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.
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."
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* 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.