Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Perversity of Hope Deferred

Obama came into the White House riding on the Audacity of Hope. Millions were ready to see a change in America's mission at home and abroad, a change in how the Executive Branch operated, and a change in the attitude of government toward its responsibilities.

What Obama encountered was an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling to change for anyone. Obama, willing to listen to all sides -- a good trait, by the way! -- was quickly taken in by the bureaucratic "experts" who convinced him that "going slowly" was the best course of action.

Obama thus has delayed action on reform of the treatment of gays in the military. "Don't ask, don't tell" is still as entrenched as ever. And while Obama delays taking actions that his authority as President allows him to take, the enemies of change are emboldened and the proponents of change are disheartened.

Similarly, Obama has been roped into long-term commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan -- obligating us to ruinously costly wars in an area where the culture and religion are inhospitable to systemic change. He has been convinced of this by the military establishment, of course, which has had a long time to justify anything it is doing, whether it is justifiable or not. When Obama was taking the broad view of the situation on the campaign trail and promising disengagement, he was on the right track. He has been buffaloed by bull-____ , derailed by details, and managed by minutia. He has surrounded himself with experts -- but the wrong ones, time and again.

Similarly, the reform of the banking system has been systemically weakened by its opponents because Obama has trusted the Insiders who have been a part of the problem. Corruption cannot reform corruption, it seems, and Obama would have been wiser to rely less on insider experience than on the ability to learn and root out the problems.

Health care has been another place where "hope deferred makes the heart sick." Obama chose not to lead, not to "name and shame," but to strike deals with the pharmaceutical industry and to trust the insurance industry to do better at keeping costs in line. Again, it makes no sense to put the wolves in charge of guarding the sheep.

Obama has failed in this first year, not because he deliberately meant to fail, but because when he came into office he trusted the wrong people and delayed keeping his promises.

I hope this new year will be a year of lessons learned, of new resolve and a willingness to right wrongs, even in the face of stiff opposition.

But I don't have much hope for it now. Obama is a genuinely nice person, but much too manageable by people dedicated to the status quo. Had he become President during the civil rights struggle, civil rights legislation would never have been passed. It took a stubborn leader to make it happen.

Still, miracles can happen. I wish Obama the best this year. Because if he doesn't clean house, right wrongs, keep promises, and rein in the financial slavemakers he will have wrestled defeat out of the jaws of victory. May God forgive us if such opportunity is lost.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Thinking about Thinking in A New Year!

Hmmm. It is nice to be back. I had a nasty bout of illness over the holidays that just left me rather flat and weak. I am beginning to get back into the swing of things.

OK, over the next several blogs I am going to try something dangerous.

We are going to explore a "Theory of Knowledge." I am going to do this without a textbook, I promise. I know courses exist on epistemology. I am going to do some "feeling around" about knowledge, what we see it as, how we use it, what components make up "knowledge", and just generally *how* we "know" things.

But as important as knowing things has to be, something with potentially even more significance is knowing the state of your knowledge and reacting to it. So you have studied those history dates. Do you know them? If you answer yes, how do you know that you know them? Well, how would I know that you know?

Questions like those fall under a category called "metacognition" or "thinking about thinking." Sounds fancy, but it is really a very significant topic and enormously useful if approached right.

Well, what else? We will need to see what happens when we put knowledge together with other knowledge. We will need to see what kinds of knowledge have been the most significant in human history, and well, …

IF I GET THROUGH AN UMPTIETH of this, I will have done a good job.

But why, you ask, am I so worked up about this?

Well, I find that in some ways, people are becoming more susceptible to a "soft-knowledge" mode of thinking. Yes, that is essentially the same thing as saying that their brains are full of mush, but with the hint that there might be some external forces at work helping to mushify the thought processes.

This leads to all sorts of problems. People make all sorts of easily avoidable mistakes they would never make if they were thinking properly. People are easy prey to advertising which promotes emotion-based decision making instead of knowledge-based decision making.

I mean, doesn't it make you cringe when you hear some general explaining the reason for years of failed military and political progress in the Iraq War was a failure to understand the culture? Why would we send troops in with no cultural training? (We did!) Why would anyone in their right mind think that Iraqis would want to be just like the US anyway, as if they had no culture of their own, and no local or national pride?

Or how about the strange case of Governor Sanford who went off "walking the Appalachian Trail"? What kind of muddy thinking made him say he was trying to work on his marriage and yet call his mistress his "true love"? And what kind of thinking allowed him to be so strident in demanding that Bill Clinton resign because of his affair and attendant sins, yet insist that God wants him - Mark Sanford - to remain in office? Hypocrisy is a sign of muddy thinking, too.

Ultimately a culture cannot maintain a level higher than its general ability to think. That means that the American people are in more trouble than they realize.

So, hopefully we will get this project going. Stay tuned!

In the mean time, I will be preparing for a new batch of eager (or less than) math students.

No, I haven't said anything about New Year's Resolutions. You've had too much of that already.