Daniel Freedman: Why Obama is Emotionally Detached
July 8, 2010
By Daniel Freedman
Russian spies, BP, General McChrystal, health care, Goldman Sachs, unemployment, the deficit, Iran, North Korea, Israel, Turkey, homegrown terrorism and a corresponding fall in popularity–it’s been a tough couple of months for President Barack Obama. On top of that pundits from all sides–ranging from The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd to The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz–are now accusing him of being emotionally detached from the nation’s problems.
While all this may seem insurmountable–especially to Democrats readying themselves for election season-it’s not. The problems and the emotional detachment accusations are in fact connected. And to change his fortunes the president needs to add an important missing element to his decision-making process: Reading great works of literature.
The problem with the president’s team (and today’s policymakers in general) is that they approach policy decisions as they would a science experiment: They analyze the problem, eliminate variables and come to a conclusion. It’s a (cold) purely rational process that’s all facts and no feelings.
Real life is not like a science experiment, however. Humans are not purely rational beings. They have phobias, biases and other irrational elements. Ego, hatred and childhood experiences are not something that can be turned into statistics. In a purely rational world, the threat of sanctions coupled with some sweeteners would probably be enough to convince North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and Iran’s theocrats to end their rogue ways, but that’s not the way the real world works.
This is where works of literature can help. Precisely because they’re not concerned with reducing every event to facts and figures, and because they’re not limited in length and description like policy briefs, they can explore events and people with a thoroughness that factual books and briefs can’t. They describe the world as it really is–and so are essential to making knowledgeable policy decisions.
The most successful leaders of the past understood that reading literature was just as essential to decision-making as weighing policy briefs. They were either great readers of literature, or they made sure that their advisors were well-read. Winston Churchill, for example, treasured Daniel Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier; Alexander the Great carried The Iliad with him and Queen Elizabeth prized Cicero.
The importance of literature to understanding events is probably intuitive to most people. Anyone who has seriously studied the Holocaust, for example, knows that Anne Frank’s diary provides a level of insight unattainable through just reading a World War II history book. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities gives an understanding of the French Revolution (and the long-term implications that we’re still discovering) that no non-fiction book could ever do.
This lesson–how great works of literature provide invaluable guidance to understanding events and people–is brilliantly explained in a new book, Grand Strategies, by Charles Hill. In the book, Hill, a highly effective former career diplomat who today lectures at Yale University (and with whom I’ve worked in the past), takes readers on a grand tour through the great pieces of literature, along the way explaining their lessons for policymakers. It’s the perfect primer for the president and his team.
Appreciation of literature and the value of a liberal education is today in decline. A struggling economy prompts students (usually helped by the urging of their parents) to turn to the sciences, math and other courses that (supposedly) offer more of a chance of a job. As a result writers from Peter Berkowitz to David Brooks have been defending the value of a liberal education. Taking the argument to another level, Hill shows that being well-read is not just an added benefit to leadership–it’s a prerequisite.
It’s easy for presidents to become out of touch with people. They’re cut off in the White House, almost every second is accounted for, and the only people they see are those first vetted by staff. And with advisors treating policy like a science experiment, it’s not surprising that the president’s public utterances show him to be “emotionally detached.” The good news for President Obama is that there is an easy way out–via the library.
To read the full article please click on the link below:http://www.forbes.com/2010/07/08/barack-obama-literature-leadership-opinions-columnists-daniel-freedman.html
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