Thursday, May 9, 2013
Is the Bush Center’s Decision Points Theater exhibit really a “national scandal?”
That's what critic Rachel Maddow called it.
UNIVERSITY PARK President George W. Bush once famously referred to himself as "The Decider," and one portion of the newly-opened Bush Center on the SMU campus allows guests to step into that role during a controversial and highly tech-savvy exhibit in the complex's Presidential Museum section. Within "The Decision Points Theater," guests collectively choose one of four crises -- 1) the Surge; 2) Hunting Saddam Hussein; 3) Hurricane Katrina; or, 4) the Financial Crisis -- and then proceed to choose which route from a limited number of options they deem most effective, ethical, and moral.
Within the curved ampitheater, massive screens display recorded messages from the president's former chiefs of staff as well as "breaking news" interruptions. The entire game lasts a mere 4 minutes. Within that time, guests must weigh arguments and counterpoints from roughly 10 competing experts before voting on touch-screen technology which route to take. There is room for roughly 15-20 individuals in the theater at one time, and majority rules, so the game -- if it may be called such -- plays out based on the room's consensus, rather than individual players' decisions. After 4 minutes, President Bush appears and discusses his real-life decision.
Critics, most notably, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, have discussed the Decision Points Theater as a function of jingoistic propaganda. To a certain degree, Maddow's analysis is correct. I have personally attended four presidential libraries and formerly lived in Washington, D.C., where there is no lack of history rewritten. Presidential museums are inherently and fundamentally propagandistic, regardless of an administration's ideology. In fact, presidential museums would be better called "Apologetics Centers."
For example, the LBJ Museum on the UT Campus makes compelling arguments for Johnson's polemic decisions during the Vietnam War. The Kennedy Museum outside Boston goes to great lengths in detailing the thought processes -- or at least those the public gets to hear -- behind Bay of Pigs. Is the Decision Points Theater propaganda? Of course it is. Is it a "national scandal" as Maddow suggests? Hardly. Visitors to this or any presidential museum either carry a healthy dose of critical skepticism or they don't. The Decision Points Theater -- much like a similar exhibit at the Reagan Library detailed in 2011 on This American Life -- will neither instill nor diminish intellectual independence.
The technology throughout the entire museum is undeniably impressive, and the Decision Points Theater is no exception. My biggest concern with project, however, is its pacing. Certainly it's meant to a prove a point about the pressures of the presidency. The sense of urgency and regular "breaking news" interruptions heighten the drama, clearly designed to elicit anxiety. However, the rate at which this takes place -- all within 4 minutes -- seems too unrealistic and is too heavy-handed.
It seems intended to instill a sense of empathy toward the world's decision-makers. (It's a job, after all, that few in their right minds would envy.) Still, the design insults users' intelligence rather than enlightens. It is as if we were meant to walk away scratching our heads and saying, "Aw, shucks. I sure was wrong about Bush. I never coulda done as gooda job."
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