Monday, January 19, 2009

Reason and Instinct

I've been thinking about what tomorrow's inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States means. To be sure, Obama's election is a repudiation of many aspects of the Bush era, and particularly the Iraq War and the economic meltdown, but I also see a shift from George W. Bush's "gut instinct" to Obama's thoughtful, reasoned analysis.

Bush values his instincts above all else. Indeed, many of his minions spoke derisively of the "reality-based" critics, who thought that facts somehow trumped ideology. How silly! In the partisan political arena, for the most part, Bush's instincts served him quite well, particularly with Karl Rove's nurturing guidance. However, his instincts also led him to stifle dissent among his advisors (although he is desperately trying to claim the contrary, in his efforts to polish his "legacy"), and to elevate personal loyalty above basic subject-matter competency. Bush's instincts led him to put Cheney and Rumsfeld in charge of what passed for "planning" for the Iraq invasion and occupation, to put "Brownie" in charge of FEMA, to nominate jaw-droppingly underqualified or mismatched candidates for everything from the Supreme Court to the United Nations to the Attorney General. Bush went out of his way to publicly snub those who displeased him, including restricting lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq to countries that had supported the invasion. He took pride in not weighing down his decision-making process with lots of facts.

Bush's instincts also told him to never waver, because any lack of absolute moral certitude would appear as weakness of character. As it turned out, though, his steadfastness proved to be more ignorant pig-headedness than stalwart adherence to principles, and history will not be kind.

Obama presents a striking contrast in this perspective as much as in his disagreements on specific policies. Obama seeks to have as much information as possible, and as many knowledgeable assessments as possible, before making a decision. When circumstances change, the decision can be reassessed and then adjusted or even reversed. Obama brings to the job of President his background as a lawyer and a law professor, in contrast to Bush's background as a lackluster and indifferent student, unbothered by self-reflection, guided more by faith than facts. Obama represents a counter-offensive in what Al Gore aptly termed The Assault on Reason.

Barack Obama's religious faith is no less genuine than George W. Bush's, but Obama understands the crucial distinction that sometimes you have to do your own homework, to do your best to understand the choices you face, rather than putting on a blindfold and trusting that Providence will inerrantly guide your hand. It is one thing to pray for the wisdom to draw the right lessons from the facts before you; it is quite another to pray for a deity to give you all the answers by miracles or magic or mystical mumbo-jumbo. Even if God is your co-pilot, you still need to keep your eyes on the road.

Of course, it's easy to go overboard in fantasizing which irrational government policies might disappear under the Obama Administration. Our federal guidelines on sex education are downright criminal, leading not only to higher pregnancy rates, but higher rates of STDs. Our so-called "War on Drugs" wastes billions of dollars fighting a drug that is not a threat to society (marijuana), thereby starving efforts at combating the real threats (for example, crystal meth). Decades of "tax simplification" have resulted in an ever-increasing thicket of regulations, answered only with meaningless gimmicks like the "flat tax." Our military throws out decorated soldiers because their sexual orientation "threatens morale" even more than the shortage of Arabic and Pashtun translators. More broadly, our government mostly refuses to acknowledge the diversity of family structures today, in many cases deeming an orphanage a better option than a loving home with a same-sex couple. The idea that markets will regulate themselves better than the government can, is plainly false, and yet we find that banks are turning their bailout windfall into new loans with the same problems that led to the financial crisis.

One thing I can guarantee is that not all of those irrational policies will be overturned, but at least we can have the audacity to hope that results will trump ideological purity, and that the reality-based community will put the Bush Administration in its rightful place on the ash heap of history.

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