Reality-Based Community

I began to see bloggers identifying themselves as part of the Reality-Based Community in the last couple of days. It’s an ironic response to a remark by a White House staff member who dismissed the the Reality-based community when he was talking to a journalist in 2002. Most of the proud members of the Reality-Based community are using it as evidence that the Bush team is wrapped up in its own rhetoric – its own separate reality, if you please. Some are using it as evidence that the Bush team is being run by religious zealots who reject science and reason.
I think this remark tells us that the people in the White House like being positive and pro-active and optimistic and supportive and team players, and that they have their own private code for talking about people on the outside.

Matthew Ylgesias, a staff writer for Reich’s American Prospect magazine, and a prolific liberal political blogger added the words “Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community” to his blog banner in October and he began to use the term in his articles and posts. The Bush team’s peculiar and sarcastic use of this term was revealed by Ron Suskind in an article called “Without a Doubt” in the NY Times Magazine on October 17, 2004. It’s hard to get to the source online, because of the NY Times online site registration requirements. There are excerpts in Warblogging,with a link to the full text. I found a different link that may work on the Butterflies and Wheels site.
The article starts with a discussion of President Bush’s ideas of faith and personal mission. Suskind interviewed a number of sources to write his pre-election article about the President’s faith in himself. The piece is a moody account of Suskind’s discussions with people who think Bush is ignorant, stupid, and dangerously convinced that God has annointed his election. He got some neat stories of the President’s acting ignorant, stubborn and oblivious to feedback. He also wrote some good background on the President’s education at the Harvard school of business and his experience of business as networking, promoting, acting and entertaining.
He presents President Bush as a vain man who has succeeded beyond expectations in politics after floundering in business. His life was in a shambles when he went through a religious conversion experience which helped him overcome addictions and saved his marriage and his career. Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists regard him as one of their own, and he seems to connect with them. He has a positive attitude and a strong personal belief that his own persistence in his own beliefs will carry through because he has been called by God to the Presidency.
Suskind starts and finishes with the idea that the President has been caught up in the idea that religious faith and modern secular values are competing, rather that complementary, systems of thought and that the President is actively promoting religious values and making political decisions on faith, against reason.
Suskind used a quote from a different interview with an unamed White House staffer in 2002, when the White House was mad at him for a different piece. His report of that discussion:

“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “that’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Suskind has woven fragments of evidence into a narrative that fits his thesis and excludes other options. There is evidence that President Bush is vain, ignorant and insensitive, like many corporate executives who have thrived on their energy and determination, rather than on their knowledge of philosophy. If he made that point, he would have done well. But Suskind wanted to write about the culture wars between evangelical pastors and liberal academics and writers. He made some progess on this point. He has good evidence that the President has taken some of the religious right’s theology on board, and there is evidence that the religious right is hostile to modern or secular moral values. There is of course evidence that the religious right, when it pushes for “creation science” to be taught in schools, is hostile to rational empiricism and science although that may be a rhetorical trick to try to present Christian fundamentalism in public schools.
He fails to prove that President Bush has a different sense of the relationship between faith and reason than any past president or than the majority of Americans. Leaving aside the sizable minority of Americans who believe that God, or the Goddess, or gods and goddesses or the power of intentionality intervene in life and magically set aside the normal physical rules of nature, most people reconcile their religious faith and basic values with respect for the fundamental order of the universe. The quote about the reality-based community doesn’t bear the weight that Suskind put on it.
Ylgesias spent a moment on the idea in an American Prospect article about the war in Iraq. He and his commenters spent some time trying to decode the postmodernist implications of the idea that the White house is not a reality-based community in comments on his blog entry “About Suskind” of October 17/04. Someone suggested that the remark presented a Nazi philosophy of the will to power. I think this analysis is a little far-fetched.
This is one of Bush’s courtiers speaking. He (or she) probably has a university education, but not necessarily in the liberal arts. He may attend church, or not. There is a weird postmodern overtone about creating reality, but that’s probably just some kind of private jargon that comes from some kind of motivational coaching. The comment was obviously a direct put-down of Suskind as an ineffective intellectual who can’t make a decision and who uses research and fact-gathering to put off having to act. The term may have been used sarcastically to refer to academics, bureaucrats and technocrats. It may have been used in a literal sense to describe a person who prefers discussing rational empiricism to shooting armadillos and Moslems. It certainly isn’t a statement of systematic philosophy.
In modern business, everyone is positive about the team, the company, the coach, the boss, the product, the opportunties. We don’t ask if it can’t be done – we decide how to do it and we do it. It’s old fashioned back-slapping, ass-kissing salesmanship sweetened by the power of positive thinking. It reflects a business morality in which advertising, entertainment and truth are blurred together in marketing and sales. Those market values have blended into religious values in America. The old virtues of faith, hope and charity have been transformed into loyalty, optimism, and selective compassion in modern American religion. Hope particularly has become reduced to optimism and positive thinking.
The quote raises some uneasy questions. Unending optimism is not a good way to do business – if diplomacy and politics can be compared to business. Corporations have foundered when they take on business that they can’t handle, when the product does not live up to the marketing, and when the directors can’t control the grandiosity of the chairman.
Let me put it in religious terms. Prayer works when you ask God for something he wants to give you when you are working for it. He can’t be forced or convinced by a good sales pitch. Bush can pray for peace and democracy in Iraq but it will take more than prayer.