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Obama: The Man of Reason? That's Not What We Need

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By Eli Zaretsky. Crossposted from Tikkun Daily.

What do Obama’s three greatest failures — health care, Afghanistan and the oil spill — all have in common? Each one was preceded by an elaborate attempt on Obama’s part to portray his decisions in non-partisan, quasi-scientific and technical terms. Each one was presented as seizing a middle-ground between unreasonable partisans on the two extremes. Of all of the masks worn by this carefully constructed persona, that of the man of reason is the most prominent. Let us look at how it works.

At least since the New Deal, progressives argued for health care as a universal right. They did not want to live in a world where their fellow citizens, or even their fellow human beings, died because they didn’t have access to doctors or medicine. Obama dropped this emphasis for one that foregrounded cost-cutting. According to him, evidence-based scientific research would be used to mandate medical decisions. The possibility that raising the level of the country’s health might cost money, not save money, was never directly considered.

Obama’s first expansion of the Afghan War occurred only a few weeks after taking office, but his second large-scale expansion was preceded by an elaborately choreographed set of seminars in which all the different options were supposedly considered. Those who still believe that this was anything more than a charade have to tell the rest of us what Obama learned from his seminars, i.e., in what way his post-seminar understanding of “the good war,” as he calls Afghanistan, differs.

As to the oil spill, Obama announced his support for offshore drilling on March 10, unfortunate timing for him as the BP spill occurred a few weeks later. In his announcement he said he would provide “order and certainty to offshore exploration and development … ensuring we are drilling in the right ways and the right places.” As to spills, he promised we would “employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration…. And we’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.”
Once again, we got the message: the non-Bush, the thoughtful ratiocinator.

In all three cases, the Enlightenment imagery was used to attack not only political enemies but the political process itself. In health care, Obama positioned himself against the immature lefties who insisted on the public option and the Neanderthal rightists who wanted no reform at all. For Afghanistan he presented his (second) escalation of 40,000 troops as a choice between those who would send no troops, and those who wanted to send 80,000. In the case of off-shore drilling he said “we need to move beyond the tired debates between right and left, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place.” Once again, we get the idea: a man of reason poised against narrow partisans and ideologues.

Obama’s self-presentation as a man of reason and science is ultimately more destructive to our political culture and identity than his decisions, bad as most have been. We need politics, and cannot pretend that the issues that confront us are technical or pragmatic ones. I would much rather debate the future of the country with a rightist, than be cast aside as an ideologue. True scientists don’t make value decisions for us.

Even more important than politics, however, we need to uphold the value of the intellectual life, of reason, properly understood, and of science. There is all the difference in the world between a genuinely reasoned approach to questions like health care, Afghanistan and oil dependency and the scientistic ideologies upon which Obama relies. As a University Professor I am well aware of the claims to “evidence-based” scientificity trumpeted in disciplines like sociology, political science and economics. I know enough about medicine to know that it is as much art as science, enough about foreign policy to know that Obama’s Afghanistan policy is just more American aggression, and enough about oil companies to doubt that we can impose order on them without confronting their inordinate power. We once had an independent intellectual tradition in this country. Obama is the perfect expression of the neo-liberal turn that destroyed that tradition and under the slogan of meritocracy, created a new generation, which knows first and foremost to serve power. I urge others to join me in refusing to go along.

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