An interesting piece in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson on Obama’s handling of the situation in Syria:
A frequent complaint about President Obama’s Syria policy is that he keeps making matters more complicated.
Stripped of context, this simple statement nevertheless makes for a nice microcosm of the way many of us approach the obstacles in front of us. Things should be simple, not complicated!
Simplicity is often described in aesthetic terms, as elegant, or wondrous. Designers who seek simplicity of form are fond of saying that their work is finished not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. There is profound truth to this. Simplicity is beautiful. A poem, a song, a novel, a film — the best of these bring order to a chaotic world for a fleeting moment through the artful illusion of simplicity. But simplicity is, nonetheless, illusion.
This isn’t going to be an argument for complexity, mind you. Especially not the kind of complexity beloved of m’learned colleagues in the academic profession who seem to delight in making simple things difficult just because they can, or, when pressed for a stance on the true nature of the problem at hand, say ‘yes, but whose truth?’ and stand back triumphantly, as if they had just won at something.
‘Complicated’ isn’t in any meaningful way better than ‘simple’, or vice versa. That way madness lies, of different sorts — the brutality of mass extermination, or first year cultural studies class, for instance.
Rather, we should aim above all for clarity about the things that matter in any given situation. This means asking questions like what is happening here? Where are we going? What is the good thing to do? What is at stake and who wins and loses by our choices?
This is an orientation towards the world as we find it, not necessarily as we would like it to be. It demands that we acknowledge complexity where it exists, and achieve clarity through asking simple questions like the ones above.
The President has brought some of the criticism of his handling of the affair on himself. He has seemed puzzled when people asked how military action would help, and has never successfully explained what’s supposed to happen after American cruise missiles hit the ground. In his address on Tuesday, he spoke with feeling about the unacceptability of a world in which dictators aren’t punished for atrocities. But he deflected questions about the scope and the effect of an attack, with empty phrases like “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”
Obama’s worst moments, in other words, have come when he ignores complexity, not when he embraces it. Last year, he narrowed his options by talking about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” His performance since has had a fly-by-night quality that has not inspired confidence. But, by belatedly turning to Congress and, now, to diplomacy, he has given the process more time and increased the number of possible outcomes. In a situation in which there are no good choices, that’s not a bad thing.
Lack of clarity often leads to loss of confidence. By clarity I mean only the ability of someone, when asked, to give a good account of what they are doing and why. It is a virtue in short supply in our time, partly because of the suffocation of clear language brought about by risk-averse managerialism that insists on avoiding particulars wherever possible. When was the last time anyone explained to you clearly what they are doing and why? I am guessing that if you can recall an example, it is memorable precisely for its rarity value.
In the last sentence of the above quote, Davidson makes reference to a situation in which there are no good choices. Such a proposition is difficult for many of us to swallow, steeped as we are in hundreds of years of the enlightened assumption that knowledge can be perfected, rational progress can be made and therefore all problems can eventually be solved.
I wish to submit that this stance, rather than a sound and pragmatic outlook on the world, amounts instead to a refusal to admit reality — an amiable delusion with dire consequences. Not all problems can be solved. Not all ‘problems’ can even be defined. Making decisions is often not a matter of right or wrong, or even of good and bad, but only of better or worse.
Recently, in one of the university classes I teach, we were discussing the debt crisis in Greece and what is at stake in that situation. After an energetic and substantial discussion, one of my students offered the following half-statement, half-question: ‘But doesn’t that mean there might be no solution?’ There was a kind of plaintiveness in that question — a hope that the answer was about to be revealed, and a fear that it might not be.
The comment surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Many of my students come in looking for the ‘right’ answers, and most when they leave are still on that quest, despite my many attempts to disabuse them of the notion that they will find the prize they seek. I’m not sure if that’s the way they have been taught previously, or the self-absorbed incuriosity often ascribed to their generation, or a psychic defence mechanism against the state of the world they are inheriting. I try not to read such things into their character. But it is a puzzlement.
There are common themes though. When things go wrong, our impulse is usually to find the right ‘procedure’ to follow to ‘fix’ it, and/or to demand to know when ‘they’ are going to do something about it. We seem to believe that there is a right process for everything. If we don’t know it, someone will. If no-one knows, we need only devise it. There might be problems now, but we just need to find the right solutions. Leaving aside the difficulty that many problems are brought about precisely by those who think they have the right solutions, this is nonetheless not a good recipe for success. Neither is ‘success’ simply a matter of recipes.
The insistent belief in progress by solutions resembles nothing so much as a deep-seated terror of living with uncertainty. The quest for right answers (or the faith that someone somewhere has them) is itself a way of avoiding being in the world, and quite an effective one at that. There are those of course, Obama included, who have renounced ‘right’ answers and ideology in favour of ‘what works’. But this self-styled ‘realism’ is perhaps the most delusional of all. Anything works. If we bomb Syria, that will work. If we don’t, that will work too. So will sitting around and talking about whether we should bomb Syria or whether we shouldn’t. Without attempting seriously to address the questions of what we are doing and why, what goods we intend to bring about and who for, ‘what works’ is just an empty way of keeping ourselves busy to avoid facing the void — it is nothing more than nihilism with KPIs.
If all this seems disempowering and defeatist, perhaps you have missed my point. Life is uncertain. The world is complicated. We can decide not to know these things, but that is the real disempowerment and defeat. The void is there whether we choose to stare into it or not. If however we choose to see what is really there, we are free to realise that while things may never be perfect, we can make them as good as we can, which in many cases is a lot better than they are now. Neither need we wait on ‘them’ to ‘fix’ it. It’s up to us, and only us, to govern ourselves. We can do that by asking each other simple questions like what are you doing and why? Where are we going and who is it good for? We can discuss the answers and decide which are better and worse. It’s not a new idea but an old one, and it’s called democracy. But democracy, and the human flourishing it seeks to bring about, is not something you have, but something you do. Doing democracy, I hardly need to point, bears very little resemblance to the unedifying national self-flagellation a few weeks ago where we all had to go put numbers in the boxes. That was rather an example of what I mean by fixating on process as a way of not having to engage with reality. No, doing democracy is different. Don’t ask me for a recipe. Or a solution. My solution is simply a way of being in the world that offers more empowerment and hope than others I’ve seen. It may not be much when all is said and done, but it’s all there is. Unless you have a better idea…? ◾