As Andrew and Tim have already noted, our recently concluded conference featured two sharply different views of Barack Obama. Thursday’s plenary panel featured, among others, Adolph Reed, Jr., whose book The Perils of Obamamania (Verso,
2009 forthcoming [h/t Andrew Hartman in comments!]) elaborates a critique of our current president that he first formulated when Barack Obama was just a candidate for the Illinois State Senate. James Kloppenberg’s Friday keynote address focused on his latest book, Reading Obama (Princeton, 2011), which offers a rich and sympathetic portrait of the President. (You can find a recording of the plenary panel with Reed–which focused on his recent co-edited volume, Renewing Black Intellectual History (Paradigm, 2010)–here. Kloppenberg’s keynote is available here.)
Like many others, I was impressed by the portrait of Obama that Kloppenberg drew. Impressed, that is, both by the care with which Kloppenberg analyzed the President’s habits of mind and by the picture of Obama that emerged from the analysis. Obama, according to Kloppenberg, is a true philosophical pragmatist, a man with a deep and subtle understanding of the American past, who tries to make his political practice match a set of admirable intellectual commitments. Like Kloppenberg, I find myself substantially to the left of this President…but I would be substantially to the left of anyone likely to be elected president. But like Kloppenberg, too, I am deeply attracted to Obama, or at least to the man described in Kloppenberg’s talk (and book, which I look forward to reading). Short of someone who truly shares my politics (which is pretty much an impossibility), a brilliant, philosophical pragmatist with a rich sense of U.S. history sounds like an almost ideal president.
And yet. As the question and answer session suggested–I’m sure to nobody’s surprise–this room full of people to whom this portrait of Obama as philosophical pragmatist doubtless appealed expressed deep frustration with the Obama administration so far. On war and peace, on transparency, on executive power, on Fourth Amendment rights, on education (among other areas), this president has disappointed. And though I think we’d all agree that Obama has come to office in politically extremely challenging times, many of the perceived failures have involved matters that the President hasn’t had to run through Congress.
I left Kloppenberg’s keynote feeling if anything a little more depressed about our politics. Not because I wasn’t convinced by Kloppenberg, but rather because I largely was. If this administration is what one gets from a philosophical pragmatist as president, that suggested to me that I might have to reevaluate some of my commitments to philosophical pragmatism, at least in the political realm.
Needless to say, I wouldn’t be the first person to make such a journey. I immediately thought of Randolph Bourne’s scathing attack on John Dewey’s support for U.S. involvement in World War I, “Twilight of the Idols” (1917). As readers of this blog probably know, rather than seeing that support simply as a betrayal of Dewey’s pragmatism, Bourne suggested that pragmatists’ support for the war effort reflected deep problems with that philosophy in practice:
To those of us who have taken Dewey’s philosophy almost as our American religion, it never occurred that values could be subordinated to technique. We were instrumentalists, but we had our private utopias so clearly before our minds that the means fell always into its place as contributory. And Dewey, of course, always meant his philosophy, when taken as a philosophy of life, to start with values. But there was always that unhappy ambiguity in his doctrine as to just how values were created, and it became easier and easier to assume that just any growth was justified and almost any activity valuable so long as it achieved ends. The American, in living out this philosophy, has habitually confused results with product, and been content with getting somewhere without asking too closely whether it was the desirable place to get. It is now bumming plain that unless you start with the vividest kind of poetic vision, your instrumentalism is likely to land you just where it has landed this younger intelligentsia which is so happily and busily engaged in the national enterprise of war. You must have your vision and you must have your technique. The practical effect of Dewey’s philosophy has evidently been to develop the sense of the latter at the expense of the former. . . . The trouble with our situation is not only that values have been generally ignored in favor of technique, but that those who have struggled to keep values foremost, have been too bloodless and too near-sighted in their vision. The defect of any philosophy of “adaptation” or “adjustment,” even when it means adjustment to changing, living experience, is that there is no provision for thought or experience getting beyond itself. If your ideal is to be adjustment to your situation, in radiant cooperation with reality, then your success is likely to be just that and no more. You never transcend anything. You grow, but your spirit never jumps out of your skin to go on wild adventures. If your policy as a publicist reformer is to take what you can get, you are likely to find that you get something less than you should be willing to take. Italy in the settlement is said to be demanding one hundred in order to get twenty, and this machiavellian principle might well be adopted by the radical. Vision must constantly outshoot technique, opportunist efforts usually achieve less even than what seemed obviously possible. An impossibilist elan that appeals to desire will often carry further. A philosophy of adjustment will not even make for adjustment. If you try merely to “meet” situations as they come, you will not even meet them. Instead you will only pile up behind you deficits and arrears that will some day bankrupt you.
The wartime context has tended to dominate many readings of “Twilight of the Idols” over the decades, in large measure because we continue to get involved in wars which many self-described liberals and progressives support, much to the dismay of other liberals and progressives. Alongside his unfinished essay on “The State” (1918), Bourne’s “Twilight of the Idols” is a classic portrait of how war distorts democratic life. And to be fair to Bourne, he never quite abandons pragmatism as such in “Twilight.” The essay is haunted by the ghost of William James, who Bourne hopes would have drawn different conclusions from Dewey.
But much in “Twilight” might help fill in the interpretive gap between Kloppenberg’s Obama and the frequently disappointing performance of this White House. I’ll close this already too-long post with a final quote from the essay that, I think, helps us do that:
We are in the war because an American Government practiced a philosophy of adjustment, and an instrumentalism for minor ends, instead of creating new values and setting at once a large standard to which the nations might repair. An intellectual attitude of mere adjustment, of mere use of the creative intelligence to make your progress, must end in caution, regression, and a virtual failure to effect even that change which you so clear-sightedly and desirously see. This is the root of our dissatisfaction with much of the current political and social realism that is preached to us.