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Belmont Club

Decisionmaking under uncertainty

March 30th, 2009 - 3:07 pm

David Horowitz denounces the Obama Derangement Syndrome while John Podhoretz, at the Weekly Standard, takes on the myths that Hollywood creates.  What’s the connection? They are linked by a single theme: the substitution of preconception for reality. Podhoretz describes the World of the Watchmen, an ‘alternative reality … with Nixon elected to term after term after term and the Soviets invading Afghanistan out of fear of American malfeasance’. This is a world where nothing is as it truly was. We’re all familiar with it: the world where Lincoln was a Democrat, Bull Conner a Republican, Martin Luther King a Democrat and when the Vietnam War was started by Tricky Dick, instead of by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Not that anybody’s got something against JFK, but facts are facts.

David Horowitz’s denunciation of the Obama Derangement Syndrome is at heart a warning against being consumed by fantasy in the way that liberals once imagined George W. Bush. Horowitz writes:

Even as astute a conservative thinker as Mark Steyn has been swept up in the tide that thinks Obama is a “transformative” radical. But look again at his approach to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, as noted, he is carrying out the Bush policies – the same that he once joined his fellow Democrats in condemning. And that should be reassuring to anyone concerned about where he is heading as commander-in-chief.

In other words, while it’s reasonable to be unhappy with a Democratic administration and even concerned because the Democrats are now a socialist party in the European sense, we are not witnessing the coming of the anti-Christ. A good strategy for political conflicts is to understand your opponent first – not to underestimate him, but not to overestimate him either.

Readers of this site will have observed an attempt to understand Obama with through the method of a priori/a posteriori. Starting from any viewpoint you want about BHO (a priori), the trick is never be insensitive to new information (a posteriori) about him.  This is subtly different from the David Horowitz approach because while it eschews fantasy, it isn’t bounded in either direction. President Obama may be much better than we imagine — or much worse. Much more likely he is different from anything his liberal supporters or his conservative opponents believe.  But in any case the thing to achieve isn’t disgust avoidance; it is fantasy avoidance.  Self-deception is one of the easiest mistakes to commit. One way to avert it is to avoid making an personal and emotional investment in either position. And again, it works in either direction. Just because we once liked BHO doesn’t mean we should adore him forever. But the reverse is also true.

I suspect that David Horowitz is keenly aware of the cost of an Obama Derangement Syndrome, or its appearance. Any effective political opposition to Obama, granting one wanted to be in opposition, requires building alliances with the undecided or even the liberal disenchanted. Becoming like the Daily Kos is the surest way not to build alliances. The big winner of the Obama victory wasn’t the Daily Kos, it was the Huffington Post.

But that is beside the point. The search for truth shouldn’t be driven by political calculation. One of the reasons why the Bush Derangement Syndrome and its possible counterpart rose to such heights virulence is that both Presidents presided over period of crisis. In GWB’s case, it was 9/11. In BHO’s case it is the economic meltdown. Thus, the publics on both sides of the aisle tend to see each President as Transformative, or if you prefer the darker word, Revolutionary. I have to say, now that President Bush has left office and last page in his book has been closed, that he left no concentration camps in America, or at least none that are the even infinitesimally comparable to the internment camps of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So it is possible to say, with near certainty, that people were wrong to be deranged about President Bush. Obama’s saga is yet to be written. His actions still have to be examined for all the universe of possibility or menace they suggest, but neither more nor less than they suggest.

Personally I don’t think that the question of Obama’s character can be separated from the larger historical forces that are acting upon this moment. One reason why feelings about BHO run so high is that they are magnified by events. The geostrategic fuel for the Obama Derangement Syndrome is the sense that the world is entering a crisis similar to that of the 1930s. We live in a world in which Islamic militancy, vast migrations, globalization, nuclear proliferation, the emergence of failed states, transnationalism — and now the financial crisis — are remarking the old certainties. If apocalyptic thinking is in vogue, it is easy to see whence it comes. In that context, we don’t  need to look for actual devils: it’s not necessary to be anything more than a Neville Chamberlain or a Petain to make the fatal mistake. Catastrophe can come not in guise of the firebreathing demagogue, but in the shape of the smallminded man who is working out his parochial political calculations even as everything falls about his ears.

Conventional wisdom provides little guidance about what we should believe. If there is anything the last decade should have emphasized, it is that the Black Swan is always lurking around the corner. There was a time when America was considered “immune” to the ravages of terrorism; a time when it was “common knowledge” that the Iraq would end in a defeat. There was a time when risk managers of major banks throughout the world — a scant two years ago — could not conceive of a liquidity crisis. Who is Barack Obama? It’s a bold man who will provide any more than a tentative answer. The jury is still out, though the jurors it must be said, can’t help but turn the different hypotheses over in their minds. The best answer is that should keep our eyes wide open so that we may find out. It may be argued that the Bush Derangement Syndrome ultimately brought the Left their Messiah. But by that logic an Obama Derangement System threatens to bring on the conservative counterpart. Preferences in such cases are iffy. As Sergeant Lejaune in Beau Geste was mythically said to have argued in a Hollywood remake, “if the Arabs don’t get you, the Legion will get you, and if the Legion doesn’t get you, I will. I don’t know which is worse.” Flattery is the sincerest form of imitation. They all imitated each other.

I think Barack Obama will turn out to be, in part, who the public will let him become. There’s an interplay between whatever personal tendencies he has and political reality. A lot of admiration has been expressed, not in the least by Horowitz, by his continuation of Bush-era policies or some other approach which seems reasonable. But one should never fully ascribe to choice what might be due to constraint. President Obama, however dark or brilliant a figure one may regard him as, is hedged around by existing policies, inertia and circumstance. He will run as far as the political leash will let him go. That’s the way things are designed. The greatest danger of any really extreme ODS is that it will take real criticism off the board and leave the game to those who stay in.

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