Rod Dreher

I’ve decided not to comment on Obama’s oil spill speech, because I haven’t been able to figure out how to appraise it without slip-sliding into a political analysis, and I don’t want to do that on this blog. But I think James Poulos has a pretty solid cultural and philosophical (versus strictly political) take on the matter. Excerpt:

But during a crisis, a nuts and bolts speech is not very prime time, and a nuts and bolts president isn’t either. There has to be a larger view — a context. Because a crisis like this is what the philosophers call an epistemological crisis, a crisis of knowledge. What’s happening to us? Not in a this-tarball-here, this-wetland-there way. In a to-be-or-not-to-be way, if I can put it that dramatically. How is it we’re now to be? Whichever person happened to be president now would have to answer that question.

Poulos doubts that Obama’s technocratic address did what he needed to do. More:

The trouble Obama faces now is that this becomes a crisis with no real heroes — people America not only can but should fall in love with. That is depressing. And the spectacle of a presidency sold on the basis of America’s self-love struggling in that oily morass would make for the biggest depression of all.

What he’s saying is that this crisis needs a narrative, but is inherently resistant to it. It’s got villains, but no heroes. It’s useful to think about why that is. The reason is that this is apparently not a crisis that can be dealt with via heroic action — either heroic intellectual effort (think Apollo 13) or heroic bravery and application of force. We seem to have met a crisis that cannot be “solved,” only endured. This is very hard for us Americans to deal with. We are used to being able to flood the zone with know-how, with money, and/or with force, and getting the job done. The BP oil spill crisis resists that.
I think if you asked most people, they would tell you they’d prefer presidential leadership that was cool, rational and workmanlike, as opposed to dramatic. But I don’t think this is what people really want — and that Poulos has put his finger on this fact. This crisis is not at its heart about solving a technical problem. It’s about exactly what James says it’s about: What’s happening to us? How is it we’re now to be? We look to the president to frame the crisis like this for us. Think of how Ronald Reagan addressed the nation on the Challenger disaster: He framed the event philosophically, which was important in helping us get a handle on the meaning of the event. He didn’t speak in technological details about what led to the disaster, and how we were going to fix it, though that was, ultimately, a huge part of the story. But it’s not what the country needed to hear at that point in time. Granted, the oil spill crisis is very different from the Challenger explosion, but people still need to hear from the president on the moral and philosophical meaning of this thing. I’m not saying that the president needs to conduct a philosophy 101 seminar, but it’s my sense — one made more acute by the fact that I’m actually in south Louisiana this morning, and have a sharper sense of how this crisis affects people’s sense of security about their way of life — that most Americans sense that what’s happening in the Gulf is far more meaningful than a mere problem of technology and legality … and that it involves all of us, not just the people of the Gulf coast, the U.S. government, and an oil company.
This is a crisis that requires national leadership of a sort no president, in my reckoning, has had to deal with. We don’t need another hero, though we instinctively crave one. What, exactly, do we need out of our president? Understand me well: I’m not really asking a political question, but a moral and philosophical one. If John McCain were the president right now, he’d be facing the same quandary. And for that matter, what kind of leadership does this crisis require from our religious leaders? From our corporate leaders? From our academics? From all of us?
Please share your thoughts. If you want simply to bash Obama, save your efforts; I’m going to delete anything that stands to turn what I intend to be a thoughtful, philosophically-oriented thread into a politically partisan one. What I’m interested in is: What’s happening to us? How is it we’re now to be? And: What do our leaders need to say to us, and to do for us, and with us, in response?

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