Monday, July 02, 2007

Why Public Officials Should Not Engage Philosophical Issues

This post started out as ironic::

Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical.
And the slaughter in Iraq in the hopes of giving them freedom is ethical because...? Or, as I said recently:

We're right back, in other words, to the question of power. Is it okay for me to wield power, if I intend to do good?
I suppose as long as your consistent about it, eh? Alas, irony is dead:

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?
I'd like to think this is wildly exaggerated. At this point in our history, we don't need a President to suddenly go introspective. Good leaders don't do all that well as "introspective."

It is, in other words, a bad sign when Bush starts asking philosophers and theologians what he's done wrong. He's never spoken to them before. Why should they be able to explain things now? Of course, I shouldn't fear; he's not really asking what's wrong with him. He seems to want to know what's wrong with the world:

These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. 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

....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."
Oh, I think I can. I'm something of a philosopher and a theologian, but I don't need either of those skills to understand that much. Frankly, some of what's said here betrays a man who has no real understanding of the difference between his ego, and the world:

"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.
And let me take back that statement about introspection, because I'm as much a theologian as Michael Novak, and this report scares me:

"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."
This is Pietism run amok, loosed from its moorings, cast loose in space and time. This is Christian doctrine with no sense of humility at all: the worst of all possible believing worlds. When Elijah chose Elisha in yesterday's readings, Elisha didn't grab the prophet's mantle and start calling out she-bears to savage rude children. When the Samaritans rejected Jesus "because his face was set toward Jerusalem" (also in yesterday's lectionary), he rebuked his disciples for asking if they could call down fire as a divine punishment (knocking the dust off your sandals just seems so, so...powerless!). Ezekiel and Jeremiah suffered for their prophecies; George Bush seems to relish what he seems convinced are his truths. Jesus told Peter: "...when you have grown old, you'll stretch out your arms, and someone else will get you ready and take you where you don't want to go." (John 21:18b, SV) George Bush apparently believes that when he grows old, he will end up precisely where he wants to be, and his reputation will eventually join him there.

If this has anything to do with theology, it has to do with the original sin of selfishness; of self-justification, or moral blindness and the opaqueness of the self in relationship to the world. Convinced he is right, it would seem (if these accounts are true) that George W. Bush thinks the world is wrong, and sooner or later, it will realize that, too.

"Give the king your justice, O Lord!" And maybe a whit less self-centeredness, eh?

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