Barack Obama, Episteme vs Techne

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hy is Barack Obama failing at everything except passing legislation designed top enhance federal power-and that in large part because of substantial legislative majorities?

Is it really just the effects of his inexperience or is it a something else? Beyond the fact that appointing a commission is a proxy for proper action for a politicians who campaigned on omnicompetence and is now stymied by his own limitations, initial inaction and improper response-the appointment of partisans to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling provides valuable insight into Obama’s obsession with academic credentials, and those of a certain type.


Its particularly instructive to examine to examine Obama’s appointments to his Commission, since after all, Obama not only created the Commission with  Executive Order 13543-he specified the qualifications of its appointees. Section 2 (a) provides that “The Commission shall be composed of not more than 7 members who shall be appointed by the President. The members shall be drawn from among distinguished individuals, and may include those with experience in or representing the scientific, engineering, and environmental communities, the oil and gas industry, or any other area determined by the President to be of value to the Commission in carrying out its duties.” In short, after providing for people with relevant knowledge, he reserved the right to appoint individuals by executive fiat.

So given the stated qualifications of membership, what criteria did Obama use to appoint the members of the commission? How did he apportion the skills among the various categories he specified?

The panel is co-chaired by former Democratic Senator Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly. Graham and Reilly, the co-chairs have law Harvard degrees, and there’s two other members with law degrees on the committee.  Francis Umler, a Democrat politician is a University chancellor graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison and Terry Garcia’s degree is from The George Washington University. Frances G. Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council has an M.S. from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Don Boesch received a PhD from the College of William & Mary.

There’s only one engineer on the panel, Cherry A. Murray, a Harvard Dean, and her engineering expertise isn’t in petroleum engineering or fluid dynamics. Even if you think the possession of higher degree academic credentials is essential, what stands out is that from all of the fields that might be considered relevant to the objectives of the commission, oceanography, marine biology, fluid dynamics, petroleum or mechanical engineering, economics-Obama appointed four people with JD’s-LAWYERS. Three are connected to Harvard.

Of course, Obama wanted “distinguished” individuals with experience in “… any other area determined by the President to be of value to the Commission in carrying out its duties.”  Those duties include determining the cause of the incident-which we can assume was the result of a physical or mechanical issue or condition (which may not ever be known, because there was significant damage from the initial explosion). It’s pretty clear that Obama provided for reasonably relevant expertise and then ignored his own criteria-the chief determinant of sufficient distinction to serve on this commission was Presidential judgment, and possession of a JD or a connection to Harvard.

One could assume that as a Harvard lawyer himself, with a tendency to deepen a recent frequent habit of reserving government executive positions for lawyers, Obama is just exhibiting professional cronyism. Or is his staffing decisions just the easily seen exhibition of a man expecting to buttress an already formed opinion while having the veneer of support.

The answer might be found in a distinction made by the ancient Greeks, whose thoughts we one expected to be found de rigueur in the curricula of the elite schools such as Columbia and Harvard, both of which granted degrees to the forty-forth President.

Although the exact meanings of the words Epistêmê and technê may elude our modern understanding, the can be roughly defined as follows: Epistêmê is to know, technê is to know HOW. These Greek words are the roots of epistemic and technical.

A brief discussion can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/episteme-techne/

The former is focused on pure inquiry for its own purpose, with abstractions and distinctions, words and concepts; the latter on is focused on the knowledge required to accomplish an end; the practical and concrete. Philosophy (love of wisdom) is the ultimate example of episteme; the curricula of vocational schools are almost pure technê.

Obama, more than any other President since Woodrow Wilson is a man of the academy. By this, I don’t assert that he’s blessed with other-worldly intellect that the fawning legions of two years ago attributed to him. -I mean he’s intellectually immature, capable only of thinking within the confines the academy’s statist, collectivist and secularist shibboleths. Emotionally, he’s stuck at 22-a newly minted undergraduate eager to correct the errors of the generation that preceded him.

Throughout Obama’s presidency, he has shown absolute indifference to the value of technê , experience, bordering on contempt. He’s going to rearrange everything. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is the poster child for Obama’s obsession with the Epistêmê of the modern academic canon -without ANY judicial experience, he nominates her for the Supreme Court; ironically repeating a key error of the predecessor he takes great pains to express contempt for at every opportunity. Sure she shares his views on the world, but can she function as a judge? That would be good to know, before she is actually confirmed and appointed to the court once famously observed as infallible because its final, not final because its infallible.

In contemplating Obama’s obsession with the academy, its not hard to imagine young Mr. Obama-abandoned by his parents, disconnected from his grandparents by their lack of melanin, coming into the University environment that self-servingly strokes the egos of “young skulls full of mush” in order to continue enduring mid-terms and papers and depleting savings or accumulating debt. But for an emotionally needy and isolated student like Obama-he was clay to be molded, fired and filled by the professorial potters. Like many kids in elite colleges, he would be unable to question the reassuring certitudes he was being taught. Obama was that curious collision of need and capacity which works to create the legions of leftist monsters that inhabit government.

When he spoke of restoring science to “its rightful place”, it’s not hard to imagine that he really meant to make it a cudgel in the hands of the intellectual aristocracy to dispose of restraints created by consciences informed by religion and tradition, in the quest to remake the world. No doubt, he was just echoing the dismissive prejudices of the Piled Higher and Deeper crowd, even though he himself chose non-scientific degrees as his majors.

Most people move on at some point and leave at least part of the college zeitgeist as some transitional excess, to be reflected on with the same self-reflection one affords keg parties. It begins when the isolation from family and employment ends. Employment (without tenure), marriage and children are daily reminders of how little we really know. Personalities and viewpoints expand beyond the university doctrines. Not so for Obama-the closest thing he’s had to a real job was that of college professor-never has he had a job he hated, a payroll to meet or any of a thousand common indignities that force maturation. For over thirty years, his academic credentials were everything to him, including his ascent to the most powerful office in the world.

So it is, his worldview is limited to Epistêmê. It’s what he knows and it’s the totality of his comfort zone. Unfortunately, what we need now is KNOW HOW and Obama can’t seem to embrace that. His quip about kicking “a**” was a racit admission of his inability to fix the problem.  The model for this problem should be Apollo 13-there’s a problem that needs to be fixed, quickly- not explained. Somehow he can’t see that-but as the old adage goes-if your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.

There is an alternative possibility of course, that this is too good a crisis not to let go to waste-Obama doesn’t mind the hit to his credibility because in the fullest measure mendacity, he knows crises cause a cry for action, and this is an opportunity to impose an all-encompassing green agenda.

We either have a President who’s terribly limited by his own academic chauvinism or one whose a calculating deviant who’ll lay waste to lives and the environment. I’m not sure which is worse.