Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 1.20.09

Today, in Washington, D.C.,  President Barack Obama was sworn in.  No matter what your political persuasion, or your nationality,  today’s a new day.  A new chance. A new President of the United States of America.

What does that mean to you?  If you could, what would you ask the new President to focus on?

If I could, I’d ask President Obama to be rational as often as he is able.  In all things.  To work hard to be rational.  All the time.  (Of course, I’d ask that of everyone, if I could.)

a.real.girl

A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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61 Comments

  1. I want him to focus on science funding and science education. Nothing like a dose of reality to combat woo.

    I just don’t see him getting a lot of work done for same-sex couples. Not the way him and Biden avoided the issue during the election.

  2. I am very hopeful. I think that having a president who accepts evolution and can pronounce the word “nuclear” is a great leap forward. He seems supportive of science and women’s health, and doesn’t seem to think man road dinosaurs around in our recent past. All of this is very refreshing.

    I would urge him to keep his promises to the best of his ability, especially when it comes to valid scientific research, accurate and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education, access to health care and family planning resources, less war and more peace, environmental initiatives…

    I would specifically like it if he heads into office with an open, rational mind and a healthy dose of skepticism. About everything.

  3. This means a lot to me. I am the father of 3 mixed race children. I was able to tell them that a man who looked a lot like them is now the president. I know that that isn’t a qualification to be a leader but it excites me nontheless.

    More than anything I would like him to make education his top priority. Treat it with the same seriousness that the war department, oops I mean department of defense has been treated for the last 60 some years. Make the public schools as good as the school that Sasha and Malia are enrolled in.

  4. @Elexina:

    I think that having a president who accepts evolution and can pronounce the word “nuclear” is a great leap forward.

    Holy crap, our standards have dropped to nothing.

    I don’t have anything to add to what’s already been said. Thinking rationally about tyrannosaurs pretty much sums it up.

    I might be a cynical buttmunch, but I have never thought the president has as much actual power as everyone seems to think, for good or evil. I was always rolling my eyes for the last eight years when any bad thing that happened was Bush’s fault, and I expect more eye-rolling for every good thing that happens being laid at Obama’s feet. Like he’s Jesus after a touchdown or something.

    What I think a president can do, and what Bush utterly failed to do, is to inspire people. Congress can’t do it, certainly the Supreme Court can’t do it, and Bush didn’t know how to do it. I think Obama *can,* and if he inspires the right things from Americans (and from other countries), then he’ll be as successful a president as it’s possible to be these days.

    So if I could ask the guy one thing, I would ask him to be honest and to talk to us like grownups. Let’s reduce the behind-the-scenes crap except in matters where there are legit security reasons. Have a sense of humor and be engaging, but don’t confuse folksy platitudes with information. If you’re going to do something big, explain to us WHY you’re going to do it, and why you think it’s the best course of action.

    A few years of a President that I didn’t assume was lying to me just because his lips were moving — that’ll be refreshing.

  5. What this means to me-
    It means no more George Bush( hopefully Jeb wont get in his head to try), and that the Mcain/Palin ticket did not win.

    What I would ask would not be of President Obama but of the citizens of the U.S.-
    Don’t pretend like your job is done. I would ask people to remember that as citizens their job is just beginning. It’s more important than ever for Americans to realize that they are their government. That is their right and more importantly their responsibility.

    What happens next is as much up to us as it is President Obama.

  6. I’m not naive. I don’t expect him to fix it all or be rationalist in chief. And even though I think some of his religious flourishes are politically pragmatic, he’s far from anybody’s atheist. However, have you noticed that when, in speeches, he is listing the religious diversity of Americans, he always says, “and non-believers”? He did it again today. It’s beautiful to hear him say that. When he says it, he even has an inflection that seems to say, “You heard me. That’s right. A lot of Americans are non-believers, and I’ll protect their rights as well.”

    He also seems genuinely committed to restoring the place of science in the culture and the government. (And continuing that trend is the thing I’d really like to see him do.)

    Lastly, he’s clearly a level-headed, thoughtful, and unflappable person, which we desperately need right now.

    So do I think he’s perfect? Hell no. Will he be better than anyone we’ve seen in a long time? I think so.

  7. I would ask him to focus on issues of clean, open government, to bring the public in to the process where possible, and to do his best to clear away some of the cynicism about government. People who are cynical and disgusted with the government don’t tend to even try and watchdog it, they just take every new bit of corruption in turn. When people have some trust in it, and feel they’ve got a stake in what’s going on, the charlatans and crackpots will have a harder time playing their games. As an example, there are at least a few people who’d be less sympathetic to the anti-vaccine crap if they didn’t mistrust medical experts because “they’re all in the pocket of big pharma.”

  8. You mean other than the Canadian threat?

    Well I was very happy to hear him mention the importance of science, not to mention a shout out to us nonbelievers.

    I hope he can finally be the one that can work with both sides. But I’m certainly not holding my breath.

  9. I was quite pleased by his speech :) After the incongruousness of Rick Warren, I smiled when he mentioned, and even slightly emphasised, the word “nonbelievers” in his list of “Muslims, Jews, Christians, etc.”

    And he spoke of restoring “science to its natural place”! :O I’m quietly hopeful. And this is coming from the UK, where most of us lost hope ages ago.

  10. A little off-topic, and not to belittle the significance or importance of the first black President, but it amazes me the number of people who have said that they never thought they’d live to see the day. For people who are a generation or two older than me, I understand this. But for people my age? Maybe I’m a naive pollyanna, but I never thought I wouldn’t see it, and I still believe I’ll see a woman president in my lifetime.

    I know it’s a big deal, but I feel a little sad that it is.

  11. Just some encouraging things from the inaugural speech:

    On the economic and healthcare crises:

    “These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics.”

    On how to solve the above:

    “We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. ”

    On the strengths of the nation:

    “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.”

    We are certainly in better hands already!

  12. Yeah, I know what you mean. I kept frowning every time the BBC coverage mentioned he was a black man for the umpteenth time, and as Sasha and her sister were coming out, one reporter went, meaning it in a nice way, “of course, here we have some more black faces that will become very famous indeed”, but I couldn’t help feeling that the constant repetition of colour was almost racist in its over-the-top attempt not to be. I, and most of my peers, didn’t find it that surprising that a black man could become President of your U.S.

    But then, on the other hand, having only lived through two decades, I maybe don’t really appreciate how great the civil rights struggle was, and how glorious the dream is now that it’s achieved.

    I think I perhaps do myself a disservice when I occasionally think of myself as “colour-blind”, though — because doing that doesn’t make me any better than anyone else, it really means I’m ignoring an important part of the history and the make-up of a large number of people who have fought hard and long to have that history recognised. There’s a great poem which deals perfectly with this, that I can’t remember the name of … maybe “Colour”? … or who the author was, but it’s very good and quite famous, if that helps anyone find it ;)

  13. It means we finally have an INTELLIGENT leader who makes an effort to listen to all sides, not just his own side. No more hissy fits!

    It’s also reassuring to know he understands and LIKES technology and indeed, he EMBRACES technology. Our presidents have been way, way, way behind in technology for decades, which is rather pathetic.

  14. i’ve just heard the speech, and i’ll admit it; i’m a little bit choked up. what does this mean to me?
    it means a hell of a lot to me that there is now an elegant, thoughtful, intelligent, reasonable, and inspiring dude in the white house instead of a walking embarrassment to humanity.
    i realized that for the first time in my life, the guy i voted for is president. that’s pretty cool.

    mostly i’m just breathing a major sigh of relief that the last eight years have come to an end. i don’t think things will magically get better overnight, but it’s nice to know that there are competent people ready to give it a go.

  15. I’m trusting Obama to simply tell the truth be it good or ill. I don’t want to see him squirm out of things like Clinton, or bully over everything like Bush. I want to see an honest, brave, intelligent and rational man in the White House, because those are the qualities I strive for in myself.

  16. What would I want the president to focus on… .

    -Not allowing his followers to engage him in wishful thinking.
    -Allow his subordinates to disagree, argue and not be afraid to present him with information he may not like.
    -effectively communicate and keep your administration reasonably transparent.
    -Brining skepticism and healthy doubt to intelligence reports until there is solid supporting evidence.
    -focus on solutions that have a track record of working not speculative efforts that may not, especially when the price tag is hundreds of billions of our dollars.
    -Annihilate, crush and destroy ear mark spending.
    -Make complementary and alternative medicine a private choice that is only paid for by the individual.

  17. As a child of the 60’s and someone who has always subscribed to the philosophy of “Make Love, Not War”, I want the administration to immediately start a program which will indoctrinate and brainwash all 18 to 28 year old women to be attracted to older balding gentlemen.
    Oh dear, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help it :)

    Seriously, I would just like this Obama and crew to show the American people, and the world, that a presidential administration can behave in an honest and ethical fashion. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?
    It would feel good to be proud rather than ashamed of our leadership.

  18. We just got rid of one intrusive, warmongering, interventionist, economically-ignorant tax-borrow-and-spend politician, and replaced him with another intrusive, warmongering, interventionist, economically-ignorant tax-borrow-and-spend politician.

    It’s just another day.

  19. I think my m-in-law said it best:

    “He’s very thin isn’t he? She [Michelle Obama]’s obviously not feeding him properly. A man can’t be expected to save the world without a proper meal inside him. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day you know”

    So I would ask the President to be aware of his own health and safety, pick a good team, delegate jobs to them and not forget the importance of “roughage” in his diet.

  20. @shanek: This “they’re really all the same” sort of thinking never really made sense to me. There is definitely such a thing as a lesser of two evils.

    Your comment smells libertarian, so maybe my example won’t carry any weight with you, but consider this. In 2000, it was perfectly clear that Al Gore was a status quo centrist. And so, unsurprisingly, we saw a lot of Naderites and others saying that it was meaningless choice. But can anyone really believe that if Gore had been president on 9/11, the world would be a very different place now?

    So, yes, Obama is unlikely to be the dream president of anyone on this blog. But to say that he’s functionally identical to Bush seems deeply irrational to me.

  21. @ Elyse

    How old are you Elyse. I’m 51. I remember when the schools in Philadelphia were integrated. I remember being naively scared. I remember my mother calming those fears. I remember making friends of all colors and I remember that that was a big deal.

    In so many ways life is a mess on January 20 2009, especially economically. But having friends of all colors is no longer a big deal and that’s a massive improvement compared to 40 years ago. History tells me that we’ll cycle out of this depression ( oops , recession ). But the historical significance of a black president can not be lost on my generation. And though it’s less significant to the generation after me, it’s important to appreciate the amazing arc of time.

    As far as what do I want from Obama? Make good on your statement of clarity in government. If I understand the process behind the decision I can debate intelligently if I disagree or throw support behind a concept based on a clear understanding.

  22. wet_bread: Yes, and anyone who believes differently is fooling himself.

    Clinton and Gore’s Iraq policy was almost identical to Bush’s. So were the ties to big oil, so were the interventionist policies–do I have to remind you that they kept bombing Iraq all through their administration?

  23. Elyse:

    A little off-topic, and not to belittle the significance or importance of the first black President, but it amazes me the number of people who have said that they never thought they’d live to see the day.

    Outside the US, a lot of this seems to be driven by knee-jerk anti-Americanism. As in “I can’t believe those backward hicks elected a black man.”

    Personally I think Obama will be better than the last guy, but that’s a low bar to hop. I have no doubt Obama will prove a disappointment, no one can live up to the hype that surrounds Obama.

    I think this post by the excellent Robin Hanson, is a good reflection on how to think about the Obama administration.

  24. @davew: This, oh so very much. I live in St. Louis county, and our bus system is terrible, the metrolink is unsafe, and neither of them are within an hour’s walk of my home. I’ve been to Washington DC and London, and I’ve used their subways, and I really just wish we had something comparable around here. Not to mention the efficiency increase over individuals in cars.

  25. @halincoh:

    I’m 31.

    And its not that I don’t appreciate the significance. I do. I just can’t empathize. I have no idea what it’s like to not be integrated.

    It confuses me when people my age never thought it would happen. In our lifetime, there’s never been reason to believe it couldn’t. But then again, I’ve been known to be naive. I very well may not understand the struggle, not because of my age, but because I’m a white girl who grew up in a relatively well-off family, in a comfortable well-off suburb of a large city.

  26. Two things bother me about “Obama fever”. The first is the sense I get from some of his fervent supporters in poor communities that he is going to fix all their problems. Clearly his compelling story is inspirational which should have a positive impact, but I hope folks don’t think that its not going to require effort on their part. Working and studying hard and keeping your nose clean is a persons best bet for improving their circumstances.

    The other thing that bothers me about Obama is that he is tied to some shady people. One of Obama’s closest advisors Valerie Jarrett is a slum lord who took public money to build low-income housing and then let the housing deteriorate into a rat infested death trap. This appears to be a gravy train that many “civic minded” people feed off of in Chicago – i.e. use public money to build low income housing while siphoning off a handsome profit then bail out when the properties become unmanageable. Its a repeating cycle. In this case “the poor” are just an excuse used by greedy politicians to feed at the public trough. Rod Blagoevich is a classic example of someone who play this kind of cynical politics (I am here fighting for the common working people).

    Still I am hopeful. Despite what some cynics may think, quality of leadership can and does make a difference. One only needs to look at a place like Zimbabwe to see what happens when leadership is bad in the extreme (get R. Magabe’s new book “How to Reverse Human Progress by 10,000 years in 10 Easy Steps”).

    There is a continuum in most things so between good leadership and Rober “I am the Anti-Christ” Mugabe there are shades of incompetent mediocrity (there is a place for George Bush in there somewhere).

    If Obama really does walk-the-walk and not just talk the good talk of a the slick political master, then he has the potential to distinguish himself as a good leader (perhaps even a great leader). It probably comes down to how willing he is to piss off his benefactors and putting funding at risk for a 2012 re-election bid.

    For instance will he have the courage to seize and liquidate troubled banks instead of handing them pallets of cash with no strings attached? And will he have the courage to focus the economic stimulus on worthwhile national goals and resist the temptation to serve up a trillion dollar helping of bacon for his political patrons?

    He seems to have the intellectual chops and a world view that embraces (or at least isn’t hostile to) science and reason, so perhaps he can pull it off (i.e. being a good or even great leader).

    I wish him luck.

    BCT

  27. I get the sense that many of the first time voters that Obama brought out in November voted with one hand, and held the other out expecting him to fill it with gold, or fix the problem it held. I wonder if his charisma can survive the disappointment that many of these political neophytes will have by 2012.
    I don’t doubt that he can do good things, but I think that there is no way he can live up to the expectations of many of those voters that had ignored politics until he came along.

  28. @Chris Hyland: But then, on the other hand, having only lived through two decades, I maybe don’t really appreciate how great the civil rights struggle was, and how glorious the dream is now that it’s achieved.

    ———–

    No. You really don’t.

    When I was a kid (and I’m a little older than Elsye, but not much) I remember one of my neighbors coming to our door to try and recruit my family into “doing something” about the mixed race couple down the block.

    Now, I see mixed race couples all the time, and no one seems to care. It is a very different world today than the one I grew up in.

    I would ask only this of Barack Obama: pray less, think more, and always wonder where your advisors are getting their information.

  29. I’m 51…Yeah, Elyse, I’m old enough to be your Dad. :-D

    One of the best experiences I had was growing up (1963 – 1972) where I was the minority kid. I was a blue eyed, blonde haired kid in a sea of dark skinned, dark eyed people…and I thrived in that atmosphere.

    I was actually a little bewildered when we came back to the mainland in 1972 and I saw prejudice against blacks (as they were called then) and Latinos. The Civil Rights era is like the Civil War to me – something that happened in ancient history.

    @Billy_Clyde: I was born in the Chicago area and my family lived through the original Mayor Daley years. There’s a reason why Chicago was called “The city that works” during the 1960’s. Yeah, it was corrupt, but things got done. The potholes were fixed, the snow was plowed, the trash was picked up.

    Politics in the US has always been shady to some extent. Power and money corrupt people. That’s just human nature. I suppose one could call the Daley I years proof that “enlightened corruption” works – Steal some, but not all?

    I voted Obama because I saw no difference between Bush and McCain and I honestly feared what would happen if Palin got into the White House. I’m hoping that he can make a difference and I’m willing to help where I can and be patient. It took us about 25 years to get to this mess (Reagan to present), so I’m certain that it will take a good chink of time to fix the mess created.

    @MathMike: I don’t get that sense at all. I got the sense that Americans were starving for leadership and they just need to be led. I don’t think the majority of people think that he’s going to make them rich on the government tab. I think they just want society to work for all of us.

  30. What does that mean to you?
    150 years ago we allowed slavery, 90 years ago Women could not vote, 50 years ago there was no voting rights for black citizens, .
    To me Obama’s election is a step in the journey this country is on towards a more equal Union. I am hopeful that we continue to move forward in maturing as a people.

    If you could, what would you ask the new President to focus on?
    I hope the next step is to start removing the class differences in this country. We have made progress but social justice has not been achieved.
    Unfortunately I think the current downturn will take all of President Obama’s attention. Recovering from the current crises’ will be a daunting task that will surely move many other priorities on the back burner.

    I would just like to say I am already tired of the critics who make the “Obama is no Messiah”. Not even in office and so many are so cynical about him, it seems a way to just dismiss him. Of course there are people with unreasonable expectations but most are very clear about what he can do. Most of the comments here are expecting very reasonable improvements from our last government. I also thing those cynics are also a minority and I will defend their right to speak their opinions. I have tired of the detractors in the time from election night to today but those people certainly have the same rights as I do. I just think it is sad that even without a day in office there are people looking to find fault.

    Hopefully we look forward!
    –Eddie

  31. Isn’t it a good think, though, that the younger generation can’t quite get it, that’s it’s such a foreign concept as to seem — as it is — a ridiculous notion that one ever could take seriously that melonin might be a relevant measure of character?

    Cf. for (most) Americans that what denomination Christian you are could be a reason to kill you (vs. the bloody European Wars of Religion that killed how many millions); or anti-Catholicism. I know both are still very much alive in isolated pockets, but for *most* its a wholly alien notion. How many can really “get” how big a deal it was that Kennedy was *gasp* a Catholic! (let alone one of them there Irish!!)

    All this is to say :sometime we need to abstract our racial/racist memory, sometimes its best to never forget while no longer being able to quite understand it as it was historically salient.

    (or something — need my morning hallucinogen/caffeine!

  32. “When I was a kid (and I’m a little older than Elsye, but not much) I remember one of my neighbors coming to our door to try and recruit my family into “doing something” about the mixed race couple down the block.”

    I just saw this comment…This stuff really did happen? :-( WTF did he mean by “Do something about them?” Run them out of town? Tar and feather them?

    I suppose my horror is a measure of our social progress. I know several “mixed race” couples (I always thought that was a funny term…Does this mean that one of the pair is Vulcan or Klingon?) and never thought much about it…What’s the big deal?

  33. @phlebas: “A few years of a President that I didn’t assume was lying to me just because his lips were moving — that’ll be refreshing.”

    Holy crap, your standards are low! See what I did there?

    And Bush had a lot more ower than presidents previous, or at least it seemed to me he did. He stomped all over our fucking constitution, for one. Have you forgotten the wiretapping bullshit? And his anti-women legislature he put in last minute?

  34. We FINALLY have a president that actually embraces technology. Is it just me, or have all of our presidents been way, way behind in technology, and doesn’t that seem a bit off that our highest person in office can’t grasp even how to use e-mail, like the rumours of Bush and Clinton? That’s just effin’ ridiculous, if you ask me.

    So finally we have a president that is intelligent, inclusive to all religions and non-believers, and who actually embraces technology and science.

    And most importantly (to me), he and Biden are very pro-women and feminist allies. After all the bullshit Bush put us through (abstinence-only education! you can just not give out birth control because of your personal beliefs! etc!), this is a nice change. I hope Obama makes an effort to make America as pro-woman as possible.

    I wish he were stronger on gay rights, but the good news is that he is at least an ally — he certainly won’t harm our movement, and I think he’ll help when he can, even if I’m pretty sure he won’t really stand up and say, “Gay Marriage is the way to go!” We can’t have EVERYTHING after all, and he’s a step in the right direction.

  35. @marilove said:

    So finally we have a president that is intelligent, inclusive to all religions and non-believers, and who actually embraces technology and science.

    From a Canadian perspective it’s so surprising, but exciting, to see those words.

    I seriously thought the US was drifting in to a real-world version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; perhaps things really are looking up.

  36. @Bug_girl: Once again, I fear for the long-term future of the human race… :-(

    P.S. I loved Studs Terkel, (a fellow Chicagoan), too. I think an entire genre of non-fiction died with him. I just re-read his book of Depression Era stories recently. Some of it led to some sleepless nights…

    I wonder if my local library has a copy of “Race”…?

  37. @bug_girl: @QuestionAuthority:

    ————–

    I’m sure it still happens. I’ve met plenty of rascists. But the tone is different today than it was when I was a kid. Today, I don’t think that people assume that all the white people in the neighborhood will be on board, at least not in the suburbs. Virulent rascism is less mainstream than it was when I was a kid. And the difference is pretty huge.

  38. @sethmanapio: Perhaps the subtlety of it escapes me, especially since I am very vocally against racism.

    I think every young US citizen should take a multi-year tour of living overseas as I did, living in the society and learning to speak the language. I find that people that have lived overseas have a far more mature and tolerant view of other cultures than the ‘stay-at-homes.’

    Travel is indeed “broadening.”

  39. @MathMike: Well, it’s not too bad most of the time, if you’re male (I am). It’s dangerous at night, though, and women tend to get harassed. Usually, even so, the danger is more of being mugged than being murdered, but it’s still unpleasant.

  40. Obama’s on the cover of the latest issue of Ms. He’s wearing a t-shirt (photoshopped) that reads “This is what a feminist looks like.” :) That makes me happy.

    But whenever I hear someone say “He’s not the messiah!” I want to add “He’s a very naughty boy!” :)

  41. @CatFurniture: Let’s all hope that from the perspective of those that oppose change, he is indeed a very naughty boy!
    I’m encouraged that he froze all of Bush’s impending legislation for review. Did you all see the article in today’s washington post about how Obama’s staff found the White House is back in the technological dark ages? One staffer said it was like going from an iPhone to an Atari… Reflects the past administration’s mindset on science, I guess…

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