The Situationist

The Bush Frame: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; Intentions vs. Consequences

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 16, 2009

George Bush FarewellPresident Bush’s farewell speech, like most (though not all) of his speeches, was full of dispositionism and largely devoid of situationist insight.

His final remarks were apparently intended to remind and assure us that “we” are dispositionally different from “them” and that our country and its people have an essential character (good) while other countries or individuals within certain other countries have a very different disposition (evil).  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

America is promoting human liberty, human rights, and human dignity. We are standing with dissidents and young democracies, providing AIDS medicine to bring dying patients back to life, and sparing mothers and babies from malaria. And this great republic born alone in liberty is leading the world toward a new age when freedom belongs to all nations.

* * *

As we address these challenges — and others we cannot foresee tonight — America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.

. . . . America is a young country, full of vitality, constantly growing and renewing itself. And even in the toughest times, we lift our eyes to the broad horizon ahead.

I have confidence in the promise of America because I know the character of our people. This is a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom. This is a nation where citizens show calm in times of danger and compassion in the face of suffering. We see examples of America’s character all around us. . . .

* * *

In citizens like these, we see the best of our country — resilient and hopeful, caring and strong. These virtues give me an unshakable faith in America. We have faced danger and trial, and there is more ahead. But with the courage of our people and confidence in our ideals, this great nation will never tire . . . never falter . . . and never fail.

* * *

In September of 2003, when President Bush addressed the United Nations General Assembly to justify the preemptive war in Iraq, his tone was similarly dispositionist.

Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides: between those who seek order, and those who spread chaos; between those who work for peaceful change, and those who adopt the methods of gangsters; between those who honor the rights of man, and those who deliberately take the lives of men and women and children without mercy or shame.  Between these alternatives there is no neutral ground.

If “moral clarity” requires insisting that there are just two forces — good and evil — and that a person or group or country is either one or the other, then I’m against it.  As many others have argued, one need not condone terrorism to attempt to understand the circumstances that would lead to terrorism; and, as far as policy goes, to attribute behavior solely to the person and not at all to the situation may be to treat the symptom and not the disease.  Moral clarity and the dispositionism behind it may simplify decision making, but, as we’ve witnessed, they do not necessarily lead to good or moral decisions.


President Bush seemed eager in his farewell remarks to downplay the consequences of his decisions and, instead, to remind us that he acted with the best of intentions — that, in other words, his disposition was good.  At one point he admitted that “[t]here are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right.”   Again, his focus is on disposition.

To fellow dispositionists, the message struck a chord.  Bill O’Reilly, for instance, had this reaction:

[President Bush] had the best interest of the folks at heart. President Bush is a patriot. He tried to do his best. I’m glad he gave a speech tonight.  We wish President Bush the best. He’s a patriot, a good man and I hope he continues to contribute to the country.

Eric Bolling, also from FOX, echoed that theme, writing: “Like him or not, [President Bush] has always done what he felt was best for us all.”

As did Laura Ingraham (FOX News Contributor):  “This man is a patriot. He’s a good man and he wanted the best for the country.”

Syndicated Columnist Cal Thomas went even further, praising the President  as a “good and decent man,” and then attacking the disposition of those who disapprove of Bush’s performance (that is, most Americans).  According to Thomas:

Democrats read the polls and their primary objective is power. As Bush’s approval numbers started to slip, Democrats ratcheted up their opposition and Bush, a non-ideological president, was unable to counter their bile with his own sense of goodness.

* * *

Part of the problem with the Bush presidency was not him, but us. We don’t like inconvenience, war, or a bad economy. And when we were touched by each of these, we blamed the president for not restoring us quickly to our pursuit of pleasure and material things.     Most television shows do not last as long as the Bush presidency and that’s the other part of the problem. We project more on our presidents than they are able to give. Yet they don’t want to tell us that only we can make our lives better . . . .

I suspect that those who doubt the good intentions of President Bush are few and far between.  In other words, only a relative handful of Americans are claiming that Bush is an evil president.   Such “moral clarity” is lacking — as well it should be.  Good intentions may be desirable, but they are by no means sufficient to make a person a good president.

A situationist perspective does not focus on intentions.  As Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji has argued, our moral obligation is more demanding than that:  “if we haven’t exhausted every opportunity to know whether what we are doing is right, it will be no excuse for us to say that we meant well.”

Ultimately, the public’s lack of confidence in President Bush is not based on a sense that he intended to leave the planet in worse shape than he found it, but that he did so out of ignorance and arrogance and did not “exhaust[] every opportunity to know whether what [he was] doing [was] right.”

But one need not be a situationist to believe that the intentions of policymakers are not the sole measuring stick for the success of the policymakers.  At the conclusion of his pre-war speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush himself admonished: “Our good intentions will be credited only if we achieve good outcomes.”

Considering where we have come since that speech, it is hard to see how one can say we have “achieve[d] good outcomes.”

* * *

To read some related Situationist posts, see “Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part V,” “Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet: ‘Guilty’,” “The Situation of Decision Making,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “A Convenient Fiction,” “The Law and Situation of Military Propaganda,” “Um, I don’t make misteaks . . .,”  “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part VI,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..”

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8 Responses to “The Bush Frame: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; Intentions vs. Consequences”

  1. smellytourist said

    America is exceptional, and the best country in the world. Go Bush.
    http://www.smellytourist.wordpress.com

  2. Mark B. said

    I often wonder about the situation that contributed to Bush’s dispositionalism or more importantly his “ignorance and arrogance”. Bush didn’t exist in a vacuum and his situation must have contributed to his actions — even if he thinks it is his moral clarity.

  3. thwood3 said

    I would like to suggest that dispositionism is not all bad and actually a very necessary component of social cognition (but very problematic in excess).

    Dispositionism is something we cannot eliminate from social thought. It is the attributional style that makes it possible to hold people responsible for their actions. Insofar as responsibility is necessary for social cooperation and coordination, dispositionism is a good thing. But it must recognize reasonable and pragmatic limits. That’s where exclusively dispositionists fail. Walking an ambiguous and narrow line between dispositionally holding people responsible and situationally excusing them is psychologically difficult. People wish for “moral clarity” because it’s easy and reassuring to think that “moral clarity” exists and because it’s just plain easier to think dichotomously, judgmentally, and dogmatically.

    But remember that civilization would not be possible without dispositional thinking. We’d never be able to cooperate and coordinate social behavior absent dispositional attributions. Another way of describing dispositionism is “theory of mind” or Dennet’s “intentional stance.” No one would suggest eliminating, nor could anyone practically forego, slipping into the intentional stance. It’s at the core of being a human being. So its a matter of tempering our dispositional dispositions!

    Dispositionism and situationism are always in tension and always will be. I’d like to see this fact given more attention on this blog. Sometimes it’s referred to as “the internal situation.” That seems a little disingenuous and misleading. Please admit and confront that dispositionism is unavoidable and not necessarily a bad thing but simply a problematic legacy and component of social cognition.

  4. […] as Jon Hanson at The Situationist recently observed, If “moral clarity” requires insisting that there are just two forces — good and evil — and […]

  5. […] fundamental worldview can easily be defined: us vs. them.  As Scoblic writes, this frame has a long history in […]

  6. […] “The Bush Frame: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; Intentions vs. Consequences,” […]

  7. […] “The Bush Frame: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; Intentions vs. Consequences,” […]

  8. […] “our,” “we,” “we”—the Obama frame is essentially the us v. them narrative offered by Bush, used once again to justify military action as long as it is ours against […]

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