I Have No Patience For Presidents Who Deny That They Have Any Interest In Anything Other Than Protecting Us

President Obama, you said last week that you have “no patience” for countries that make life hard for gays and lesbians. Great. I am glad Joe Biden had even less patience than you did during your reelection campaign. He got over his skis, it was all a little willy-nilly, but you were fairly good-humored in public about the disorderliness of Biden–maybe because what choice did you have? And real change is sometimes a little disorderly, you know that.

I must say, though, you lost me when you also said that “the main thing I want to emphasize is, I don’t have an interest and the people of the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that…we can prevent a terrorist attack…that we’re able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that.” I have no patience for ridiculousness like that. How did that kind of banal self-serving propaganda get into your head? From your mother? Maybe she was idealistic and naive in some ways, according to your own memoir, but that naive? It is hardly believable. From your grandparents? Not likely. From your professors or colleagues? Maybe. Not from Reverend Wright or any preacher with any sense. And you are not running for reelection, as you have pointed out more than once, so maybe you actually are so deep “inside the government,” as you say, that Keith Alexander has hypnotized you. I am not quite sure how you got to the point where you could say the silly things you did. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic debunks your “no interest” claim: “(President Obama) has all sorts of interests besides preventing terrorist attacks–political interests, ideological interests, legacy interests, ego interests. The folks at the NSA want to stop terrorist attacks. But they have other interests too….they want to perpetuate and expand their agency…and some, like Snowden, have totally unexpected interests, like transparency. It caused him to flee with all sorts of sensitive information. Am I to believe that no employee or contractor would possibly abscond for less noble reasons?”

I am not expecting or asking you to become a radical leftist or even reliably progressive, or to let go of your petulance over Snowden’s role. But could we just get real about how government works and could you get enough outsider perspective to imagine that people who are angry and upset are not necessarily infantile, naive, or misguided. That too much to ask? One press conference that was the intellectual version of Mission Accomplished was enough, can we agree? You might take a look, or another look, at the works of the late great interdisclipinary social scientist Albert O. Hirschman–recently eulogized in the New York Review of Books by Cass Sunstein, your former Head Man in Charge of the Hermeneutics of Regulation (and that’s a good thing to have). Hirschman’s The Passions And The Interests is a study of 18th-century ideas and a plea for a richer conception of “interests” than we now possess; and his The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy is a wonderfully acidic takedown of a mindset you have had to confront again and again to the point of understandable exasperation.

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