Thursday, January 14, 2010

Snake Oil and Hubris

Both columnists Peggy Noonan and David Brooks have recently written about the failure of our institutions. Both articles seem to be in response to the terrorist act which occurred on Christmas Day, 2009 on a plane bound for Detroit. Although both are helpful reading, in a way, Brooks' article intrigues me more.

Brooks argues that in the past "there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed." In the good ol' days, according to Brooks, we accepted the mistakes of human institutions, and then we moved on. "Now we seem to expect perfection from government and throw tantrums when it is not achieved."

I don't know if that's exactly true. Rarely, do I hear of a government official losing his or her job for even failures of epic proportion ("Heckova job, Brownie.") George W. Bush was re-elected with an unpopular war in Iraq precisely because many gave him the benefit of the doubt. The election of 2004 was essentially a referendum on the mantra, "stay the course." Some of the tantrums we are experiencing may be the legitimate frustration that our institutions are not moving to meet challenges. Also, many feel that their trust has been betrayed, and our leaders have done little to rebuild it.

Laying aside the legitimate concern for reform, Brooks does have a bigger idea. The underlying problem is hubris. We believe that all problems are solvable. We just need another product, another government program, or another technological gizmo. Unfortunately, the worst offenders of hubris have been our leaders & politicians. They have encouraged us to be dependent on them. They tickle our ears with promises of easy wealth and safety without sacrifice. Elections are won by promising that all our wildest dreams will come true. I don't doubt the sincerity of our snake oil salesmen. They believe their own rhetoric, and they are shocked when we want our money back.

The title of Brooks article is apt, "The God who Fails." We have come to our human institutions expecting too much. We trust in the government, the media, business, the academy, and even religious institutions more than we trust in God. Perhaps, Noonan is correct. She suggests that our institutions have lost sight of their mission. Clearly, a sober reflection on the proper purpose and limits of these institutions would be greatly helpful. However, that isn't enough.

Instead, each one of us needs to ask the question of the psalmist, "...from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1-2).

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