Thursday, December 18, 2008

Childhood's End

One approach to that practice of "serious reading," which I value so highly, is the parallel reading of sharply contrasting texts. Each text has the ability to disrupt the worldview with which we read the other. As a result, we become more critical of not only the texts but also that worldview that shapes the curvature of our interpretative lenses, so to speak. This morning Yahoo! News has provided us with an interesting example of such parallel texts, both of which originated at the Associated Press. The earlier article is an account of an interview that George W. Bush gave on the Fox News Channel in which he said the following about his current low standing in the polls:

Look, everybody likes to be popular.

What do you expect? We've got a major economic problem and I'm the president during the major economic problem. I mean, do people approve of the economy? No. I don't approve of the economy. ... I've been a wartime president. I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy.

The more recent is the account filed by Nedra Pickler on Barack Obama's most recent efforts toward financial reform. This is an extensive story that covers a lot of ground, thus doing justice to the complexity of the problem and Obama's appreciation of that complexity. In the midst of that complexity, however, Obama could still summon the rhetorical gift of the well-phrased focal point:

Americans, as they watch their investments tank, are frustrated that "there's not a lot of adult supervision out there," Obama added.

As I see it, there are two lessons to be learned from comparing these reports. At the rhetorical level we can appreciate the contrast between the speakers. On the one hand we have a President who is still so determined to maintain his folksy image that he continues to fumble around any matters of substance under the assumption that all that matters is whether or not he compromised his soul, whatever that means. On the other hand we have the President-Elect focusing our attention on the rampant negligence of the current Administration by reminding us of the importance of "adult supervision." It is the difference between a President who would rather comfort scared children and a President-Elect who knows not only that we deserve to be treated as adults but also that we want to know why those "at the switch" have not been acting like adults.

This brings us to the second lesson, which is at the strategic level of taking effective action in a time of crisis. Ultimately, the "authority of the executive," whether in business or in government, may all come down to the question of confidence. We shall never escape the extent to which any economic system is little more than a confidence game, but we may at least confront the question of just who is being played for a sucker by the game. When it comes to comforting scared children, myths are often more effective than reality; we "postpone" reality, as it were, until the kids are more mature and therefore in a better position to face it. Obama's ideological commitment to openness and transparency at the executive level assumes that we do not have to be protected with the sorts of myths that are so necessary to childhood security. He assumes that we are grown up enough to face reality, and he is banking on that awareness of reality strengthening our resolve to get through these hard times. It remains to be seen whether that assumption will pay off; but I, for one, am glad to see that he has made it.

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