Random Realism

Random Realism By Axel Gelfert July 15, 2002 Before September 11th, it was a common understanding, even among many Republicans, that President Bush did not excel in the intellectual department. An entire industry had developed around the task of finding ever more embarrassing “Bushisms.” Most liberal commentators seemed to agree that Bush was merely the paperback edition of an American president (or, more appropriately, the abridged, large-print edition.) After September 11th, everything changed, or so it seemed. Who would have dared criticize the president for being at war with words when the country was at war with a much larger enemy? Even one of Bush’s more critical blunders–his call for a “crusade against terrorism,” just when he was about to enlist the Muslim world in the anti-terror coalition–was tactfully ignored by most of the media. Perhaps it is time to reconsider. After all, a Freudian slip sometimes says more than a thousand words, and so, why shouldn’t a Bushism? Obviously, some Bushisms do not qualify: That “Canada is our most important neighbor to the North” is about as uncontroversial as Bush’s observation that “when there is more trade, there is more commerce.” A liking for truisms is not all that unusual among politicians–precisely because truisms do not go beyond the obvious. Similarly, Bush’s curious tendency to repeat the same words in a variety of permutations (“I know what I believe, and I will continue to articulate what I believe since I believe what I believe is right”) does not in itself offer much room for serious interpretation. And only conspiracy theorists would read Bush’s claim that “it’s the executive branch’s job to interpret law” as foreshadowing the restrictions on civil liberties implemented by the Bush administration as part of the war on terrorism. There is, however, a class of Bushisms that does teach something about Bush’s intellectual style. That Bush, despite his idiosyncrasies and occasionally erratic policy shifts, has a consistent intellectual style, must be acknowledged–in fact it is precisely through his stubbornness in style that Bush seeks to immunize himself against criticism, thus infuriating his political opponents. Here is an example: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they are there.” (At Iowa Western Community College, Jan. 21, 2000) What seemed, at the time, merely another instance of awkward populist rhetoric, today, with the benefit of hindsight, sounds like the mission statement for Bush’s campaign against terrorism. And in the case of the Taliban, the strategy seems to have worked: Identify the target–find out who the “they” are–and then “smoke them out of their holes.” How is one to interpret this strategy? Ever since Socrates’ statement “I know that I don’t know,” people with problems in the intellectual department turned to Philosophy Departments for an answer. (At least this is how philosophers would like to think of themselves.) From a philosopher of science’s point of view, the above quotation inescapably reads like an endorsement of a strong doctrine of scientific realism: “We are not so sure who the they are, but we know they are there.” Before one even knows the details of what it is that is out there, one gives it a label. We may have a vague idea of who, or what, it is that we are targeting, but in order to develop a grasp on reality, we must already, if only hypothetically, single out the “they.” Scientists face this challenge all the time: Are the entities they talk about–such as electrons, genes, or species–in fact real, or are they mere fictions, at best empirically adequate for describing certain experiments or states of nature? Not long ago, the so-called science wars wreaked havoc in the academy: Some scientists, especially those engaged in communicating science to the general public, complained their work was being undermined by postmodernist suggestions that scientific discourse was nothing but a collection of language games, devised by scientists to secure taxpayers’ money for their research grants. The complaint derives much of its force from precisely the basic realist commitment that, while scientists may perhaps not be so sure about the properties of the entities they talk about, they know they are there. Of course the entities that were at issue in the science wars (involving statements in physics about quarks, or in psychology about intelligence quotients) are one matter, the entities at issue in the war on terrorism are quite another. And this is part of the reason why Bush’s reasoning so often goes wrong. To put it bluntly, Bush is a realist about the wrong sorts of things. For one, in politics, as in economics and international relations, the entities one talks about are alive–and they listen. They are interactive kinds (to use Ian Hacking’s terminology): “The courses of action they choose, and indeed their ways of being, are by no means independent of the available descriptions under which they may act.” One need only look at how Alan Greenspan can chase the financial markets up and down across the board, to realize that, by analogy, the president of the world’s last super-power, by his verbal comments alone, can forge alliances and establish front lines. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, it seemed that Bush had learned this lesson. He made sure early on to insist that “if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists”–a position that has proven vital for the tactical purpose of building an alliance with even unlikely partners such as Pakistan. Good tactics, however, do not always in the long run turn into good strategy, as became obvious with the State of the Union Address, in which Bush lumped together such disparate countries as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as a single entity–an “axis of evil.” Pseudo-realist talk of this kind risks creating the very entity it seeks to target. Instead of sowing seeds of discord among those countries, it provides them with an umbrella under which they can potentially unite in a common cause. That this hasn’t happened (yet) is a lucky thing–and is largely due to the fact that the disparities that Bush chose to ignore were just too great in the first place. The odd–and potentially most worrying–thing about Bush’s pseudo-realism is not that he sometimes clings to it in an almost hysterical fashion. Rather, it is the fact that it is applied in an almost random way. Given that the above quotation (“we know they are there”) could be read as an endorsement of realism, one might expect Bush to also apply it to the sciences–which are commonly acknowledged to provide better-founded theories (in their respective domains, of course) than either politics or economics. Wrong again. One need only look back a year to the Kyoto controversy or the debate surrounding the National Missile Defense (NMD) strategy to realize that Bush shuns mainstream science. In the case of global warming, scientists predicting climate change as a result of the greenhouse effect were routinely accused of having a self-interest in promoting their research through sensational claims. Hence, so the Bush administration argued, their results should not be regarded as adequate representations of reality. By contrast, in the case of NMD, even the most optimistic scenarios put forward by military-industrial scientists with regard to the workability of the NMD were accepted at face value. No trace of self-interest there, apparently. The selective disregard for mainstream science displayed by Mr. Bush in the debate on climate change is paralleled only by South African President Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the connection between HIV and AIDS. In both cases, the flip side of random realism becomes visible–namely, selective skepticism. The procedure of how a choice between realist and anti-realist intuitions is arrived at appears almost always based on prejudice rather than educated judgment or external expertise. Prejudices, of course, are prone to vacillations, and perhaps this explains why even staunch allies regularly find themselves assured of mutual trust while on state visits, but faced with reports about the latest instances of unilateral distrust the next day. Consider a recent contribution to the Financial Times , in which James Schlesinger speculated that Europe’s decision to deploy a new global positioning system (Galileo) was based “on the grounds that the U.S. could not be trusted.” This seems an odd complaint, indeed. For one, the European system is intended primarily for civilian use and hence introduces competition in a monopoly market–something U.S. authorities at home are desperate to enforce in the Microsoft-dominated market of commercial computer operating systems. Also, it seems out of proportion to declare a technical matter such as GPS interoperability a matter of trust, when, as for example in the recent controversy over the ICC, the same would-be advocates of trust look with distrust at the proposals of their allies, apparently believing that these constitute a conspiracy aimed at persecuting U.S. citizens or soldiers. The leitmotifs of anti-intellectualism and unilateralism in President Bush’s administration are intimately connected. During the presidential campaign in 2000, liberal commentators gasped in disbelief at the seemingly endless series of Bushisms. Some went so far as to lament a “stupidity issue”–or, as one commentator put it, “it’s the stupidity, stupid.” Such a view, however, would be both complacent and misleading. For, the examples above show that it is not Bush’s rhetorical ability that is at stake, but rather his grasp of reality. Bushisms are more than slips of the tongue: They are the ” memes ” (to use the expression coined by Richard Dawkins) that make up the ideology of “compassionate conservatism.” Memes tend to make copies of themselves–they replicate, like genes. Contrary to genes, however, they are non-material beliefs, or states of the mind, that get passed on by imitation. And this is precisely what makes them dangerous. One need only look at the career of Bush sound-bites in last April’s escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Within 24 hours after Bush’s profound statement “Enough is enough” (truism alert!), both camps readily jumped onto the rhetorical bandwagon and started using the phrase to justify their actions and heap blame on their enemies. Many have complained that what Bush says is not always a reliable guide to his actions, and it remains to be seen whether, for example, Bush’s promise to consult his European allies before any military action against Iraq, is worth its salt. But on the whole, critics had better recognize that even though rhetoric is not always an exhaustive guide to reality, it almost always partly constitutes reality–certainly in politics, where one is in the business of interactive kinds. Ideally, of course, President Bush himself would realize that one can not be habitually at war with words without to some extent being at war with reality. Presidential whistling in the dark gives temporary reassurance at best, but it might well be dangerous when there is reason to think that the enemy could be anywhere. In the end, you never know who the “they” are.