Flip-flopping with Dubya 

Reality? We don't need no stinkin' reality

Last week, I wrote about George Bush's anti-intellectualism, wondering in part what its sources were. A few days after I filed my column, a probable answer appeared in a remarkable article in the Sunday, Oct. 17, issue of the New York Times Magazine. The article, "Without a Doubt" by Ron Suskind, set the punditocracy and Internet bloggers on fire overnight.

Suskind, by interviewing many administration insiders and former associates of the president, demonstrates that Bush's anti-intellectualism is not a lack of native intelligence. Indeed, Suskind provides evidence that Dubya even had some sense of his own limitations at the beginning of his presidency when, for example, he went to a group of religious leaders engaged in social activism. He asked them how he could speak to the soul of America and how he, as someone who has never known poverty, could be more empathetic to the poor.

But, Suskind writes, this aspect of Bush's persona quickly became overwhelmed by the part of him that is impatient with debate and analysis. Of course, all of us share that impatience to some degree, but many of us learn to develop analytical skills through the challenges of education and careers. But Bush, famous for his lackluster academic performance and bailouts from business failures by friends and family, never had much reason to learn from his mistakes. Little wonder that in the last debate with John Kerry he could not name three mistakes he'd made during his presidency.

Even his Texas gubernatorial term did not require him to question himself much, since, as Suskind writes, the bulk of governing was done by the Texas Legislature. So, when Bush ascended to the presidency, the American people found themselves with a leader with considerable personal skills but no real history of critical thinking. As the pressure of the presidency mounted, Bush increasingly compensated not by learning more but by depending on his "gut intuition," which he legitimated as "faith." Thus, when critics cite the obvious disaster that Iraq has become, he replies that he has "faith" that the "thirst for freedom" will prevail.

This "faith" is of course modeled by his religious belief, which was indeed instrumental in his decision to quit drinking some 20 years ago. But his radical generalizing of a faith in the wisdom and guidance of a higher power to a blind faith in his own beliefs, even when reality demonstrates their invalidity, has turned him into one of history's most isolated presidents. Suskind reports one troubling incident after another of Bush contemptuously dismissing people who challenge his beliefs. Over four years, he has isolated himself inside a group of people who refuse to challenge him and, it appears, have come to believe in their own infallibility.

Perhaps the most shocking statement Suskind records was made to him in 2002 by a top Bush adviser after he wrote a profile of communications director Karen Hughes for Esquire. Of that chillingly surreal encounter, Suskind writes:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

It would be grossly unfair to say that all religious people, including evangelical Christians, share this astonishingly hubristic view of themselves. Ayelish McGarvey, an evangelical religion writer, protests in the Oct. 19 American Prospect that Bush uses religion for political purposes but, unlike Jimmy Carter, demonstrates little spirituality in his actual behavior. Despite speeches that are full of code words to appeal to the religious right, McGarvey writes, Bush's "steadfast unwillingness to 'fess up to a single error betrays a strikingly un-Christian lack of attention to the importance of self-criticism, the pervasiveness of sin, and the centrality of humility, repentance and redemption."

The result is hypocrisy and dissembling. For example, on the one hand he calls stem cell research "murder" because it destroys human embryos in their earliest stages. But he also boasts that he funded research on 60 stem-cell lines that had already been harvested. As McGarvey notes, the policy allows him to politically placate people on both sides of the issue but is neither ethically nor scientifically defensible. If it's murder, it should be illegal. If it's not, there is no reason to limit funding to the extant lines.

"Conservative Christians call this moral relativism," McGarvey writes. "But in the simpler language that George W. Bush prefers, it's a flip-flop."

Or maybe it's creating your own reality, one based on fiction that those of us in the "reality-based community" are too dumb to apprehend.

Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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