October 16, 2005

World Gone Wrong

[Ed: this is another of my articles which was first published in the September issue of the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine. Ironically, it was completed before the Katrina disaster proved how urgent the problem really is.]

Have you noticed how so many things seem to be going wrong under Bush's administration? How things seem to be not just a little worse than under Clinton, but today are so much worse? Under Bush, we’ve had terrorists attacking our country. We have a war that the Administration declared was essential and would be a cakewalk, and yet now it seems to be sucking down our military without anything to show except a violence-ridden country that is sinking into civil war. We’ve watched how some of the most privileged have become much wealthier, but a whole lot of people are finding that they are just barely keeping up with inflation, that is, if they are lucky enough to have a job. We are heading into a world where the supply of oil is being outstripped by the demand with no actions to help mitigate the shortage. And we are witnessing the harbingers of catastrophic climate change (melting glaciers and permafrost, more frequent and more violent storms, decade-long lingering droughts) while our current administration fiddles and denies there is any problem.

So why are things so immeasurably worse today than during the Clinton years? One major difference in outcomes is due to the philosophies that govern the two administrations, and the men who head those administrations. Clinton’s administration was filled with pragmatists, and he was one himself. Pragmatists take pride in critical thinking. A pragmatist knows that to solve problems, you much first understand what the problem is. Therefore the pragmatist first undertakes to define a problem using the best data available and then shapes policy to address the problem uncovered.

In the Bush administration, the ideology specifies the desired solution without ever checking to see if the evidence can be found to back up either the problem definition or the proposed solution. Thus a problem of people suing doctors who make mistakes is defined as people sue too often and the prescription is to put caps on malpractice suits rather than figure out why doctors make mistakes and how to prevent those mistakes.

Under Bush’s administration we are governed by anti-intellectuals who are at war with facts. Today’s Republican Party has tied their fortune and their future to fantasy and superstition. This is a party that has decided Intelligent Design should be taught in science classes although there is nothing in ID that can be scientifically tested and as they insist that Evolution is a controversial “theory” that isn’t true. This is a Party that listens to Frank Luntz rather than scientists on Global Warming and believes that only years more study should be done in face of the uncertainty because nothing conclusively says it is happening, that the changes are due to humans or that humans can do anything about the problem. This is a Party led by a man who says that the greatest danger to our country is due to people “who hate us for our freedoms.” This is a Party out of touch with reality.

Last October before the 2004 election, Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times that the Bush administration prides itself in its ability to create its own reality:

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.''

So what we have is a Republican Party that has decided science and facts have no place in informing policy. They are the true believers who Eric Hoffer warned of in his definitive book from 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Hoffer wrote that one defining characteristic of true believers is the willing suspension of reality because the doctrine they cling to is what defines the ultimate truth.

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. “So tenaciously should we cling to the world revealed by the Gospel, that were I to see all the Angels of Heaven coming down to me to tell me something different, not only would I not be tempted to doubt a single syllable, but I would shut my eyes and stop my ears, for they would not deserve to be either seen or heard.” To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.

This Republican Party is the perfect home for George W. Bush, a man who had always disdained intellectual endeavors and critical thinking. Even before the 2000 election, close observers of George W Bush warned that he was inclined to trust his “gut” rather than facts. Molly Ivins, a long time chronicler of Bush, recounted on how Bush refused to believe that evidence showed capital punishment did not deter crime because his “gut” told him the evidence must be wrong.

President Bush is an irrational man ruled by irrational beliefs. He and his administration have spent an inordinate amount of energy promoting “faith-based” government. His administration is actively subverting science and factual studies. For instance, they claim that condoms are not useful for preventing AIDs and so have set back the fight to contain AIDs in the developing world. They also have encouraged and fostered irrational thinking in the American people, shown by their egregious promotion of conspiracy theories such as those with which Bush justified his Iraq war because Saddam and Iraq did not have anything to do with 9/11.

So why should we care whether people are rational or not?

There are two problems. One is, when we do not accurately understand the problems; we cannot devise solutions that address those problems. Second, when we encourage people to be irrational, we denigrate critical thinking and that can lead to even worse outcomes. Thus when the Bush administration persists in faulty thinking such as using torture is justified even when all evidence says this is false and counterproductive to our national security, they endanger Americans. Irrationality leads to poor decisions, which cause further disasters, and which in turn leads to new reasons to find scapegoats to blame. Today, it is the terrorists. Tomorrow it could be all liberals or any of those who persist in questioning Bush’s decisions.

Bush’s decisions are made from whatever he wants to believe -- so we went to war for dubious reasons when even his father knew it would be a terrible mistake. Yet, according to numerous reports, Bush believed was he had been given a mission from God to smite terrorists, which in his mind included taking out Saddam. And he believed his closest advisors who told him that it would easy. Therefore we went in with too few troops and no plan for the aftermath because he and his advisors believed that conquering Iraq would need nothing more than a few thousand troops to subdue the entire country. And since then at each juncture in Iraq, Bush’s decisions have made the situation worse until now the country is close to civil war, something that did not have to happen.

In my opinion, the greatest threat to our country today is the irrational thinking that permeates the Party running this country. As Jim Bechtel, the founder of R.E.A.S.O.N – a group promoting rational thinking in Nebraska, noted: If you’re willing to believe things regardless of evidence, then it doesn’t matter what you believe, it just matters who gets to you first. Because Bush is an irrational man, he is susceptible to being conned by anyone who gets his ear and engages his gut.

Furthermore, because Bush does not believe in evidence or in facts, it is impossible for him to make decisions rationally. This means we will not and cannot truly address any of the problems we face as a nation: not the deficit, not global warming, not the encroaching oil crisis, and not the war. I am left with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realize we have someone so disconnected from reality in charge -- because unless we have some amazing luck on our side, our situation is guaranteed to get worse.

Posted by Mary at October 16, 2005 08:38 PM | Philosophy | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

Oh... I wholeheartedly agree. I wish the opposing political party could express so succinctly as you write!

But... how do we overcome irrational emotion (especially anger and fear as fostered by this administration)?

Posted by: Darryl Pearce at October 16, 2005 08:54 PM

A good assessment of bush.

Posted by: Bb at October 18, 2005 09:24 PM

Darryl, I believe that it is possible for people to get beyond their anger and fear, but it takes the action of courageous people to demonstrate there are other ways to react to the world. I remember a speech that Aung San Suu Kyi gave when talking about how to confront your fears. People like her are capable of exorcizing the demons that cause people to give into their fantasies rather than their rational selves.

So I think it is possible to overcome, but it seems that it takes some extraordinary leadership from people who continue to tap into and reinforce the best part of the people they influence. (And without the leader succumbing to the sin of hubris.)

The next question is how do we find out how to be more like her so we can also do the same.

Posted by: Mary at October 18, 2005 11:44 PM