I must thank Rick for finding that priceless passage from the James Kloppenberg book on Obama’s intellectual history. The patent absurdity of it – of Kloppenberg earnestly overinterpreting one banal sentence from an Obama speech – makes a fine emblem for the general impression I took away from Patricia Cohen’s account of the Kloppenberg address at CUNY. The impression is pretty straightforward: this particular academic environment is a self-licking ice cream cone.
Its definitions and terms of reference appear vacuum-sealed against the crass literalism of common sense. Ms. Cohen’s explication of “pragmatism” in the American philosophical tradition – a strain of which Kloppenberg finds so pronounced in Obama – runs counter to everything Americans have been observing and complaining about for the last 18 months. In developing the philosophy, she says, 19th-century Americans “were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.” She continues:
Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.
Obama, however, has behaved like nothing so much as a true believer, fully equipped with dogged certainty and inimical to continuing debate. His method of forcing ObamaCare through Congress, in the teeth of vociferous opposition and with the complacent assumption that losing control of Congress is not too high a price to pay, is evidence of dogged certainty about something. So are his jarring practices of selectively abasing himself before other heads of state, approaching his voting base through bargain-rack demographic filters, and psychoanalyzing the American people as an implied pretext for dismissing them. Parsing Obama through the indices of officially recognized “-isms” is an angels-on-pinheads project: sensible people recognize his behavior as that of an ideologue.
The conclave at CUNY seems to have had no sense of this. In a year in which millions of Americans feel their lives upended by Obama’s actions and policies – their financial circumstances, their health-care arrangements, and their perspective on the future all in a thoroughly alarming state – Kloppenberg’s audience was disappointed that Obama has been compromising too much. Sadly, in their view, he has slid from his philosophical pragmatism into the “vulgar pragmatism” of expedient centrism. As one man put it: “Several audience members, myself included, probably view Obama the president as a centrist like Clinton rather than a progressive intellectual as painted by Kloppenberg.”
It’s hard to imagine being that divorced from the reality inhabited by most Americans. To the less philosophically and more crudely pragmatic, it might seem that a useful step for the near future would be reviewing who pays for the utopia inhabited by the academics gathered at CUNY.