Friday, October 12, 2007

Keeping the faith

Back to a topic from couple weeks ago...

During the White House Press Correspondents' dinner in 2006, Stephen Colbert famously described George Bush, who was seated nearby, as follows:
"The greatest thing about this man is that he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."
This concise description of Bush's dogmatism conveys something basic (and disturbing) about him. Nothing has changed, at least outwardly, in the last year. George Bush seems more convinced than ever that he will be vindicated by history, or at least that no one will be able to form conclusive judgments about his administration during his lifetime.

But if history finally condemns him, as seems inevitable, Bush has staked out an unchallengeable backup position: god speaks through him, so he is forever immune from the judgments of mere mortals [also here].

Bush's rigid faith in his United Methodist god places him beyond doubt and critical reflection on his own limitations, which are painfully obvious by now to most of the world's population. In a 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine that included an interview with a prominent old-school Republican, Ron Suskind described Bush in term that are just as telling today as they were three years ago:
''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . . ''

This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''
For Bush, faith and dogmatism provide a convenient rationale for avoiding accountability for the horrific errors of judgment that have caused massive suffering and taken countless lives. As the philosopher David Hume wrote (in a 1751 letter to a friend):
The worst speculative Sceptic ever I knew, was a much better Man than the best superstitious Devotee & Bigot.
Or, as Mark Twain wrote in Following the Equator ("Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"):
There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
Is Bush truly immune from doubt? Perhaps he is beyond conscious doubt, but he is in such constant conflict with the "reality-based community" that he must, on some level, have at least a vague sense of uncertainty. [1] But he has learned to overcompensate for it with arrogance and a tendency to demean those around him. As Pudd'nhead Wilson wisely observed:
When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet deep down in his private heart no man much respects himself.

[1] As the end of Bush's term nears (though to many it seems impossibly distant), the attempts to psychoanalyze Bush seem to be multiplying. For example, one commentator argues in WaPo:
But to me, it sounds like Bush is looking not for answers -- but for rationalizations for his behavior. There is no sign of genuine introspection, no sign of acknowledgment of mistakes, no sign of any significant change of course. In a pattern familiar to anyone who has ever had a drinking problem, Bush appears to be engaged in a furious effort to persuade onlookers that he's fine -- even if he isn't.

In fact, one could even argue that Bush's search for "answers" from a parade of easily cowed visitors allows him to avoid a hard look at the one place he is most likely to find an explanation for his predicament: Within himself.

GRAPHIC: Portrait of Mark Twain (1890) by James Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). (Wikimedia)

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