Thursday, August 19, 2010

If He’s So Smart Why Is He Always Screwing Up?

Because they’re the product of the same meritocratic culture, a lot of liberal pundits have a huge psychological investment in the idea that Obama is an exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful politician. So they take every one of his political blunders—most recently, his embarrassing equivocations about the Ground Zero mosque—as an occasion to deplore the thoughtlessness and vulgarity of the American public.  Obama’s only problem, they insist, is that he lacks Bill Clinton’s gift for empathy; his intellectual command of political situations keeps him from feeling the pain of ordinary citizens imprisoned by raw emotion. By casting Obama as a political Mr. Spock, liberals can explain his political failures without having to reflect on the rationality of their own political commitments.

Here’s Margaret Carlson showing how it’s done (my emphasis):
“How can President Barack Obama be so right about the mosque and yet get it so wrong?

“Here’s how: He is so supremely confident in his intellect that he forgets, on his way to the correct decision, to slow down and pick up not-so-gifted stragglers.

“The controversy over locating a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York City created the perfect storm, putting Obama’s strengths and weaknesses into play.

“He’s an intellectual comfortable with abstractions, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a constitutional scholar, a community organizer. When convinced he’s right -- which is often -- he turns his head at the podium to the right and left, gazing above his audience into the near distance, chin elevated, and makes his pronouncement about what is just and reasonable. We are expected to nod.

“With the mosque, he didn’t bother with feelings when he saw that the U.S. Constitution and facts were on his side.”
It doesn’t take much reflection about how serious political deliberation actually works to figure out what nonsense this is. Each of us comes into the political world as the inheritor of a rudimentary political outlook by virtue of our membership in families, religious congregations, ethnic groups and other involuntary associations. Before we’ve had a chance to organize our political beliefs, we’re already party to received wisdom about how the social world works and what social justice demands, and a battery of moral reflexes effectuating these ideas in everyday practice. In politics the apple doesn’t usually fall too far from the tree. Most people maintain and deepen their inherited partisanship in the course of their political adulthood. That’s why the political affiliations of people’s parents are always among the best predictors of what their own affiliations will be. But even when people renounce the politics they inherited, where they end up is always a function of where they started.

By any measure, received ethical wisdom and acquired moral reflexes are blunt intellectual instruments.  At any point in time, our inventory of ethical and political principles is bound to be incomplete and to incorporate formulations that are, at best, remote approximations of the deep truths they’re supposed to capture. And our inherited moral reflexes are far too crude to guide us unerringly in novel situations. Moreover, our political judgment is notoriously corruptible by our prejudices and our interests. It’s all too easy to get into the habit of presuming that political morality happens to dictate actions that we’re eager to undertake for other, less presentable, reasons.

How can we aspire to rationality when we have to work with tools that are so radically defective? The only way we have to make our ethical principles and our moral reflexes more reliable is by testing them against each other from the inside. Sometimes the application of an otherwise credible political principle to a new situation has consequences that feel ethically problematic. A thoughtful person in that circumstance won’t ignore his own or other sensible's people’s inconvenient reactions; he’ll use them as an occasion to decide whether to modify his principles in light of reservations about their newly appreciated implications, or suppress the reservations in deference to his best current formulation of his principles. Since both our principles and our moral reflexes are fallible, there can be no foolproof method of determining which, if either should guide us when they come into conflict. Still, if we are to claim any measure of rationality for our political views, we’ll frequently have to decide which of them directs us closer to the truth.

It’s never easy to choose a course and stick to it when powerful moral impulses collide. All we can do is apply our moral common sense conscientiously to the problem in the hope of arriving at the political position that, all things considered, does the most justice to our most confidently held principles and our most compelling intuitions about their particular applications. The only way we have of discovering what our core political convictions really are is to reflect strenuously on the question of what they should be when new situations undermine old certainties. Political knowledge is always provisional because it’s a species of self-knowledge.

Suppose all of this roughly correct. Do Obama’s words about the Ground Zero mosque sound like they’re the product of serious political deliberation? Last Friday, he enunciated a few undisputed abstract principles about religious liberty and then pretended that their application to the facts of hand was so straightforward that anyone with reservations about the mosque must be surrendering to bigotry. He had nothing much to say about the moral reflexes that have moved so many people to regard the proposed mosque as a civically irresponsible provocation.  The next day, however, he pretty much conceded that he hadn’t been saying anything substantial the day before by explaining that he’d been commenting only on the (undisputed) legality of building a mosque on private property consistent with zoning regulations and not on the wisdom of building one near Ground Zero. And if you thought that Obama might be a little embarrassed to have been caught over the weekend reciting trivialities so portentously, he was happy to assure you just yesterday, that he had absolutely “no regrets.” I guess we were supposed to be impressed that he has the fortitude to stand by vacuous pronouncements in the face of political pressure.

It’s funny that liberals can find intellectual and moral reassurance in words that sound empty-headed to everyone else.

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