The first post tells why. It may be too little, but hopefully not too late.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Thinking ahead

by Galina Kirillova

"First, do no harm". So stated Hippocrates, the father of medicine. The ethical principles he declared are embodied in the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians before they enter their profession. These ethical principles, necessary to practice medicine, are on top of the long years of medical education. And despite all that, we the patients still try to improve our choice of a doctor, because our life and its quality depend on that. We take into account everything: credentials, experience, reputation. We want to make sure that "our" doctor knows his stuff. What happens when we choose our country's president? What criteria determine the choice of a candidate who must operate the complex governmental machine, maneuver in the entangled system of international relations, make decisions that are thought through many steps ahead, upon which many people's life and its quality critically depend? During the 2008 presidential elections, standing in a queue to vote, I asked a student standing ahead of me why she was voting for Obama (her choice was clear from the picture on her T-shirt). She said she wanted "change". To the question what change, she answered, "Any". At first, I was sorry for her, but then, there were many young people like her there, wearing the same popular T-shirts.

My choice was different, but I was impressed by their enthusiasm. Perhaps they are right, I thought. A young candidate, educated, confident in his abilities,  biracial and raised in a multicultural environment. Perhaps he is that hero who finally will rid the country of the brewing religious intolerance and racial prejudice. On the other hand, however, there was that "godfather", Reverend Wright, dubious friends, and slogans that were sadly familiar to any immigrant from the Soviet Union. I think that in that moment of fateful choice the majority in America was led by enthusiasm and expectation of a miracle rather than by sober deliberations.

The miracle, however, has not happened. I state this without glee but with sincere regret and anxiety for the future. I do not root for a particular team. I am for professionalism and reason. Political life is certainly more complex than the information about it available to "simple" Americans through mass media. As a "simple" American of Soviet origin, I do not make special effort to disentangle political complexities. I am a biologist and politics is not my sphere. But as a citizen of this country, I can see when things are getting out of control. It is usually easy to criticize, but in this case it is particularly so.

For a president, to make responsible decisions, defining the fate of not just this country but the world, requires knowledge of history, political experience, and a principled personal position. Friendly handshakes and warm embraces, unfortunately, have never been guarantors of mutual understanding in the world. To think that flattery and praise will melt hearts and disarm enemies is naive for a professional politician. As we have seen, this approach only exacerbates regional conflicts, stokes appetites of political blackmailers, and activates the race for world leadership. Politics resembles a game of chess with multiple opponents and is very risky, because the consequences of losing may be dramatic and irreversible. Unsurprisingly, in chess, only real masters play such games. It is possible but doubtful that Obama will draw correct conclusions from his almost two-year presidential experience, and if not improve the complex situation in the country and in the world then at least will "do no harm".

In two years we will again have to make our choice. Sometimes key words and analogies help to find a way in complex situations. For instance, would you want to have a doctor who would practice on you? Do you consider presidency an appropriate position for political training and radical social experiments? Hopefully, among the future candidates there will be people voting for whom will not call for choosing a lesser of evils, and the jingling "change" will not dampen the voice of reason.               

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