Sunday, June 9, 2013

Please Stand Up

The Atlantic is running another boilerplate encomium to our beloved 16th president, but above the heaping praise dangles a tantalizing question: how do you get to know a president? That's not how the author asks it, of course, but that's the bottom line. In private life we're pretty cautious about declaring that we know someone. This is simply common sense, owing to the fact that it takes us a long time to feel comfortable around someone. In public life, though, we hop aboard the political bandwagon at the slightest coincidence of feeling. We love them, we hate them, we vote for them, seldom do even the most scrupulous actually research them. And when we do our homework, what do we learn? What can we? By the time they've taken office, most politicians have held every conceivable position and grabbed dollars from every possible pot. Look at our current chief executive: we're finally at the point where every conceivable opinion of him is held by someone.

Among his supporters, he is or has been, a messianic figure who'll heal the nation and the planet. Among his detractors, he's an antichrist who is actively trying to ruin the United States. He's a radical leftist, a moderate, and too far to the right. He's too Christian, he's an atheist, and he's a Muslim. He's too agressive and too conciliatory. He's the philosopher president with Moby Dick in one hand and Thomas Aquinas in the other, and he's just having a beer with the guys. He's the peacemaker who hasn't bombed Iran or North Korea, and the warmonger waging a drone campaign. He's a pragmatist and an ideologue, a bona fide American and a foreigner, he's too formal and too casual, too cold and too folksy. He's everything to everyone.

Now I'm not saying President Obama's character is an indecipherable enigma, but I'm saying it's awfully hard to tell precisely what he believes and what he'll do in a given situation. When he acts is the deed for or against his principles? Is it the ideologue or pragmatist, and in what degree?

As we try to judge him now, we also contend with our own prejudices as well as those of the news sources, the opinion the president himself wants to convey, and the general static of life. Nate Silver has recently argued that although the information revolution has spread facts, it has amplified the noise too. Will it be any easier then, as the author of that Atlantic piece suggests, to judge President Obama in hindsight? I don't think Lincoln is the best example of a man vindicated by history, but his criterion is revealing: success. Is that the only standard? What about consistency, or the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm? How easily do we shift into relativistic judgment, and how unconsciously do we do the dirty math of calculating means and ends.

Again, though, does hindsight help us distinguish anything? Other than by success, what differentiates Marius, Sulla, Catiline, Pompey, and Caesar? Is it any clearer to us now than it was for their contemporaries? In some ways it was surely clearer and others muddier.

Of course there's no easy solution to this epistemological conundrum, save the bromides about diligence, skepticism, and reason, which are true enough. The more useful question is perhaps about the American people. What do we really want from a leader and government? Does our schizophrenic policy simply reflect a schizoid people? I can't say, but I've noticed one thing during the administrations of Bush and Obama, and that during both tenures there were seemingly substantial groups of people who just couldn't acknowledge the man as the Commander in Chief. He was always an interloper, a fraud, Bush because of the irregularities of the 2000 election, and Obama because of doubts about where he was born.

There was of course much emotion and little reason behind any of the sentiments, but in both cases, each side quieted down to a deafening silence once "his guy" was in office. I think now, perhaps, that people are genuinely afraid of the government, and only the thought, however misguided and misconstrued, of a friend at the helm, lets people sleep. I'm reminded of the famous passage from Xenophon:
The Paralos arrived at Athens during the night, bringing news of the disaster at Aigospotamoi, and a cry arose in the Peiraieus and ran up through the Long Walls and into the city itself as one man imparted the calamitous news to the next. As a result, no one slept that night as they mourned not only for the men destroyed but even more for themselves, thinking they would suffer the same catastrophes they had inflicted on others. –Xenophon, Hellenica 2.2.3
We want power, we want technology and energetic government, then we abuse it, and then like any guilty man we make excuses, and then we grow afraid, and we turn to a protector.

Or is it the politicians or pundits who whip up fervor? Most people seem pretty busy with work and life, and if left alone wouldn't have much cause to stir up trouble. Likewise the news, if it informs at all, still primes people for delusions of superiority.

Maybe, as a new account argues was the case before the civil war, that we just plain don't like one another. If that's true, a powerful and energetic government is unlikely to ameliorate relations.

There doesn't seem to be golden bullet, either, no perfect policy or system which is both energetic and incorruptible. It might be a start, though, to stop admitting leaders to the pantheon of presidential immortals, and praising citizens who do things apolitically, that is, themselves. Unlike the presidents, we really do know people like that; they're called friends, neighbors, and generally, good people. Maybe they should get a monument instead, or better, our esteem and affection.

No comments:

Post a Comment