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February 10, 2006

Recommendation of the Day

If you get a chance, pick up this week's New Yorker. It's really, really, really good. The Malcolm Gladwell piece on Power Laws furnished this post for me, and Joan Acocella's article on Mary Magdalene and Peter Hessler's recounting of a matchmaker experience in China are both superb, if a bit less bloggable. And I want to highlight this graf from Jeffrey Goldberg's profile of Bush-speechwriter Michael Gerson:

“The President can’t imagine that someone who is President of the United States could not have faith, because he derives so much from it,” Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said. “I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don’t appear to be grounded in some faith,” he said. He added, “The President doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.”

That's a deeply disturbing factoid. Bush, after all, isn't traipsing around the world calling for testimonials, but meeting with fellow heads of state to discuss world affairs. It's not clear where religion would figure into the conversation. Moreover, the emphasis on faith as a general character trait rather than Christianity as a foundational world view is even less explicable. If Bush believed so deeply in Jesus Christ and an intelligible God that he couldn't relate to those without the same worldview, that would be parochial and worrying, but understandable. Simply lacking comfort with those who haven't decided to trust in a higher force, however, belies a real insecurity with the very concepts of self-determination and free will, not to mention a fear of making decisions unaided.

Much attention is given to Bush's snap judgment making -- he lacks, it's said, the fuzziness and indeterminacy of Clinton. But that trait becomes a whole lot less laudable if Bush is simply shoving the onus onto his religion, and resisting the intellectual and moral responsibility for his own choices.

February 10, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

I think I prefer the President to judge heads of state by their faith than that he (or she) judge judicial candidates based on how much they exercise.

No, Seriously.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Feb 10, 2006 12:00:52 PM

This criticism is wrong-headed. There are a fair number of reasons to wonder about the appropriateness of our conceptions of "self-determination" and "free will," and not a few of them are pretty standard tools in the liberal/Dem toolkit. (See, e.g., "material conditions.") Moreover, it seems reasonable to believe that men attempting to be led only by reason are likely to find some really horrible things that are justifiable. This is a standard, if conservative, criticism of both the Nazis and the Communists. You might not want it to be a deist faith, but I'd bet you'd be much less comfortable with a nihilist or even existentialist world leader.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Feb 10, 2006 12:06:59 PM

Bush's choices earlier in life, regarding obligations to service to the country and decisions about business - which didn't prove to be defendable when based on his own judgements - may be why he's cast aside his ability to do rational analysis and resorted to a higher power for his advice.

Since I'm not qualified to do a psychological/pathological profile for him, I'll just rely on what he's said about his reformed decision making. While he's never claimed that god actually speaks to him, whatever he decides on an issue can be blamed on this higher power, absolving him of responsibility and guilt. He's just god's messenger.

I do know that people who hear voices speaking to them in their head are usually viewed as people not to be put in charge of anything of substance and are usually heavily medicated - which may explain a lot of his behavior.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Feb 10, 2006 12:15:27 PM

Greetings from the State of Jefferson...

Heh, actually, I would prefer it if Bush relied more on some kind of hunches of "faith" rather than than his intellectual or moral capabilities...

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Feb 10, 2006 12:16:45 PM

O Tim! lacking faith need not make one a nihilist or existentialist or anything so depressing. There are plenty of ways to establish morality and values without religion, and as Socrates argued at the end of the Euthyphro, it's not even clear how religion could give rational justification for a system of ethics. There are a thousand very pretty flowers blooming in non-theistic moral/political theory, from Kant to the utilitarians to Rawls. Pick the one you like. Looking at the moral views held by most non-theistic philosophers I know, I think that I'd much rather be ruled by someone with those views than any Republican, and some Democrats. And contemporary philosophers would definitely be better than anyone who grounded his moral views in a literal reading of a millennia-old book written in the absence of science.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 10, 2006 1:18:15 PM

I found the whole profile kind of disingenous. This is a complex point which I'm having a hard time writing clearly but its this. WE hear all about what a wonderful guy this religious speech writer is, and how deep his faith is, and how deep bush's faith. But at every turn, of course, bush's rhetoric (which he gets from hs speechwriter) is simply betrayed by bushes actual actions, which of course are hardly religious in any sense of the word at all. Promises to spend money on the AIDS crisis in africa? gerson insists on it, and Bush gives in so that we are "spending more money than under previous administrations." But of course we *aren't* spending "more money" in any real sense. We have simply agreed to give more money to our own corporations to do more about AIDS but as I understand it the actual cash money we agreed to disburse had not been spent--and won't be spent.

The obfuscation of how we are to understand this religious speech writer and his mouthpiece bush is embedded in some weird writing. AT one point the reviewer alludes to the supposed surprise of "liberals" at discovering that the speech writer is both pro-life and anti-aids in africa. Liberals are supposed not to know that a "good man" can be both "pro life and pro-liberal causes. Of course no "liberal" would think that--they might say what the speech writer himself says later in the article which is no "pro life REPUBLICAN as we currently understand these terms probably cares at all about poor black people on some other continent. Its not a failure of the liberal imagination, its not because liberals don't know any of these "good folks" socially its because we know these guys up down and sideways from their actual acts, not their words. STudying a romantic/religious speechwriter for clues to what the bush administration actually does with their time and our money is like reading the words on a hallmark card to discern the marketing strategies of the hallmark company.

Posted by: aimai | Feb 10, 2006 1:27:53 PM

Picking up on what Neil said, out of all the possible religious or philosophical positions I'd want a ruler/leader to hold, I'd go for a humanist. The results would almost certainly be preferable to those of someone making his decisions based on his interpretation of Christianity and respecting only religious believers.

Posted by: Joe Bourne | Feb 10, 2006 1:29:18 PM

Further, it fairly can be argued that it is precisely totalist systems like those mentioned that depend on and are led by men who value and utilize faith, rather than reason. It is not for nothing that conservatives have analyzed Marxism as religion (Schumpeter wrote a deliciously cutting profile, iirc), and fascism's palingenetic utopia is certainly more of a revelatory truth than a reasoned one.

Mostly, though, you should have known you were wrong by counting the dead. Sectarian violence and religious wars tend to breed the worst atrocities, since each side has faith.

It isn't reason that flies airplanes into buildings.

Posted by: wcw | Feb 10, 2006 1:39:04 PM

This is not a terribly new problem.

As Bertrand Russell said: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Cheers,

Naked Ape

Posted by: Naked Ape | Feb 10, 2006 2:00:55 PM

Tim, everyone (including the president) is entitled to his own opinions regarding the best way for a man to live one's life. However, a claim that "I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don't appear to be grounded in some faith," is a mark of naivete and parochialism-- not features I want in a president, regardless of his ideology or religious background.

Plus, I think it is fairly obvious to everyone that Bush's conception of faith is quite shallow, so I strongly doubt that his grounding in faith, such as it is, is particularly helpful to him or the country.

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 10, 2006 2:51:41 PM

There are plenty of ways to establish morality and values without religion

I don't disagree, but it's not clear to me that those justifications don't end up depending on faith or something like it, if only faith in long-held human intuitions about what is wrong. I may be wrong, and you are clearly in a much better position that I to speak to this, but I thought that the various projects to establish a purely formal ethical system were generally considered failures.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Feb 10, 2006 3:26:33 PM

I don't think this statement should be extra troublesome for us. It's just some more red meat thrown to the base, trying to maintain the image of GOP=righteous that is so necessary to keep them in the fold.

As a theologian - seriously - I find it hard to believe that Bush has faith in anything at all, let alone that he relies on it so completely that he can't relate to other people who supposedly have none.

Anyway, at what point has Darth Cheney portrayed himself as having faith? Him and Bush are supposed to be pretty tight, right?

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 10, 2006 5:55:20 PM

The former Norwegian Prime-Minister's personal Christian faith (he was a priest before turning to politics in the Christian-Democratic Party) spared Norway the wrath after being 'nuanced' on the Iraq war in 2003. PM Bondevik spoke to Bush on the phone about his reluctance on going to war due to his faith, and Bush is reported to have replied, "You are a man of God, and I like to think of myself as one too". And with that Norway wasn't viciously vilified as part of 'old Europe'.

Now Norway has a Social-Democratic Prime-Minister who's apparantly non-religious. An atheist leftie might be as good a match for Bush as his predecessor, the priest.

Posted by: Hustveit | Feb 10, 2006 8:45:08 PM

This doesn't surprise me coming from bush.

"We receive our rights from God."

"The decision points up the fact that we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench."

- George W. Bush, in statements to reporters with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Note: Putin is an atheist.) Bush was criticizing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that references to God make reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools unconstitutional. June 26, 2002

Yeah. His views do not shock me one bit. People like me don't fit into his little world.

Posted by: Angie | Feb 10, 2006 10:34:19 PM

Is someone is not led by the nose ( or herd ) but makes their own sense of "the way things are", likely they are poorer prospects for a successful snowjob by a shamus ( that's an actor if Irish isn't understood ). I only relate to Bush's track record in one way : the con is on ... and it's all that he can see.

Posted by: opit | Feb 10, 2006 11:50:45 PM

(Note: Putin is an atheist.)

The data on this is ambiguous. Certainly, it is unlikely that the former head of the KGB could be a believer. A story at CNN.com about the very event you mention states outright that Putin is an atheist.

However, other reports claim that he is a believer. Putin apparently has managed to create an ambiguous enough public persona on this matter that according to a Russian poll, 38% think Putin is a believer, and 34% think he isn't.

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 11, 2006 12:15:51 AM

My point was more to what bush said (his reference to a god), vs the Putin bit. I just did a copy and paste of his comments from another source. :)

Posted by: Angie | Feb 11, 2006 1:39:50 AM

I think people are under the mistaken assumption that if Bush wants "x" amount of money spent for aid to Africa, he'll automatically get it since his party is in control of congress. What people don't realize is that his party, who are responsible for budgeting priorities, has an ideology which might be at odds with Bush's own beliefs. If Gershon is as passionate about the poor as this article seems to indicate, it would seem odd that he would latch onto someone like Bush, unless Bush also shares that passion. So can we argue that maybe the problem isn't Bush, but more the party in congress who don't share that passion? And the reason why his actions seem contrary is because Bush is hampered by his own party?

Of course if that's the case, then maybe the best thing for Bush is if the Democrats regain control of congress, who, if this article is any indication, may share Bush's own priorities more.

Of course there's another aspect. Which is that while Bush may care about the poor, he also cares about winning. And as a Republican, one who is trying to cater to the base (since the middle for Bush at this point is a lost cause), then he's going to be focusing more on tax cuts and cutting entitlements.

If the Democrats do regain control of congress, it will be fascinating to see how Bush reacts.

Posted by: Jeff | Feb 11, 2006 3:36:52 PM

SomeCallMeTim:
"....Moreover, it seems reasonable to believe that men attempting to be led only by reason are likely to find some really horrible things that are justifiable. ..."

Bush seems to have no problem with his faith leading him to do whatever is political desirable.
His religious followers have no problem with that, or with reconciling his statements with what actually happens.

Posted by: Barry | Feb 13, 2006 3:29:58 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 1, 2007 5:05:37 AM

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