Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Barack Obama and the welcomed embrace of complexity

President Obama continues to impresses not only with intelligence and eloquence but also his willingness to resist political expediency in pursuit of genuine understanding. Rather than painting the world in the simpleminded black-and-white of a Reagan (Evil Empire) or GWB (Axis of Evil), the president embraces the complexity of the world as it really exists.

In other words, he’s dealing with issues like a grown-up. Even better: he’s treating the rest of us like adults, as well, like citizens capable of juggling conflicting facts, balancing competing interests and spending some time thinking about things on our way to reaching conclusions.

You ought to have a look at this short piece by James Fallows on this subject. As Fallows says in his headline: It’s Complicated.

Whether addressing race in Philadelphia, military force in Oslo or Afghanistan at West Point, Obama has spoken with nuance and subtlety unseen on America’s presidential stage in my lifetime. Presidents have sometimes acted with nuance, but I don’t remember others walking us through the process.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters can’t handle complexity, that we need to be patronized or lied to with explanations identifying convenient bad guys and simple choices of right and wrong. But how does that work in Libya, for example, where the consequences of intervention must balance unwanted military entanglement against the lives of innocents and America’s ideals of democracy?

“The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still act,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. I'd argue that the ability to handle complex, often contradictory facts—and still act—is likewise a rare attribute.

Jacques Barzun described Michel de Montaigne as “multilinear and collectivist,” a description I would be proud to earn. Whether or not I live up to that, I am proud to have a president who can, one who demonstrates his faith in the rest of us by leading intelligent discussions that reflect it.

Posted via email from edge & flow

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