to read the whole thing. Here’s another bit:

All of us — citizens and senators and shopkeepers and scholars — need to review the principles of “critical thinking.” In 1990, psychologists Carole Wade and Carol Tavris listed eight elements of critical thinking:

1. Ask questions; be willing to wonder.

2. Define your problem correctly.

3. Examine the evidence.

4. Analyze assumptions and biases.

5. Avoid emotional reasoning.

6. Don’t oversimplify.

7. Consider other interpretations.

8. Tolerate uncertainty.

This would get you instantly fired from many jobs in Washington. Asking questions is a time-waster in a culture that demands instant answers. Defining your problem correctly, examining evidence and contemplating biases can be extremely inconvenient. The media marketplace favors absolutism and hysteria.

Absolutist and dogmatic thinking has been with us from the beginning of the species, of course. But here in the U.S. it generally did not so thoroughly permeate our political culture until the past forty years or so. We’ve reached a point at which the federal government is pathologically dysfunctional — more so than ever before it its history, including the Civil War — because it’s being run by fanatics. As a nation, we can’t seem to have dispassionate discussions or make rational decisions about anything because fanatics and absolutists shout it down. The recent immigration bill episode is an excellent example. So is our lack of ability to have a sensible national dialog about health care, and the failure of our politicians and media to foster a full and open discussion about the invasion of Iraq before it happened.

I suspect that mass media has something to do with this. Thanks to the Right Wing infrastructure that dominates most mass media, media is playing the part of a positive feedback loop for fanatics. Fanaticism has become the norm, and moderation is seen as extreme.

Peter Baker has an article in today’s Washington Post that is equally fascinating.

At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.

Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?

Is it possible the Creature is feeling doubt? That he’s trying to learn something?

Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.

Um, maybe not.

And yet Bush does not come across like a man lamenting his plight. In public and in private, according to intimates, he exhibits an inexorable upbeat energy that defies the political storms. Even when he convenes philosophical discussions with scholars, he avoids second-guessing his actions. He still acts as if he were master of the universe, even if the rest of Washington no longer sees him that way.

“You don’t get any feeling of somebody crouching down in the bunker,” said Irwin M. Stelzer, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who was part of one group of scholars who met with Bush. “This is either extraordinary self-confidence or out of touch with reality. I can’t tell you which.”

The Creature isn’t looking for answers. He’s looking for validation.

The fight over whether Gonzales should remain attorney general has exposed a deep fault line. Bush remains convinced that his old friend did nothing wrong ethically in firing U.S. attorneys, and senior adviser Karl Rove angrily rejects what he sees as a Democratic witch hunt, according to White House officials. Yet beyond the inner circle, it is hard to find a current or former administration official who thinks Gonzales should stay.

“I don’t understand for the life of me why Al Gonzales is still there,” said one former top aide, who, like others, would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not about him. It’s about the office and who’s able to lead the department.” The ex-aide said that every time he runs into former Cabinet secretaries, “universally the first thing out of their mouths” is bafflement that Gonzales remains.

Some aides see it as Bush refusing to accept reality. “The president thinks cutting and running on his friends shows weakness,” said an exasperated senior official. “Change shows weakness. Doing what everyone knows has to be done shows weakness.” Another former aide said that no matter how many people Bush consults, he heeds only two or three. [emphasis added]

Once upon a time, doing what everyone knows has to be done even if you don’t want to do it showed strength of character, and running away from doing what everyone knows has to be done was not a sign of strength, but of weakness.

Beyond Gonzales, the discontent with the Bush presidency is broader and deeper among Republican lawmakers, some of whom seethe with anger. “Our members just wish this thing would be over,” said a senior House Republican who met with Bush recently. “People are tired of him.” Bush’s circle remains sealed tight, the lawmaker said. “There’s nobody there who can stand up to him and tell him, ‘Mr. President, you’ve got to do this. You’re wrong on this.’ There’s no adult supervision. It’s like he’s oblivious. Maybe that’s a defense mechanism.”

There’s no adult supervision. Running away from doing what everyone knows has to be done is what children do.

Amid the tumult, the president has sought refuge in history. He read three books last year on George Washington, read about the Algerian war of independence and the exploitation of Congo, and lately has been digging into “Troublesome Young Men,” Lynne Olson’s account of Conservative backbenchers who thrust Winston Churchill to power. Bush idolizes Churchill and keeps a bust of him in the Oval Office.

Funny thing about Washington and Churchill. Joel Achenbach writes in the column linked above,

George Washington, who was always the first to cite his lack of qualifications for a job (Continental Army commander, president), said in his farewell address that he did the best he could with a “very fallible judgment.” No one today would dare say such a thing.

And in yesterday’s Washington Post, Lynne Olson argues that Dubya bears a closer resemblance to Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill.

Let’s go back to Peter Baker:

Much of the discussion focused on the nature of good and evil, a perennial theme for Bush, who casts the struggle against Islamic extremists in black-and-white terms. Michael Novak, a theologian who participated, said it was clear that Bush weathers his difficulties because he sees himself as doing the Lord’s work.

“His faith is very strong,” said Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Faith is not enough by itself because there are a lot of people who have faith but weak hearts. But his faith is very strong. He seeks guidance, like every other president does, in prayer. And that means trying to be sure he’s doing the right thing. And if you’ve got that set, all the criticism, it doesn’t faze you very much. You’re answering to God.”

I argued in yesterday’s “Wisdom” post that people without doubt mistake their own ego for the voice of God.

Baker mentions several times that Bush is in a self-imposed isolation because of his unpopularity. Literally, he doesn’t get out much. His friends insist he is aware of how the nation sees him. “He is the furthest thing from oblivious. . . . Somewhere in the back of his mind there’s a pretty complete autopsy,” said one. Yet people who have met the President recently are astonished at how serene he is.

[British historian Alistair] Horne said he is not a Bush supporter but was nonetheless struck by the president’s tranquility. “He was very friendly, very relaxed,” Horne said. “My God, he looked well. He looked like he came off a cruise in the Caribbean. He looked like he hadn’t a care in the world. It was amazing.”

Let’s finish by going back to Joel Achenbach.

The president sets the tone: He told Bob Woodward that he relies on “gut instinct” and said, “I’m not a textbook player. I’m a gut player.” Blogger Glenn Greenwald’s new book, “A Tragic Legacy,” opens with something Bush told journalists last September: “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions.” The smart bet: He’ll become more convinced yet. He’s not the type to slap his forehead and say, ” What a bonehead I am!”

BTW, I got my copy of Glenn’s book over the weekend, but I haven’t read it yet. Here’s a review.

8 thoughts on “More Doubts

  1. Failure, of the big, capital-F kind that cannot possibly be denied is one of the ways to sow doubt and humility in a person’s mind. It’s obvious that Bush has never experienced Failure. Sure, he’s created messes, but daddy or the help has always cleaned them up. He’s a Bush after all, and can only fail upwards. It’s all he knows. Surely God has blessed him, and he knows it.

    I agree with the source who said that Bush isn’t as oblivious as he seems. Sociopaths excell at reading the environment and calculating a pose in response (that scene from one of the Terminator movies comes to mind where we’re given an intimate view of how the robot quickly evaluated and arrived at response C: “Fuck you, asshole”).

    Of course Gonzales is still there, he’s a both an enabler and he is in the key position to prevent the Justice Department from doing any serious harm (in other words, “justice”) to his boss. There’s no way Bush is going to let Gonzo go. If this were chess, it would be like giving up the Queen, one of the most powerful pieces on the board. How is it that a nobody like myself and many others can see this, but those inside the Beltway cannot?

    The key to all of this is breaking the hypnosis this man and his enablers create all around them. Breaking the stranglehold of the VRWC, specifically the media, is paramount.

    What’s needed is a good dose of reality. We’re going to get it one way or another – either through honest media or through some disastrous, capital F Failure that affects all of us. Or both.

  2. Bush thinking about his legacy and asking scholars and others questions about his actions reminds me of Londo Mollari (Babylong 5) asking the Mage (IIRC) about his legacy and being told that billions of sentient beings will curse his name.

  3. Adolph killed 6 million Jews because the Jews were destroying the world, were the cause of all the world’s problems. In his mind, Adolph was a savior.

    The trance of narcissism insulates against worthlessness and thus keeps out any modicum of self-doubt.

    Neocon philosophy echoes the ‘apology’ delivered by Robespierre to justify the Reign of Terror. “Out of pity, love of humanity, you must be inhuman.”

    It is rather amazing that DC has become, by accident or design, a huge receptacle for saviors, narcissists, and just plain bad people.

  4. I get angry when I read that Bush is calm, serene and relaxed without a care in the world. He is so certain that he has made the right decisions while people are dying in Iraq and our country is falling apart. This is denial to the max. I certainly hope he has “faith” cause he is going to need it if he ever wakes up and smells the coffee. But most likely he won’t see the light until the day he dies.

  5. I’m torn between burbling about what a great post this is, and complaining about the faint hint of msm equivalencism (which, to be fair, does come almost entirely from the Achenbach quote) in which all recent atheist bestsellers are identified with Hitchens’ book (which is characteristically Hitchens – his Letter to a young contrarian was surprisingly good, but I fear it would suffer upon re-reading – and of course, contrarianism is merely doubt fossilized and turned into its own kind of certainty); then the relatively mild certainty of that bunch (a tone which is still to strong for me, but which in actually practice maxes out with the (admittedly unpleasant) suggestion that young children not be referred to as being their parents’ religion is in some sense equivalent – not related, but the same – to that of our more familiar fanatics.

    But anyway (last sentence perhaps suggests why I shouldn’t try commenting on cold medicine), doubt is a vital tool or stance – one of the most glaring clues for me that the administration shouldn’t be trusted or believed was the apparent institutional absence of doubt.

  6. I like the part about critical thinking. Critical thinking is rare in these daze of faith based baloney.It’s like, “tell me about the rabbits again George”, over and over again.
    But this is what happens when everyone lives in a fantasy.
    The Bush administration tries to baffel us with bullshit since they cannot dazzle us with brillance. Between the “terrists” , the rapture and tribulation, they’ve captured about 50%of the drones.
    Orwell missed by twenty years…………..

  7. What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world?

    OK..I give up. Is this a legitimate question, or is it one of those koan things. Talk about the fool on the hill.. evidently it’s such a profound question that my mind can’t grasp it. I’m tempted to say that the nature of good and evil is immutable, but something about the post- 9/11 world makes me question whether I’m missing something. Does anybody got any clues to help grasshopper decipher the deciders riddle?

    Had I has spent more time in school studying philosophy instead of studying Janet Anderson’s legs, maybe I would be able answer Bush’s question.

  8. as someone who lives in the world of “doubt “I can appreciate the merits of it and I know it is an under rated thing in this day and age especially for a politician, doubt translates as weakness , this is what the media tells us every day .

    I still remember the doubts I had walking down the aisle 25 years ago !
    Yet there does come a time when the questions are over, and its time to make life decisions.

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