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.
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.