Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Post Inaugural Reflections - Beyond Reason?

There were a zillion memorable images from yesterday's Day of National Jubilation, but the one that struck me most was that of a US Marine helicopter diminishing to a speck on the horizon.

The passengers on that flight were the former President and former First Lady.

Former President! It was over. The national nightmare had ended.

So can we now expect an era of rational government?

Not so fast. Two days ago, NY Times op-ed columnist David Brooks mentioned a book that came out in 1962, entitled, "The End of Ideology." The book reflected the thinking of the day, namely that the intense ideological-political schisms of the past were over. Now the country could settle down to rational governance and pragmatic decision-making.

The major flaw in the book, of course, was that this happened to be the Sixties. The Sixties! The Industrial Age and all its assumptions was numbered. The Information Age with all its uncertainties was crashing the party. Civil rights, Vietnam, women's rights. As David Brooks describes it:

"People lost faith in old social norms, but new ones had not yet emerged. The result was disorder. Divorce rates skyrocketed. Crime rates exploded. Faith in institutions collapsed. Social trust cratered."

The collapse of the old order intensified ideological conflict, as conservatives and liberals battled over whose values - social, moral, cultural, political - would prevail. For four decades, there was literally no let-up. Politics turned personal, nasty, ugly - crazy.

But nothing is permanent. Even before people had heard of Obama, a book by Rick Warren, "The Purpose Driven Life," implied that opposites were reconciling into a sort of probational equilibrium.

Obama's ascension to high office, Brooks argues, may be a reflection of this new order. Problems that were impossible to fix when people were at each other's throats - problems such as health care - may be doable now.

But here's the catch. Whether we are talking economics, politics, or personal relationships, the choices we make are never purely rational. We are in the thick of the worst economic-financial collapse since the Great Depression. Two things can happen:

The crisis may actually wake us up, concentrate our collective minds in such a way that, as a society, we actually start thinking rationally. Think of the limbic system on high alert, marshaling our frontal lobes into a state of preternatural clarity and awareness.

Or the crisis may stress us out in ways that throws reason out the window. This time think of the limbic system inciting our frontal lobes into a state of panic. We either blindly lash out or freeze like a deer caught in the headlights.

FDR's first one hundred days in office is the classic example of a rational response to crisis. Together, the country united to save Western Civilization.

By then, Europe was in the clutches of an irrational response. Fascist/Nazi governments were entrenched in some countries, Communists in others. The rest were flailing in pathetic states of conflicted indecision. Civilization didn't stand a chance.

Seeing that speck of a helicopter disappear into the miasma of a DC afternoon filled me with great - and admittedly irrational - joy. But that joy is tempered by my knowledge that our brains are not wired to think rationally. We are betting the success of the new Administration and the future of this country - our entire civilization, for that matter - on the totally opposite assumption.


Anonymous said...

I don't know. I think I am a bit more optomistic. After all, the helicopter flew away. Cheney did not stage a coup. Obama seems to be a very self aware person and he admires Lincoln who certainly knew what to do when our country was in a worse crisis that we are in now.
Obama has already taken steps to abolish the blight of Guantanmo (I can't spell, but you know I mean the awful place in Cuba)which was a blight equal in intensity if not numbers to the Japanese Internment Camps in WWII. He seems to be acting on his morals instead of campaigning on them and understands that a right spirit must precede actions.
The election was legitimate. Noone was thrown in jail for how they voted. Maybe things will go better than you think. We have a systems of Checks and Balances, Maybe it will wake up after an eight year nap. Stopping now---I was supposed to be an optomistic counterpoint.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. Believe me, I'm ecstatic Obama is in office. Naturally, I'm glad that we elected our first African American President. But an even bigger barrier - we actually elected a SMART President.

These are uncertain times, but I am extremely gratified that we have in office an individual with the brains and temperament and judgment to meet the challenge.