Monday, October 04, 2004

Presidential Debate II — David Brooks

It’s not just me. New York Times columnist David Brooks also saw a debate within the debate Thursday night, and he reaches a similar depressing conclusion, which I deleted from my posting: That Bush is popular because people love conviction — even it if means death and destruction. This is also the key to Osama bin Laden’s popularity, and that ought to tell us something very disconcerting about our “open” society.

Brooks begins his essay — published in today’s editions of The Plain Dealer — by writing, “In weak moments, I think the best ticket for America would be Bush-Kerry. The two men balance each other out so well.”

He continues: “Kerry can’t make a decision. Bush makes them too quickly. Kerry changes his mind by the month; Bush almost never changes his mind; Kerry thinks obsessively about process questions but can’t seem to come up with a core conviction; Bush is great at coming up with clear goals but is not so great about coming up with the process to get there.”

Brooks also writes: “That was the striking thing about the debate on Thursday night. It wasn’t so much a clash of ideologies or a clash of cultures. It was a clash of two different sorts of minds. … The atmosphere of Kerry’s mind is rationalistic. He thinks about how to get things done. … The atmosphere of Bush’s mind is more creedal or ethical. He talks about moral challenges. … His mind is less coldly secular than Kerry’s, but also more abstracted from day-to-day reality.”


At this point the newspaper was ripped from my hands by the ghost of Karl Popper, who stood by my chair and shouted, “These candidates embody the approaches I was so intent on explaining in ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies.’ This is exactly what I meant when I wrote that our world is still struggling between the open and the closed societies, where on the one hand you have tribal people who embrace eternal truths — and what they assume to be the infallible integrity of their own intellectual intuitions — and on the other hand you have modern people who are critical of absolutes and ‘core convictions’ because they believe the best way forward is to constantly re-evaluate their old theories and approaches for new ideas and plans that work better.”

“Read more,” Popper commanded, and handed me back the paper.

“These contrasting casts of mind influence how the two men see the world — for example, how they define the enemy. …”

“I already defined the enemy,” Popper roared. (Magee was right; he’s got a temper!) “It’s the strain of civilization and our ambivalence about change. The strain centers around the fact that it’s hard for us to make decisions without the help of some authority; we want a solid foundation for those decisions: we want to get god or truth involved. So yes, our minds become ‘creedal.’ What’s more, our ambivalence about change comes back to our realization that change can be good, that it can bring us a better world, but that it can also be risky because we might lose our advantage or drift into chaos. So we want to hold onto god or truth as a way of limiting the damages change can bring. So we lose our nerve and look for absolutes — we cringe from the responsibility of thinking things through.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” I said. “I’m already on board with your ideas — I was before I even read your books. I even added a 'Popper Page' to my main Web site."

“More,” Popper yelled, so I turned back to Brooks.

“Bush sometimes acts as if it’s enough for a president to profess his faith. But a coach can’t just dream up a game plan. He has to understand what his specific players can and can’t do and adapt to those realities.”

“That’s the weakness of the creedal mind,” Popper said. “Once you believe you’re connected to eternal truths, it’s very hard to adapt to specific realities; indeed, doing so often brings charges of weakness, even blasphemy. But the progress of a culture — in my view — depends on the ability to adapt to new realities, which represents the triumph of critical thinking over the worn-out notion that there are eternal truths or magical powers to rescue us from the perils of change. We must remember that things are always changing and that even the idea of gods and truths are products of changes in human minds and human cultures. I explained all this in ‘The Poverty of Historicism.’ You can’t escape choice or change by hiding behind god or eternal truth.”

“I’m afraid our culture hasn’t quite caught up with you,” I said. “Listen to how Brooks ends his essay.”

“Nonetheless, I suspect that the reason Bush’s approval ratings hover around 50 percent, despite a year of carnage in Iraq, is because of the reason many of us in the commentariat don’t like to talk about: In a faithful and moralistic nation, Bush’s language has a resonance with people who know that he is not always competent, and who know that he doesn’t always dominate every argument, but who can sense a shared cast of mind.”

“Cast of mind,” Popper mumbled. “In other words, people like Bush because he’s a walking, talking advertisement for the worst attributes of the closed society?”

“That’s how I understand it.”

“Right now, I am not the least bit sorry to be dead,” Popper said, and disappeared back into the wallpaper.

(See below for my take on the debate.)


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