Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A "Debate" Over Obama

1. (Excuse the gushing):

October 27, 2010//Patricia Cohen//NYT Book Review

When the Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg decided to write about the influences that shaped President Obama’s view of the world, he interviewed the president’s former professors and classmates, combed through his books, essays, and speeches, and even read every article published during the three years Mr. Obama was involved with the Harvard Law Review (“a superb cure for insomnia,” Mr. Kloppenberg said). What he did not do was speak to President Obama.

“He would have had to deny every word,” Mr. Kloppenberg said with a smile. The reason, he explained, is his conclusion that President Obama is a true intellectual — a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.

In New York City last week to give a standing-room-only lecture about his forthcoming intellectual biography, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition,” Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.

“There’s John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson,” he said.

To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

Mr. Kloppenberg’s interest in the education of Barack Obama began from a distance. He spent 2008, the election year, at the University of Cambridge in England and found himself in lecture halls and at dinner tables trying to explain who this man was.

Race, temperament and family history are all crucial to understanding the White House’s current occupant, but Mr. Kloppenberg said he chose to focus on one slice of the president’s makeup: his ideas.

In the professor’s analysis the president’s worldview is the product of the country’s long history of extending democracy to disenfranchised groups, as well as the specific ideological upheavals that struck campuses in the 1980s and 1990s. He mentions, for example, that Mr. Obama was at Harvard during “the greatest intellectual ferment in law schools in the 20th century,” when competing theories about race, feminism, realism and constitutional original intent were all battling for ground.

Mr. Obama was ultimately drawn to a cluster of ideas known as civic republicanism or deliberative democracy, Mr. Kloppenberg argues in the book, which Princeton University Press will publish on Sunday. In this view the founding fathers cared as much about continuing a discussion over how to advance the common good as they did about ensuring freedom.

Taking his cue from Madison, Mr. Obama writes in his 2006 book
“The Audacity of Hope” that the constitutional framework is “designed to force us into a conversation,” that it offers “a way by which we argue about our future.” This notion of a living document is directly at odds with the conception of Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court, who has spoken of “the good, old dead Constitution.”

Mr. Kloppenberg compiled a long list of people who he said helped shape Mr. Obama’s thinking and writing, including Weber and Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary scholars like the historian Gordon Wood, the philosophers John Rawls and Hilary Putnam, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the legal theorists Martha Minow and Cass Sunstein (who is now working at the White House) also have a place.

Despite the detailed examination, Mr. Kloppenberg concedes that President Obama remains something of a mystery.

“To critics on the left he seems a tragic failure, a man with so much potential who has not fulfilled the promise of change that partisans predicted for his presidency,” he said. “To the right he is a frightening success, a man who has transformed the federal government and ruined the economy.”

He finds both assessments flawed. Conservatives who argue that Mr. Obama is a socialist or an anti-colonialist (as Dinesh D’Souza does in his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”) are far off the mark, he said.

“Adams and Jefferson were the only anti-colonialists whom Obama has been affected by,” he told the audience in New York. “He has a profound love of America.”

And his opposition to inequality stems from Puritan preachers and the social gospel rather than socialism.

As for liberal critics, Mr. Kloppenberg took pains to differentiate the president’s philosophical pragmatism, which assumes that change emerges over decades, from the kind of “vulgar pragmatism” practiced by politicians looking only for expedient compromise. (He gave former President Bill Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” as an example.)

Not all of the disappointed liberals who attended the lecture in New York were convinced that that distinction can be made so easily. T. J. Jackson Lears, a historian at Rutgers University, wrote in an e-mail that by “showing that Obama comes out of a tradition of philosophical pragmatism, he actually provided a basis for criticizing Obama’s slide into vulgar pragmatism.”

And despite Mr. Kloppenberg’s focus on the president’s intellectual evolution, most listeners wanted to talk about his political record.

“There seemed to be skepticism regarding whether Obama’s intellectual background actually translated into policies that the mostly left-leaning audience could get behind,” Mr. Hartman said. “Several audience members, myself included, probably view Obama the president as a centrist like Clinton rather than a progressive intellectual as painted by Kloppenberg.”

Barack Obama puzzles observers. Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Obama does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Instead, his writings and speeches reflect a principled aversion to absolutes that derives from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century.

James T. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama's distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama's views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama's sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama's interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama's commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama's positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America's role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted--although currently unfashionable--convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

2. Barry Rubin: November 15, 2010 Rubin Reports

You're traveling through another dimension--a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone! --Rod Serling’s introduction to the “Twilight Zone” television series.

Just when you think the American intellectual elite has hit rock bottom you discover that the elevator is still headed downward. Indeed, it is hard to believe that much of what we are seeing isn’t satire.

On both points, consider if you will (as Rod Serling used to say introducing the “Twilight Zone” episodes) James T. Kloppenberg, a historian from Harvard University. The New York Times writer positively gushes at Kloppenberg’s great discovery: President Barack Obama is a centrist and “a true intellectual.”

Well, Professor Kloppenberg, let me give you my definition of an intellectual: An intellectual is someone who doesn’t need to use a teleprompter.

Okay, seriously, though, I am going to say that I don’t think Obama is a true intellectual and the reason has nothing to do with his policies or politics. An intellectual is someone who draws on a serious body of study and research to justify his conclusions as well as to educate others.

Where is the depth to Obama’s speeches and actions? Where is evidence that he really has absorbed history, philosophy, or law? What real ideas has he contributed to the American debate? Where are the specific references to thinkers and writers that aren’t absolutely canned for him by his staff? Obama has no serious publications even in the Harvard law school journal he edited. Writing a couple of autobiographies doesn’t count.

The evidence just isn’t there. So Obama is not an intellectual but someone with the reputation of being an intellectual, whose policies are congenial to the current dominant ideas among Western intellectuals.

As for pragmatist, Obama is definitely not that either. A pragmatist is someone who looks for policies that work and is willing to change his views and actions sharply if he understands that something different is needed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton were pragmatists. Obama is driven to a greater extent by ideology and is notoriously inflexible.

Consider, for example, the failure of his economic policies. When Roosevelt concluded that a laissez-faire approach to handling the economic depression wouldn’t work he went through a series of other efforts, dropping each one if it didn’t measure up. Obama simply moves straight ahead on health care, stimulus, and other policies without significant compromise, adjustment to conditions, or even evaluating his mistakes thereafter. Incidentally, the only criticisms the Times reported about Kloppenberg's thesis came from more than one person who complained that Obama wasn't left-wing enough.

Kloppenberg, proclaiming views that are obvious nonsense gave, in the Times's words, “a standing-room-only" lecture to “prolonged applause” about his forthcoming intellectual biography of Obama. He explained—I’m not kidding—that he sees Obama (quoting the Times reporter who was present) “as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.”

He compares Obama to “John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and…Woodrow Wilson.”

Oh no, Obama is quite different from them. After all, they never received the Nobel Peace Prize despite many great accomplishments (though Teddy Roosevelt did, after he negotiated peace between Japan and Russia!). Obama got it but has no great accomplishments as president. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison created the American political system and produced some of the most realistic (pragmatic, centrist) political philosophy in history. As for Lincoln, he was decidedly not an intellectual but a keen student of reality, a clever pragmatist and anything but an ideologue. Woodrow Wilson was probably the last actual intellectual to have been president of the United States.These men were the exact opposite of Obama in most ways.

As for the intellectual influences on Obama, Kloppenberg ridicules the notion this has anything to do with leftist or anti-colonialist factors, despite the presence of so much of these things in his background. Oh, no: “Adams and Jefferson were the only anti-colonialists whom Obama has been affected by….He has a profound love of America.” Yes, that must be why he quotes the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (including the part about inalienable rights coming from the Creator), and the Federalist Papers so much (note: sarcasm).

Look, you can love Obama if you want to do so and vote for him, too, (even, given Chicago’s traditions, vote for him several times) because you like his views and policies. But it is not necessary to believe such nonsense to do so.

In some very real ways, the dominant forces on the American intellectual scene have gone nuts, becoming America's village idiots out of touch with their own country and reality itself as the French aristocracy was at the time of the revolution there. Having little to do with the great history of intellectual liberalism, they mistake being partisan flaks for proper academic work and have put left-wing ideology in place of Enlightenment values. They are the Mad Hatter at the tea party.

1 comment:

  1. Climategate is what happens when universities become addicted to federal grants so iinvent catastrophes like Y2K or global warming to extort a bigger fix. Just like Climategate and ACORN/PIRG/ARA-gate to make us subservient to professulas. If securities rules applied to research grants, half the professulas would be in jail! Professulas, trial lawyers and union organizers are Obama's core constituencies. Universities, libraries, museums and other public beneficiaries extort their patrons to lobby on their behalf with taxpayer resources. They even encourage students to max out their loans and invest the proceeds so the school can up its total. Obama learned when he worked for Don Kent at tuition-funded Arms Race Alternatives, while denyingadmission to Young Americans for Freedom and the Social Democrats. Ted Markowitz used the Xerox 9700 to make fliers for the 1982 June 12th nuclear freezers, but persecuted students for smaller infractions. They destroyed a supply side hero like Jeff Bell! "UPI June 6, 1992 Sovern took over at Columbia after student protests of 1968 and New York's fiscal problems in the '70s resulted in less financial support for the school, a situation made more dire by recent federal government budget cuts. . . But Columbia will be looking for a new president in a period troubled by criticism for destroying records that were being reviewed for improprieties. Universities in general have been under greater scrutiny for how they charge the government for federally sponsored research." When Obama falls in 2010, we should go through the grant-grubbing Ivy Leagues with a flame thrower! Ivy League universities are not good at getting students jobs, only grants to be commie nutty organizers. If you are liberal, anything you do is inherently ethical for the cause, but if you are a conservative, and believe in GOD, family or business, your very moral fiber, even down to trivial autonomic responses, is subject to persecution as either dangerously criminal or the result of clinical illness. Bush 43 had two Ivy degrees and they treated him as stupid because he was conservative even though he had better grades and entrance scores and took a lot tougher courses than Gore. Professors are the ultimate molestor high priests because they extort and control your transcripts and your grants if you turn them in. Like a cult, they will make your children denounce you and everything you stand for as unworthy. The lowest level university bureaucrats offer the worst affectations. No business ever trusts such left wing graduates who don't believe in capitalism and become crooks because they are taught the only way business makes money is crooked so they seek to avenge their unemployability through their own crookedness. The universities consider real jobs and competition beneath them, so they want their little sissies to live off grants, even in the hard sciences or business. How many of their engineering professors have Professional Engineering certification? Almost none! They love foreign students who slave up and don't expect professors to actually work for the tuition, like Americans do. (Surely You Are Joking Feynman p 215 "If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, 'What are you wasting our time for in the class? We're trying to learn something. And you're stopping him by asking a question'." ) No middle class parent should consider sending their kids there, because these schools will destroy your entire family. See Zac Bissonnette's Debt-Free U. The only schools that understand middle-class values are for-profits. Middle class parents foolish enough to buy into Ivy League dreams die way too young.