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More on Luck

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Rob’s post on luck and wingnuttery reminded me of a Times editorial written four years ago by historian Jackson Lears on the subject of George W. Bush and his Providential sense of history. Lears points out the obvious, which is that Der Preznit doesn’t believe in luck — or, if you like, he will not profess such a belief because it would ruin two aspects of his public reputation that he’s aggressively cultivated over the past decade: (a) his conviction that fate is guided not by chance but by the hands of the Divine; and (b) that his decisions, while coming from the gut, are correct because he believes them to be so. Needless to say, these delusions are perfectly compatible with the pathologies of the gambler; they’re also the pathologies associated with other addictions that don’t require much elaboration here. So Lears may have overstated the differences between the President-as-divine-vessel and the President-as-reckless-gambler, but in my view he gets one thing terrifyingly correct:

[S]oldiers know the arbitrary cruelties of fate at first hand — maiming this one, leaving that one alone. They know the power of luck.

There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are not many believers in Providence in them either. Combat soldiers have always been less confident than politicians that God is on the premises. They have paid homage to an older deity, Fortuna. From the Civil War through the Persian Gulf war, American soldiers have festooned themselves with amulets and lucky charms — everything from St. Christopher medals and smooth stones to their girlfriends’ locks of hair. And why not? Ritual efforts to conjure luck speak directly to their own experience.

If, as Rob points out, people at the Weekly Standard or Investors’ Business Daily are calling for a “high risk, low reward strategy,” it’s for the obvious reason that (as Ogged pointed out in the comments) they’re betting with someone else’s money. People who by virtue of their distance from actual risk should be–ok, ok, unless you’re Hugh Hewitt, Mark Steyn or Jeff Goldstein — the people who by virtue of their distance from actual risk should be thinking and planning and acting with great sobriety are in fact doing nothing of the sort. They could at least have the good sense to admit that they evidently don’t believe in God anymore.

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