Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Favorite Books of 2010: Mara Liasson Suggests Actually 'Reading Obama'" from NPR's Monkey See by MARA LIASSON "+Democracy"

I cover the White House and the president, and I often wonder if there is such a thing as "Obamaism." This book offers one definition. Kloppenberg is the chairman of the history department at Harvard; he's written books about liberalism and social democracy, and he places Obama squarely in that progressive intellectual stream. Kloppenberg offers an answer to one of the great ironies about reactions to Obama: how the same man can be vilified as a socialist and derided as a sellout to Wall Street. According to Kloppenberg, Obama's writings and speeches show that he is an adherent of philosophical pragmatism, a home-grown American philosophy developed at the end of the 19th century by William James and John Dewey. Philosophical pragmatists are anti-absolutists. They believe that compromise, public debate and civility are the building blocks of true democracy. Kloppenberg believes Obama's cerebral caution and his nuanced understanding of both sides of a debate are not personality traits or signs of weakness; they are a philosophical choice.
Read the blog post here. But of all the blog posts and plugs for the book at NPR, the BBC and the like, the most substantive of them, must be this post out of the quarterly, "Democracy" ("a journal of ideas"), which we'll quote at length here:
One of Kloppenberg’s most important claims is that Obama embodies the spirit of pragmatism–not the colloquial pragmatism that is more or less the same thing as practicality, but the philosophical pragmatism that emerged largely from William James and John Dewey and continued to flourish through the work of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others. Kloppenberg provides an excellent summary of the pragmatic tradition–a tradition rooted in the belief that there are no eternal truths, that all ideas and convictions must meet the test of usefulness. (Or, as James put it, ideas have to “work.”) Josiah Royce, James’s Harvard colleague and friend, argued that behind all moral claims there must be some “absolute truth” or “absolute knowledge.” Without such absolutes, he (and many others) believed, individuals would have nothing on which to build a moral life. But the pragmatists insisted that every idea has to confront the test of relevance to its time and circumstances. There could be no easy recourse to an absolute truth, either from religion or ancient texts or even from contemporary philosophy. People and nations must live with the knowledge that even their deepest beliefs can be challenged and, if necessary, rejected.

What is the evidence that Obama shares that view? His years at Harvard Law School drew him into the pragmatic ideas that dominated much of the faculty, and so there is little doubt that he knew a great deal about the tradition of pragmatism. But despite Kloppenberg’s claim, it is not entirely clear that he wholly embraced it. In The Audacity of Hope, a book that was designed for his presidential campaign but that also contains much of what we know about his opinions and convictions, Obama makes clear that he has an interest in pragmatism, but he is not wholly committed to it. “It has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty,” he writes. “The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison . . . Denmark Vesey . . . Frederick Douglass . . . Harriet Tubman . . . who recognized that power would concede nothing without a fight.”

The best argument for Obama as a pragmatist is his well-known preference for “deliberative democracy,” which he describes as a politics “in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.” Kloppenberg sees Obama as a person who is prone to “building support slowly, gradually, through compromise and painstaking consensus building . . . . It is a gamble he may lose. But it is not a sign of weakness.” Perhaps not. But the last two years suggest that the kind of slow, deliberate consensus-building that Obama seems to prefer is not consistent with the character and needs of national politics and is certainly not consistent with the political world he has inherited–as exhibited by the obdurate and virtually unanimous opposition of the Republican caucus to almost everything he proposes. It may be that no president could be more effective than Obama has been in this political climate. The climate of crisis that he inherited would make it difficult for any leader. But that is all the more reason for him to rebut energetically the powerful opposition that is attempting to derail him. His quasi-pragmatic coolness has not so far been helpful to him or to the nation.
If you're serious about "actually reading Obama," then it'd behoove you to check the full article out, here. See also: Pragmatism, Pragmatism: A Reader, Pragmatism and Other Writings (Penguin Classics), Pragmatism, A Companion to Pragmatism (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy)

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