Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’
One of the recurring themes of pieces on Obama at UP@NIGHT is the nature of his pragmatism, which is as much philosophical as it is purely political. With three months or so to go before the election, I thought I would collect here several links to discussions of Obama’s political thought and politics from the past few years at UP@NIGHT.
The entries most relevant to philosophical pragmatism are listed first. There are a couple of critical pieces further down the list. But I think it important that we understand with whom we are dealing as we criticize Obama or his administration. We should not fault him for seeking the possible when the more desirable was out of reach.
And for those who may still not have had enough, there is a discussion of Obama’s pragmatism and cosmopolitanism in an online (read, free) “Afterword” to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford University Press).
This is a, “I told you so” blog. I have been arguing here and in other venues that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist and not just a political one. At his press conference yesterday, in which he defended his compromise with the Republicans over taxes, he directly confronted a question about his core values. He specifically placed his values in a wider framework, one that is clearly congenial to philosophical pragmatism.
Why is this important? We need to understand the man if we are going to be able to work effectively for change. Obama has a set of values that one might call “progressive” (and other values that might be termed “moderate” or even mildly conservative). He is going to act on his (mostly) progressive views within a broader framework, which is his commitment to philosophical pragmatism. This is not a sell out. It is not a weakness in itself. It is different from what we have seen in quite some time. (This is NOT merely Bill Clinton’s political pragmatism, for example.) Listen to how Obama defends his initiatives by citing the history of social security in the clip below. There is passion here. And not the passion of someone defending a merely expedient outcome. His commitment to pragmatism may often make him appear more conservative than he actually is. For him, it’s about getting the best outcomes over the long term. This is not to say that he hasn’t made tactical errors or errors in judgment and timing. He certainly has. It’s only to place his specific values in a broader context.
For those interested in learning more about the connection between Obama and pragmatism, there is James T. Kloppenberg’s new book, Reading Obama. The Afterword to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford) is on-line. It discusses Obama’s pragmatism. There is also the web site Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.
There appears to be a growing cottage industry that is addressing whether Obama is merely a pragmatist, in the narrow sense of the term–that is, one who places strategic considerations first–or whether he is philosophical pragmatist. In my view, Obama is indeed a philosophical pragmatist. If you are interested in understanding what makes Obama tick and how he might maneuver politically, this question is worth your time. And for your convenience, there is now a site dedicated to discussing the issue of Obama’s pragmatism. (See “Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.”)
In several blogs on UP@NIGHT and on other sites, I have mentioned that Obama’s mother studied with the granddaughter of John Dewey, perhaps the most famous pragmatist of the twentieth century. Of course one would not want to make too much of this connection. On the other hand, it is not meaningless, especially when Alice Dewey addresses Obama’s pragmatism in the context of his idealism. The passages below are from an article in the Star Bulletin (Hawaii), “Strong Women Lead Obama.”
At his homecoming rally Friday, Barack Obama paid tribute to his late mother, a single mom who sacrificed to ensure he received the best education. His next stop was to visit his 85-year-old grandmother.
These two strong women each were pioneers in their fields and helped shape the presidential candidate’s outlook on life. “Like his mother, Barry is a pragmatic idealist,” said Alice Dewey, an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii and family friend. “If you have ideals and want to accomplish things, you’ve got to be pragmatic about it.”
…. “Ann’s work was almost entirely in villages,” said Dewey, her friend and thesis adviser. “Barry found his feet in the streets of Chicago. It was urban, but it was the same thing, get out there to talk to people, listen to their needs and try to put together something that will work. Like Ann, he was thinking, how do you help the folks who need it?”
If these statements were coming from someone other than the granddaughter of John Dewey, and from someone who was not academically trained, I would be inclined to equate “pragmatic” with “strategic,” and to view the phrase, “try to put together something that will work,” in the same light. And surely this is part of their meaning. But given that Alice Dewey knew that she was being interviewed for a newspaper article and not an academic audience, and that she used the phrase “pragmatic idealist,” which sounds like an oxymoron to most of those unaware of the tradition of philosophical pragmatism, I suspect that this was her way of telegraphing that Obama is not merely a strategic pragmatist. He is something more. Perhaps a philosophical pragmatist. (Yes, she could have meant that he was merely a smart idealist, but the passage discussing what “works” counters this interpretation.)
Ultimately the evidence for Obama’s philosophical pragmatism will have to come from his words and deeds. For those interested in pursuing this connection, check out the web page on Obama mentioned above and click “links.”
P.S. For those who read Spanish, you may be interested in a piece that appeared recently in the most important paper in Lima, Peru on Obama, pragmatism, and John Dewey. “Obama contextualiza decisiones” by Gregory Pappas.
Don’t think we could have done it without you, George. And you knew way back when. Mission, indeed, Accomplished.
Here is a prediction: the culture wars will be left by the wayside as we enter a seemingly new land, the land of the tactically minded chief executive, whose tactics are the tip of a philosophical iceberg. The executive is Obama and the iceberg is Pragmatism.
Comments regarding Obama’s pragmatism constitute something of a cottage industry. These discussions usually involve contrasting Obama’s pragmatism, for example, in choosing his cabinet, with the ideological approach of Bush and the neo-cons. Here the term pragmatism is meant to denote political flexibility, comfort with the expedient, and a willingness to compromise. For critics it is meant to suggest an unprincipled orientation toward questions of great moment. Given Obama’s willingness to label himself a pragmatist, many have been mystified by his commitment to specific values, finding him not only unclassifiable in accepted political categories, but mystifying as a person. For example, in a recent article in Harpers, “The American Void,” Simon Critchley treats Obama as, well, a void. He just can’t figure the guy out. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere (PBS site), there is nothing strange about Obama’s political views for those who are familiar with the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism or the Social Gospel Movement. Interestingly, Critchley makes much of Obama’s mother being an anthropologist, but what he fails to mention is that Ann Dunham’s thesis director was Alice G. Dewey, John Dewey’s granddaughter. (John Dewey was perhaps the most famous Pragmatist of the twentieth century.) This is no accident. Obama’s thought and practice can be located in the tradition of American Pragmatism (pragmatism with a capital P) and in the liberal Social Gospel Movement that was influential in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The latter is still influential in some Chicago churches and community groups, especially those that would have most engaged Obama’s attention as a community organizer.
One of the few commentators who has begun to tease out the differences between Obama’s pragmatisms is Chris Hayes. He writes in The Nation, “Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it’s also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism toward certainties derived from abstractions–one that is welcome and bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency. . . . And if there’s a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey….For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of ‘variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.’ ” The Nation, Dec 10, 2008
Hayes is moving in the right direction. I would take his claims a step further. There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism. Take for instance the question of whether one can have principles and still be a pragmatist. From the vantage point of philosophical Pragmatism, the question is non-starter. The use of principles to address philosophical and political issues extends back to Plato and Aristotle, and migrates through Kant’s deontological ethics into the twentieth century. But the Pragmatist wants to bypass this mode of thinking, one that requires us to believe that affirming values requires a principled affirmation of values. Principles are in fact problematic and counterproductive. Dewey, for example, railed against Kant during WWI, claiming that the rigidity of his ethics of principled imperatives was reflected in the dictatorial and undemocratic mindset of the German regime. People who believe in democracy should be suspicious of permanent truths and principles. As Hannah Arendt argues, debate is at the heart of political life, and Truth (with a capital “T”) kills debate. (Obama’s father was a man of principle to the point of stubbornness. He had a failed career and a led a troubled life. It is hard to read Dreams of My Father and not conclude that Obama came away from his “journey” with a lasting distaste for principles. His mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Deweyan in her love of experience, experimentation, novelty, change, and belief in the transformational power of education.)
In the “Epilogue” to Dreams of My Father, Obama reports a conversation that he and his sister, Auma, had with Dr. Rukia Odero, a professor of history. A central question in the discussion: how should Africans adapt to the values that Westerners have brought to Africa? That Obama chose to report the conversation is telling. Rukia, I would argue, is meant to give voice to Obama’s views. She states, “I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist. All we can do is choose.” And after discussing the complexities of the issue of female circumcision, she goes on to say, “You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan. What to do? Again you choose. If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes. You see what works.” (Dreams from My Father, New York: Crown, 2004, p. 434) “Seeing what works” is indeed the mantra of Pragmatism. Yet as in existentialism, this doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel the weight of moral and political decisions. It means that one can’t appeal to principles in advance to justify one’s decisions or “what works.”
But doesn’t being a pragmatist, in both senses of the term, just make Obama a relativist? No doubt for the ideologically committed, those who fear a leader without a moral compass, this would be a central concern. But once again this is to frame the issue in the wrong fashion. Relativism is a problem for moral absolutists. Without a lasting commitment to absolutes, there isn’t a problem of relativism. Instead there is the problem of deciding what values to hold. To frame the discussion in terms of absolutism versus relativism is already to accept the framework of the religious right, which is what the Republicans have been notoriously successful in doing for two generations. However, the choice is not between absolutism and relativism. It is between different values. Commitments to values arise from numerous sources, including thoughtful deliberation and prudential considerations. And it is in the realm of “prudence” that one finds a symmetry between upper and lower case pragmatism. For the Pragmatist prudential considerations do not always trump other values, but sometimes they do, because prudence or tactical maneuvering may be required to realize successfully a greater good. As a matter of fact, a thoughtful political agent doesn’t make dogmatic, read absolutistic, decisions in advance regarding what values and tactics may be the most vital and relevant.
The culture wars have depended on disagreements over specific values and the belief that principles are central to morality. Or at least this is the way that the religious right has sought to frame the controversy, a perception that neo-cons have used to reinforce their political agendas. When Obama speaks of being post-ideological, of being a pragmatist, I read him as trying to address logjams over values by avoiding divisive discourses based on principles. How does one accomplish this? Well, one way is to sound as if one is not ideological, for example, by showing flexibility on specific moral and political questions. By so doing Obama is not simply maneuvering. He is not being disingenuous. He is behaving as if he is a committed Pragmatist, and as such he is seeking to change the ground rules for political discourse.
Obama may very well succeed with a little help from his (several million) friends, and realities on the ground, namely, a serious financial crisis that suddenly has life-long, dogmatic free-marketers running for cover. He may also succeed because he is attuned to something very basic about the American psyche. It is no accident that Pragmatism is the most significant philosophy that America has produced. There is something deeply American about it. But is it Left, Right, or Center? Once again, this is to ask a misleading question. Its tent is large enough to contain persons from across the American political spectrum, if one judges political commitments by specific values. Yet in an American context Obama’s Pragmatism presents a much greater challenge to the ideological Right than to the ideological Left. How so? If the conversation is shifted away from absolutes, the Right in America will lose the ground from which it has hurled its most potent missiles. Some on the Right are beginning to recognize the threat that Obama poses. Some still believe that they can bring back the days of the culture wars. The latter, however, are predicated on the “principled versus pragmatist” distinction, one that is becoming less consequential with each passing day. So, I wish the dogmatic Right lots of luck. They will need it. As for the non-dogmatic Right, if debate is crucial to a thriving democracy, I wish them well, and so does the Pragmatist Obama.
Obama on pragmatism (with a small p) and the dangers of certainty (which relates to philosophical Pragmatism).
UPDATE, January 5, 2010: I discovered through a reader’s comment that this video is no longer available. I don’t know when it was made unavailable or why its presence on YouTube constitutes a use violation. I assume that NBC must have pulled it. It was a nice clip because it showed the kind of fallibilist sensibility that one finds in Pragmatism.
A Billboard welcoming the Republicans to their convention in St. Paul, MN. Enough said.
You may think that I support Obama because of his policies and character. Yes, it’s (mostly) true. But these are really trivial reasons compared with the deeper reason.
You see, I know Obama. Okay, well, maybe I don’t know him. Let’s say that I understand him. Or better, I understand something very important about him. It’s a name thing. This may not seem like much, but I can tell you that for those of us who grew up with names that are three or more syllables, and with at least as many vowels as consonants, Obama’s arrival portends a new day. Just his name will change the lives of millions of Americans. Let me explain.
My last name is Aboulafia. (It is pronounced the way that it looks: A boo la fe a.) A little autobiography will be helpful here. I was born in the U.S. As a matter of fact, my ancestors on one side have been in the U.S. for about a hundred years, and close to a hundred and fifty on the other. I know, not the Mayflower crowd, but I can assure you that I don’t speak English with a foreign accent. (Please bear with me. This will prove important.) Here is some further information. I am 6’4″, fair complected, with a short reddish beard. When I went to college in Denmark for a term, I was sometimes taken for a Dane.
During my time in Denmark, I took a trip to Morocco. The kids on the streets in Moroccan cities would often ask tourists for money, and they could do so in many languages. They would always ask me in English. Not having much money myself, I tried playfully to trick them by telling them that I didn’t understand. I was Danish. I even threw in a few Danish words. But the kids wouldn’t buy it. They laughed, giggled, and said, “No, no, American. You American, American.” So somehow these young Moroccan kids were able to spot me as an American, not a Dane or an Englishman, a German or an Italian, etc. (And I ended up with a few less bucks in my pocket.)
Okay, why do I bring this up? My last name is Sephardic, a name that Spanish Jews took a millennium ago when they lived in Spain with the Arabic Moors. It is not a “typical” Western European name. It sounds, well, just plain weird to a lot of people in America. As a matter of fact, the name itself sounds so exotic that in spite of the way that I appear and speak, Americans have often asked me where I was born, that is, in what country other than America. All they had to do was discover my last name. This would happen at check-out counters or in stores, for example, when I produced a credit card. “Aboulafia, Aboulafia? Hmm, so what country were you born in?” I would reply, often rather defensively, “Here, in America. Uh, my mother and father were born here also.” (Why I felt I had to tell a perfect stranger about my parents is part of the weird name inferiority syndrome.) When I was younger, sometimes even teachers would ask where I was from. My name, and just my name, mind you, put my nationality into question. And this would happen in spite of the evidence (me) standing and staring the questioner in the face.
So now along comes Barack Obama. And I am waiting. I figure, okay, this guy is really good, but they are going to say that he isn’t a real American. He won’t have to open his mouth. People will just look at his name. “Obama? Obama? Where was he born? Bet he’s not a real American.” He’s going to be O-U-T before he gets a chance at bat.
And then it happened. He manages to get over enough hurdles, including his name, to win the Democratic nomination. And I am thinking, “Obama, the name–three syllables, with as many vowels as consonants–is going to transform life here in the good old U.S. of A. for multi-syllabled, funny named persons.” You may think that this is a small matter. It isn’t. There are a lot of us. And we are growing in numbers every year. With the rise in immigration, strange names from all over the world have increased in America in the last decades, including ones with only one syllable.
So, three cheers for Obama, a man with a handle who as president would make many of us feel more at home in our own country. And if enough of us funny named folks vote for him, he will get a chance to do so.
I was hoping that I would not find myself wasting time, energy, and pixels on another article criticizing Hilary Clinton. It’s enough already. I wanted to enjoy last night’s historic outcome of the Democratic presidential contest; a talented, African-American, progressive will now be heading the ticket of a major American Party. Wonderful Earth rocking news. It seems that America can still send a meaningful political “shot” around the world. But instead my excitement had to be mixed with disappointment and outrage. Hillary, there she goes again. Not only did she fail to concede graciously in order to help bring the Party together, but she invited comments from her supporters to her web site to tell her how to proceed. Of course she knows how they will respond. What extraordinary bad faith. And for what, two bits to pay off her bills or perhaps have some leverage for herself in the coming months. Further, she continued to make the same misleading claims about the popular vote that she has been making for weeks, namely, that she has won it. The fact is that there is no national popular vote. Or better still, there are hundreds of possible permutations in figuring out what the national popular vote might be. You simply can’t combine the apples and oranges of caucuses and primaries, as well as all of the different sorts of state primaries, including two that were considered non-contests, to come up with a solid figure. But I will let this one go. Hillary will say what she needs to say, especially that people should go to Hillary.com.
But I decided to write not only to vent. I want to see a solution to the Hillary problem, as does every Democrat who wants to win in November. I got a lead this morning (June 4th) from a blog on the Daily Kos, “A Dream Team?” by georgia 10. The writer quotes at length from an article that appeared in the on-line version of the Telegraph. Here are the passages quoted directly from the June 1st Telegraph.
The Obama camp, however, remains nervous about Mrs Clinton’s intentions and ambitions, and is preparing a face-saving package that will allow her to continue to play a role in health care reform, which has been her signature issue for more than a decade. Despite pressure from some Clinton allies, Mr Obama and his advisers do not wish to ask her to be his vice-presidential running mate. “They will talk to her,” one Democrat strategist close to senior figures in the Obama camp told The Sunday Telegraph. “They will give her the respect she deserves. She will get something to do with health care, a cabinet post or the chance to lead the legislation through the Senate.”
Another Democrat who has discussed strategy with friends in the Obama inner circle said that Mr Obama was openly considering asking Mrs Clinton to join his cabinet, alongside two other former presidential rivals: John Edwards, who is seen as a likely attorney general; and Joe Biden, who is a leading contender to become Secretary of State.
Mr Obama hinted at the plan last week. “One of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his cabinet because whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was ‘how can we get this country through this time of crisis?’ And I think that has to be the approach that one takes.” [Emphasis added]
“Hillary Clinton to be offered dignified exit” By Tim Shipman http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/uselection2008/democrats/2058907/US-Elections-Hillary-Clinton-to-be-offered-dignified-exit.html
In some ways, of course, this is not news. The cabinet solution has been around for a while. But I was struck by Obama’s citing Lincoln. This article was written on June 1st. One could argue that Hillary has put herself further into the dog house with the Obama camp after last night’s speech. But Obama, in a Lincolnesque sort of way, might only see this as more reason for the cabinet option. She is a piece of work alright. But all the more reasons to give it a whirl and put her in a cabinet slot. It shows that 1) Obama is strong enough to deal with her and 2) magnanimous enough to extend a hand.
I will swallow hard. The logic is there. I hope Obama goes for it and finally ends the Hillmail. If she won’t settle for this, then Obama needs to methodically work around her. Most of those who voted for Hillary will not put up with her undermining the Party.
I have grown increasingly frustrated as the day has worn on. I keep seeing supporters, especially of Senator Clinton, referring to recent polls as evidence that she is more electable. The fact is that we don’t know who is more electable right now because there are simply too many variables, which will be cashed out in different ways in the months ahead. One thing is fairly certain, given the mixed and changing results in snapshot state and national polls, the Democrats would be foolish to select a candidate based on them.
Further, in spite of what we hear from the Clinton people, there is no such thing as a national popular vote. Too many apples and oranges. There are caucus and non-caucus states. There are states that have included independents and those that haven’t. Some have allowed party cross-overs and some have not. These election results can’t be combined into one figure, and especially not into a figure that will satisfy everyone. Bottom Line: if the Democrats back off from using the delegate count in nominating their candidate, and try to substitute a bogus national popular vote, they will be courting calamity. (Few believe that such a substitution will actually take place. But as long as people keep talking about a popular vote, it pushes closure off into the horizon.)
If one must have some numbers at this time, the odds are that the results from Intrade are probably more accurate than any snapshot poll. Of course Intrade isn’t always accurate and its traders change their minds. But it has a pretty good record. Interestingly, in the face of all of the current polls, as of 12:00 AM, May 23rd, the traders think that Obama is going to beat McCain. http://www.intrade.com/
Notice that there have been hundreds of thousands of trades, that is, “bets.”
The figures are in the following order: Bid, Ask, Last, Vol, Chge
Obama to win 2008 US Presidential Election 57.3, 57.4, 57.3, 157381, +0.9
McCain to win 2008 US Presidential Election 38.1, 38.3, 38.2, 202761, -1.8
Clinton to win 2008 US Presidential Election 5.8, 6.7, 6.8, 294285, +1.0
Hold the Presses. John McCain has begun considering VP candidates. From the New York Times, May 22nd, Adam Nagourney reporting, “Charlie Crist and Bobby Jindal, both governors, and Mitt Romney, a onetime rival for the nomination, are all set to meet with John McCain this weekend.” (Editorial sidebar: So this means that we might have “Mac and Crist in ’08,” which could do wonders for Mac with a certain demographic, or “Mac and Mitt in ’08,” for help with the baseball loving trucker vote. On the other hand, “Mac and Jindal in ’08,” no way. The Jindals make up too small a percentage of the electorate.)
But this is not the really BIG news. A high placed, anonymous source, reports that Hillary Clinton has decided on her choice for VP. And it ain’t Barack.
First, the context. As reported on May 21st, from BOCA RATON, Florida, in Politico. “Hillary Clinton compared her effort to seat Florida and Michigan delegates to epic American struggles, including those to free the slaves and win the right to vote for blacks and women.[...]”
Hillary was quoted in Politico as claiming,
“This work to extend the franchise to all of our citizens is a core mission of the modern Democratic party,” she said. “From signing the Voting Rights Act and fighting racial discrimination at the ballot box to lowering the voting age so those old enough to fight and die in war would have the right to choose their commander in chief, to fighting for multi-lingual ballots so you can make your voice heard no matter what language you speak.”
Ah, there you have it. She is incensed about what has been done to the people of Michigan and Florida. Their citizens have been old enough to fight and die for their country, speaking in different tongues as they do so, but not old enough to have their votes counted for Hillary. And part of her anger stems (and this is one author’s psychoanalysis) from self-hatred, since she signed off (read: gave her word to the DNC) on not counting the votes in Florida and Michigan way back when. (When exactly? Sometime before she had beaten “Uncommitted” in Michigan.). So she must act to right this wrong, in part, to overcome her self-loathing.
What you have just read/heard is the part of the story that deals with morality and self-loathing. But there is more. There is Hillary as tactician.
As reported by Politico, she went on to say, “We know the road to a Democratic White House runs right through Florida and Michigan…”
Knowing that she needs Florida and Michigan to win against Obama and to win in November, Hillary has had to determine how best to secure these states. One answer, choose a VP from either state, perhaps one for the first term from Florida and one for the second from Michigan, and let the voters know asap that she plans to do so. But this, as it turns out, is insufficient to right the magnitude of the injustice.
To arrive at a solution (recall, “solutions” were once a feature of one of her slogans), she has drawn on hitherto unknown, but deeply held, skeleton in the closet, Communist sensibilities. Her solution is novel, seemingly impractical, but strikingly bold. (How bold? Bill may have been behind the idea.) She plans to make the People of Florida her VP. (Florida, in her mind, has suffered more than Michigan due to the 2000 election. See her recent and future comments–coming to web sites and blogs everywhere soon–about the movie “Recount.”) Yes, it’s true, the People of Florida will be her choice for VP if she should win the nomination. And my sources also tell me that a slogan has already been prepared: “Vote for Hillary and the State in 08.”
LATE WORD: Campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, Comrade Terry, is denying rumors that there are plans afoot to change the name of Florida to the Florida Democratic Republic or the FDR.