My post on why I supported Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning produced quite a strong reaction in which some people took issue with my harsh criticism of Barack Obama. I wrote a follow-up that addressed some of the concerns and I would strongly recommend that people particularly read the responses by Jeffrey Johnson that appeared in the comments to the latter post because he very thoughtfully took issue with my stand.
I want to pick out just one aspect of his comments, not because it is central to the case he makes (it is not), but because it is something I hear a lot from Obama supporters. He says in one comment that “I still view him as someone who is a good man who cares a great deal about protecting America and Americans, and that is the motive of his actions” and in another comment that “I agree Obama is rational and calculating, but I don’t view him as cold and evil.”
Of course people’s motivations matter when we judge their actions. But I believe that we should judge public figures by their public record only. Our assessment of their personal moral qualities, based as they are on their public appearances, are largely immaterial because not only do we have little idea what they are really like, especially in this age when the images of public figures are so carefully crafted and projected, there is little evidence that private morality correlates that strongly with public morality.
So why do so many people feel obliged to try and judge the actions of politicians and other celebrities in personal moral terms? The problem is that none of us want to think that the people we like and support based on their public image, and even voted for, are evil people, because that seems to make us accomplices in their actions.
I voted for Obama twice. I too would like to think I voted for a ‘good’ person because that would make me feel good. As far as I can tell, Obama seems to be a good father and husband and is nice to his dog. He may well be a person that I could like and be personally friends with. But I don’t really know and it does not really matter because I think that many of his policies are not only abominable, they are downright criminal. The fact that Obama has turned out to be so awful on civil liberties and human rights as well as an accomplished liar and hypocrite deeply bothers me, both for its implications for public policy and also because of my past support for him.
In another comment henry_pet said that “It isn’t necessary to attribute maliciousness to Obama – it’s enough to look at past actions, and remember that plenty of evil is done by people for the best of intentions.”
I think that henry_pet has it right. We tend to place far too much reliance on our ability to accurately gauge the internal qualities of public people, especially their moral fiber. I have long come to the conclusion that the kind of people who are willing, and even eager, to go through the kind of grueling process that is required to achieve high office are people who have a certain amoral nature. It is not that they are without any moral compass at all. Many of them may be personally very nice people, generous to friends and kind to animals. But they seem to be people who are willing to sacrifice their personal moral principles in the pursuit of their greater ambitions and when they are making political decisions.
For example, Ronald Reagan was notoriously genial in his dealings with people and was reputed to be personally very generous. On a personal level, the worst thing people said about him was that he was not very bright. And yet that did not stop him from implementing extremely cruel policies that caused hardship to so many people. There is no evidence that he lost any sleep over it either. In such people’s minds, there seems to be no dissonance. When people think they are acting for the ‘greater good’ or ‘the good of the country’ or administering ‘tough love’, they can persuade themselves to do the most cruel things while still thinking of themselves as good people..
In this animation, president Obama carefully explains why what his administration is doing is good while what George W. Bush’s administration did is bad, even though they may look on the surface to be doing almost identical things. Although it is a parody, what is significant is that Obama may actually believe the words that have been put in his mouth.