Tuesday, 23 September 2008

What's in back of Barry Obama?

I was curious to read Alexandra Starr's New York Times piece about Barack Obama's time at Chicago University, especially after reading Russell Brown's review which introduced it thus:

    With the brief, alarming season of Republican Idol on hiatus owing to a financial meltdown, the US press has been producing some serious -- and sometimes seriously good -- work. The Obama campaign presumably won't be upset with the story that appeared in yesterday's New York Times magazine under the byline of Alexandra Starr.
   Starr examines a side of Barack Obama that is surely rich with clues to his way of thinking and character, but which has been studiously underplayed by his campaign ... his decade-long career as a law professor at the University of Chicago.
   Through conversations with former colleagues and students, she depicts the professor as open-minded, inscrutable and thrilled by the contest of ideas. In a White House era characterised by tunnel vision, nonsensical proclamation and intolerance of debate (let alone dissent), Obama's traits might not seem optimum for the task of actually winning an election, but I'm quite tickled by the idea of the hold of the most powerful job in the world being able to countenance ambiguity.

"Ambiguity."  How very "post-modern." 

This is one of two pieces praised by Brown as "seriously good work," so I was keen to examine its insights.  What would Starr's piece reveal, I wondered, about Obama the Lecturer.  What might I find out about the nature of this ability to "countenance ambiguity."  Turns out Starr's examination of Obama's time as a Chicago law professor was more interesting for what it didn't say, and what it underplayed, then for what it could say. 

First of all, it seems he took just three classes -- Racism & Public Law, Constitutional Law and Voting Rights -- and this just was a part-time lectureship of about two sessions a week while he kept up his day job in the state senate.  So calling him a "former law professor" rather overstates his case.  Second, just look at the nature of the praise his students give him:

  • "Escuder was impressed by his teacher’s ability to see both sides of an argument."
  • “You never would have known he was going to be a liberal senator based on what he said in his courses."
  • “Based on what I saw in the classroom, my guess is an Obama administration could be summarized in two words. Ruthless pragmatism.”
  • “He wanted us to be aware of our biases so we could better avoid the pitfalls they can bring.”
  • “I don’t think he’s wedded to any particular ideology.  If he has an impatience about anything, it’s the idea that some proposals aren’t worthy of consideration.”
  • “I’ve read that he’s good at poker, and that doesn’t surprise me. He is good at not wearing his opinions on his sleeve.”

Can you see it too?  Can you see the common thread?  They all praise his intelligence, and there's clearly no question about that.   But all of the students quoted praise him for something else:  for rarely if ever showing his own opinions.    To them, this is the fundamental attribute about which they wish to give their former lecturer praise, and on which point of praise both Brown and Starr concur.

Now, it's certainly a good thing if a lecturer doesn't use his class as a soapbox for his own opinions, and the likes of Jane Kelsey, Susan St John and most of NZ's Association of University Staff should take note, but there is however more than one reason for not showing one's own opinions in class.  One reason is to be scrupulously non-partisan as a teacher.  The other is because one has no opinions*. 

So is Campaigning Obama any different to Lecturing Obama?  Well, not really.  Aside from "change" and "more regulation of Wall Street" --- something now that both presidential candidates agree on --  we're really no closer to being sure of what he really stands for.  Notes blogger Myrhaf:

He has shown an astonishing ability to flip-flop on his positions. On issue after issue, he has changed his mind, as if his principles and positions are of secondary importance to what the voters want to hear.

The surge won't work, he says one month, and he's against it.  And now he says it has worked, and he's for it.  Drilling won't work, he says one month, and he's against it.  And now he says it might work, and he's sort of for it.  This might impress us not just with his ability to see both sides of an argument and to "countenance ambiguity," but also to hold both sides at any one time and to countenance almost anything.

So what's the explanation?  Myrhaf has one, that he's a "blank screen president":

He has described himself variously as a "rorschach test" and a "blank screen" on which people project what they want to see...  Barack Obama's habitual way of thinking does not focus first on the facts, but on other people's emotional reaction to what he is saying... Always with Obama his primary focus is on what other people think. The reactions of other people guide him as he speaks -- and facts are malleable things that can be made to fit the needs of the moment... 

Based on what we've heard of Obama in the classroom and on the campaign trail, we'd have to agree that an Obama administration really could be summarized in two words. Ruthless pragmatism. 

obama_messiah So why are people looking for Obama's principles, then?  Obama is the perfect product of modern, progressive education. He has none. As Ayn Rand observed, "[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards."  So why look for either principles or standards or positions that last longer than the range of the moment?  What takes the place of principles for Obama is the rapt adoration of crowds. "Look at the way he soaks up adoration when he speaks before large crowds," notes Mryhaf. For someone like Obama, in which fundamental importance lies "not primarily in the facts of reality but in what other people think, the adoration of the masses must be something like a peak experience. It doesn't get better than that."  What moves Campaigning Obama is not facts or ideas, but the emotional vibrations of his audiences. 

So what about all the conspiracy theories then?  Says Myrhaf:

Obama is greatly feared on the right as a crypto-socialist who is acting moderate to gain power. This is possible, but I don't think it is the fundamental explanation of his character. His radicalism in the past has been the result of being surrounded by radicals. In liberal Chicago, he did what was needed to rise in the Chicago political machine. He reflects back to people what they want to see. If anything, Obama's far-left positions show how far the Democrats in general have moved to the left.

So if this anlysis is true, then what's the greatest irony about Obama, the empty sponge and apostle of "change you can believe in"?  I'll leave the last word to Myrhaf: "Here is the greatest irony about Obama. If he were elected, his administration would change nothing...  Obama would be a servant, enacting policies others tell him to do."

* * * * * *

* The only "position" Obama ever actually revealed to students according to Starr, impossible to avoid given the nature of his classes, was on racism: "In his mind," said one student, "the real problem wasn’t racist attitudes some people may hold, but the fact that some minorities were starting at such a huge disadvantage. Issues like poor public education and the lack of access to credit seemed more glaring to him.” I can't help but note that it was legislative moves to address this "minority disadvantage" in the mortgage markets that kicked off the sub-prime crisis in the first place!  See Stephen Hick's flow chart for the simple illustration of how affirmative action led inexorably to capital destruction.


  1. How come Obama is a 'flip flopper' and McCain is a 'maverick'?

    A former publisher of National Review has just endorsed Obama:

    Barack Obama is not my ideal candidate for president. (In fact, I made the maximum donation to John McCain during the primaries, when there was still hope he might come to his senses.) But I now see that Obama is almost the ideal candidate for this moment in American history. I disagree with him on many issues. But those don't matter as much as what Obama offers, which is a deeply conservative view of the world. Nobody can read Obama's books (which, it is worth noting, he wrote himself) or listen to him speak without realizing that this is a thoughtful, pragmatic, and prudent man. It gives me comfort just to think that after eight years of George W. Bush we will have a president who has actually read the Federalist Papers.

    Expecting our elected officials to not be pragmatic -- ie to be more correct and steadfast than the electorate itself, is one of the silliest positions you hold.

  2. Ruth,

    For some thing to be practical, it needs to work. That is, it needs to be able to achieve an end with reference to a standard.

    The mowing of my lawns is only a practical achievment if I like the look of freshly mown lawns. If I prefer the unkept look, then any propsal that would mow my lawns faster is of no practical value to me.

    Peter's point, for mine, is that Obama has no standards to judge policies by. Which makes any talk of pragimitism illusory.

  3. Context.

    The term "pragmatic" refers to the quality of making range of the moment decisions in the absence of firm principle or morality. It refers to the act of making decisions based on what one believes is easiest or most pleasurable at a particular instant, without consideration of long term costs and consequences. It is a thoughtless and careless thing to do.

    In that context, a homeless alcoholic's choice to trade his car for a few bottles of spirits is pragmatic. It is also going to reward him with some unpleasnt consequences and costs when he awakens after his bender.

    Expecting ANYONE to make decisions to a higher standard than that is not silly. What is silly is that politicians expect people to descend to their level of range of the moment behaviour and accept it as normal. The pity is that many do. You'd do very well to consider yourself in that regard Ruth.


  4. Obama, the ultimate flip-flopper then?

    I like him, and think he sounds eminently reasonable, but that is possibly because I agree with some of his espoused policies.

    Peter writes, "...there is however more than one reason for not showing one's own opinions in class. One reason is to be scrupulously non-partisan as a teacher. The other is because one has no opinions."
    You make some pretty bold claims here about a man based on pretty slim evidence. I went to Myrhaf (as much of the attack on Obama seems to have been restated from there) hoping to shed some light on some insight that apparently I was missing, but I didn't see it there. The story seems to be based on premises that I don't think are established enough.

    (1) That Obama has changed his mind about several policies he has made a public statement on; (2) that his opinions before and after were shaped entirely by those around him (be it the public or his advisors); (3) that he would continue this practice were he elected (moreover, that he has no choice as it is intrinsic in his nature that he 'reflect opinions.'

    OK, were these premises to be accepted then Obama would be an unacceptable candidate for president (and Myrhaf's later attack on the democratic institution's and mainstream media's ability to vet candidates would be valid).

    Your stated examples of where he's flopped are 'the surge' and 'off-shore drilling.' He opposed the surge before it was implemented and admitted that it worked after the fact. Your accusation here is not an example of flip-flopping, or even changing his mind, it's simply not being able to precisely prophecy the future. Off-shore drilling, well, maybe he's starting to change his mind on that, it's unclear at the moment, but that's hardly damning evidence.

    That his opinion is shaped by those around him seems to be based entirely on: him not wearing his heart on his sleeve for his students, and that he is good at giving moving speeches.

    OK, I think that's enough. I'm not as good at deconstructing arguments as I'd like, but I felt empassioned enough to give it a go.

    I guess my point is that while Obama might not hold that many strong opinions publicly it's speculation at best to claim he's a hollow, shell-like beast, animated only by the thoughts and feelings of those around him.

  5. "If he were elected, his administration would change nothing... Obama would be a servant, enacting policies others tell him to do."

    Hmmm, I've heard that said before about someone else ... someone who likened himself to Baracks for Osama.

    John Key,
    Changing principles you can believe in for now.

  6. Andrew

    You mean the guy who forgot his shares? The one who said he had none but had some after all. That guy? He's not really a flip flopper. Really he's not. Just forgets what he said before when he says something new. That's not so bad is it?


  7. 'Baracks for Osama.' Seriously?

    Changing a presidential candidate's name to that of the most famous terrorist is witty?

    Surely the worst you can say about him is that you disagree with him on the possible efficacy of his policies, or that you think he's just a pure populist saying what people want to hear. A far cry from terrorist.

  8. Henry

    Perhaps you need do a little serious digging and find our a few details about your hero's past before commenting. A little fact goes a long way. Feelings (such as, "I like him") just do not cut it here.

    As for terrorism, perhaps the context is to have one consider the destruction that socialist policy (such as thise held by Obama) can cause.


  9. I said I like him to acknowledge my personal bias, but the reason I think he would be a good president is not simply because I like him.

    Like I said, you don't think his policies are good, but calling him a terrorist is attacking his character.

    His socialist policies? Let's argue policy then. Taxes: he'll cut taxes on most everyone except those who makes over 250k a year, who will get a small raise increase. Healthcare, etc: I'll assume that you're going to disagree with virtually any government policy that could be implemented on principle, but that's a long way from establishing that said policy is evil.

    Read about his past? His past is an open book. Ayers and Rezko are some of the least significant scandals in the modern political discourse. So, what in particular about his past should I be looking into?

  10. "Healthcare, etc: I'll assume that you're going to disagree with virtually any government policy that could be implemented on principle, but that's a long way from establishing that said policy is evil."

    In which country do you live, HT?

  11. I live in NZ, but am a US citizen.

    The argument I was making was that although one may not like Obama's policy of universal healthcare, that doesn't make Obama a terrorist for threatening to enact it. And implying such is disingeuous.

    This discussion is getting longer than I thought it would.

  12. So by living here you will know the crock that is "free" healthcare aka socialised medicine. Not only is it unwieldy and unworkable in practise, it's naturally politicised. And that's all aside from the crime of forcing everybody to pay for it whether they receive any service or not.

    As a NZer who lived in the US for several years, I'm aware of the realities of that inflated healthcare monster .. brought about by the crony capitalism vis a vis the drug companies & the FDA, (spkg of monsters).

    But the danger is in exchanging one disaster for another.

    Obama need only look to Britain's crumbling NHS, itself indefensible, for easy proof. But while most of his less affluent voters are probably unfamiliar with the NHS, he can play that trump with some confidence.

    A real confidence trick, you might say. Is that evil?

  13. Obama I suspect is a lot like Bush, he has the similiar opinions and occasionily lets them slip.

    He said the USA should invaded Pakistan.

    He want the US to reploy from Iraq to Afganstian.

    Both Bushes believed in getting a frendily counrty to stage your troops in peace before attacking where you emeny is weakest.

    I agree on Bush on most things but I do think Iraq was a mistake when WMD were not found, but since he is in then it's a war they have to win or fight elsewhere for a long tine.

    Not a cold war with Russia vs USA but a hot war between the West and the East.

    In history these wars all ended badly for everyone involved and no one wins.


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