In a front page article in today’s Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and Peter Wallsten provided more coverage of reaction to President Obama’s Friday decision to postpone new proposed anti-ozone/smog standards. The closing quote for the article? Noteworthy. It came from an environmental activist who herself was arrested outside the White House Thursday (for her stand against the proposed pipeline to connect Canada’s oil sands to the Gulf coast): “We want to see him [Obama] stand up and fight.”
Fighting is certainly one policy option for this president or any other. But historically, presidents have often been reluctant to fight. Franklin Delano Roosevelt delayed entering World War II for many months, until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought a divided America together and provided a clear imperative. [Winston Churchill never forgave him for this. He argued at the time that Roosevelt dithered deliberately in order to ensure that postwar Britain would be forever weaker than America.] Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war;” before allowing the United States to be drawn in to the first World War shortly afterward. And Abraham Lincoln was probably as skeptical of fighting as any president we’ve had. His aversion to conflict was well known before he became president. Biographers sometimes tell the following story: while still a circuit lawyer, Lincoln was once challenged to a duel. He noted this entitled him to choose the weapons, and selected “cow flops at twenty paces.”
Lincoln’s presidency was arguably not all that different from what Obama faces today. In the 1860’s the nation was deeply polarized – not about immigration or health care or the environment or jobs – but on the subject of slavery.
Abolitionists wanted Lincoln to take a stand against slavery on principle. Until late in the war, Lincoln refused this invitation, settling instead on his Constitutional responsibility to preserve the Union. He didn’t take aggressive action so much as he simply refused to allow southern states to secede. Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln met his responsibilities as commander in chief – even to the extent of mastering the art of war when his generals proved unable or unwilling to prosecute the necessary campaigns with the necessary vigor. But at no time did he ever revel or enjoy this role. Instead he gave every appearance of mourning all the death and suffering on all sides throughout the years of combat.
When it comes to these former presidents, the judgment of history appears to be far more favorable than the judgment of the American people at the time. Take Lincoln. People were not standing in line to praise Lincoln at any point in his tenure – in fact, just the opposite. He was scorned and derided by all sides.
President Obama can perhaps draw some comfort from this. Indeed, it seems Lincoln’s example likely shaped much of Obama’s thought as he prepared to take office in November and December of 2008. We’re told that during that time he read Doris Kearn Goodwin’s 2005 book A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which documents much the history mentioned above.
Fighting is arguably overrated on the personal level as well. Everyone seems eager to fight today, on just about every issue. Issues are frequently framed as good versus evil as opposed to complex and nuanced. This is true in marriages and in the workplace – in all facets of daily life.
It may be that my personal early experiences shape my negative attitude toward fighting as an end in itself. When I was in fourth grade my father was working at the Pentagon, and I was living in Arlington, Virginia. One day that year a large group of older sixth-grade boys bullied a friend of mine and me into boxing each other bare-fisted for their amusement. We went at it half-heartedly for a bit until the bullies lost interest and moved on. I vowed to never do that again.
Fast-forward to the late 1960’s, at a point early in my career. In those years, psychologists were fascinated by what they called transactional analysis, which at one and the same time purported to be a theory of personality, a theory of communication, and a theory of child development. One of its major proponents, Eric Berne, popularized the theory in a 1964 book entitled Games People Play. A friend of his, Thomas Anthony Harris, wrote another very popular 1969 book entitled I’m OK, You’re OK.
Both were fascinating, especially to a physical scientist. They made the psychology accessible to the layperson.
Here’s a partial list of the games they described:
- YDYB: Why Don’t You, Yes But. (Historically, the first game discovered.)
- IFWY: If It Weren’t For You
- WAHM: Why does this Always Happen to Me?
- SWYMD: See What You Made Me Do
- UGMIT: You Got Me Into This
- LHIT: Look How Hard I’ve Tried
- ITHY: I’m Only Trying to Help You
- LYAHF: Let’s You and Him Fight
- NIGYYSOB / NIGYSOB: Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of a Bitch
Each is a story in itself…but the one that is germane to today’s post is LYAHF…a “game” in which a third party encourages others to fight (though not getting embroiled himself). Most of us don’t need this label or acronym to recognize such circumstances and invitations in everyday life and reject them. And neither did those presidents we’ve discussed.
There’s a moral here for scientists, especially Earth scientists. The outside world is constantly inviting us to see others as dissing our work, or ignoring the implications of our work for policy, or unfairly critiquing our analyses or miss-representing what we’ve said, or copying our work without giving us credit – and inviting us to “defend ourselves,” or “fight,” or “take a stand,” or “correct the record.” Those encouragements all have the appearance of asking only that we do the right thing. But in most cases – far more often than not – they probably distract us from what we do best – our science – and they fill what should be a marketplace of exciting ideas with far too much contentiousness.
Maybe worth some reflection?
After all, we call ourselves scientists. We’re logical, and innovative, and realistic, all at the same time. Surely we can come up with a better way. Or two or three.
And more than a president who fights, we might ask of our president, and other political leaders, that they be consistently and thoughtfully engaged. We might seek to work with him and politicians of every stripe to build consensus and move the country forward on the big issues, despite the fighting, versus simply adding to the din.