Podcast • November 4, 2010

Reading Obama’s Mind: Pragmatism and Its Perils

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Kloppenberg (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3) If there is a problem with Barack Obama’s thinking, his “intellectual biographer” James Kloppenberg is saying on the morning after Obama’s ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Kloppenberg (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

If there is a problem with Barack Obama’s thinking, his “intellectual biographer” James Kloppenberg is saying on the morning after Obama’s mid-term “humbling,” it’s not what he thinks, deep in the Democratic mainstream. Neither is Obama over-thinking his confoundingly broad assignment. Rather it may be the way he thinks, never so meticulously delineated as in Prof. Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition.

The teachers that critically shaped Barack Obama’s habits of mind — especially in the cauldron of social theory 20 years ago when Obama was editing the Harvard Law Review — come typically out of philosophical Pragmatism, the tradition of the American master mind, Williams James (1842 – 1910). Of James it’s been said that his first impulse on spotting an unlabeled fluid in a chem-lab beaker was to taste it — and see what happened! Pragmatism at this level is not deal-making opportunism. It is James’ spirit of experimentalism and his insistence on judging ideas, good and bad, by their results — by fruits, not roots. It is the spirit that William James’ friend in the Metaphysical Club, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. brought to the immortal line: “The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience.”

The leading figures in James Kloppenberg’s catalog of Obama’s mentors all share in that heritage of Pragmatism: notably his devoted law professor Laurence Tribe who preaches the Constitution not as fixed revelation but as an organic document — “a conversation,” as Barack Obama used to say in law school. The real source of that view, Kloppenberg observes, was James Madison who came out of the Constitutional Convention saying, in effect: nobody got the Constitution he wanted; what happened was that we all learned to think differently as a result of the process of having to confront each others’ ideas. “I think,” Kloppenberg says, “that is how Barack Obama sees the democratic process.” John Rawls was another huge influence in the near background of Obama’s Harvard education — as Rawls’ masterpiece, A Theory of Justice, evolved into an understanding that a pluralist democracy is built not on unchanging principles but on “an overlapping consensus” around conflicting doctrines. In a different dimension but not far removed, Obama’s Chicago pastor, now eclipsed, Rev. Jeremiah Wright showed Obama a non-dogmatic Christianity: a transcendent God and a zeal for this-worldly activism, but not a direct answer to every political question.

Dominant threads in the skein of Obama’s thinking, in the Kloppenberg reading, are experimentalism, the rejection of dogma and ideology, Christian humility ahead of Christian militancy, skepticism and the embrace of philosophical uncertainty. It seems fair to ask if Jim Kloppenberg is describing the ideal attributes of a judicial mind but not of a political captain in howling storm. Has Barack Obama become Robert Frost’s caricature liberal, “too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel”? Jim Kloppenberg would turn it into questions about us citizens: can American politics deal with more than a short litany of selected slogans out of our past? Are we capable of embracing a modern man with a modern mind?

Humility is not a virtue we associate that much with the Christians who call themselves Christian most loudly in 21st century America. So I think we have difficulty understanding him because he doesn’t have the same confidence that he’s got the answer that many Americans expect their politicians to voice, perhaps even to believe. And it seems to me a mark of his maturity — his self-consciousness, his sophistication as a thinker — to know that these are issues about which reasonable people may disagree. Now, that may not serve him very well in the era of Fox News, when what the people who attract attention like to do is simply shout louder than the other person and declaim, with ever more self-rightousness, that they are the only ones who have the answers…

When people treat Obama’s discourses on the importance of equality as somehow un-American or socialist, they’re betraying what I see as a really frightening ignorance of what was striking to contemporaries in the late 18th century about American politics. When European observers came to the United States, what struck them more than anything else was that outside the slave South, there was very little difference between the most prosperous and the least prosperous Americans. Compared to European nations, this was the nation of economic equality. When Thomas Jefferson goes back to Virginia after writing the Declaration of Independence, the first thing he does is to file legislation in the Virginia House of Burgesses ending primogeniture and entail, which were the tools by which European aristocrats kept intact their fortunes, so that they passed down to the first born son. Jefferson, Adams and Madison understood that, unless there were rough economic equality in the United States, a democratic form of government would not survive…

Harvard History Chairman James Kloppenberg with Chris Lydon, November 3, 2010

Podcast • September 27, 2010

Robert Reich: Soak the rich for their own good

Robert Reich is the point man in economics of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Howard Dean used to say. That is, he’s been the burr under the saddle of the Wall Street ...

Robert Reich is the point man in economics of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Howard Dean used to say. That is, he’s been the burr under the saddle of the Wall Street wing that chased Reich, as Secretary of Labor, out of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet after the first term. Robert Rubin, imported from Goldman Sachs to reshape Clinton’s thinking and de-regulate finance, used to threaten to quit if Secretary Reich kept railing about “corporate welfare.” But it was Reich who left, and Rubin who stayed in the saddle, burr or no — who became Treasury Secretary and sponsored Larry Summers as his successor; the same Rubin who made Summers president of Harvard and then, after the meltdown, put his own and Wall Street’s stamp on the Obama era, too.

Reich’s new tract Aftershock, neatly coincidental with Larry Summer’s retirement from the White House, is a polite populist’s effort to seize a teachable moment in this season of anger. The disease in the economy and the public mood, he’s arguing, is not debt; it’s not even that we’re living beyond our means. It’s the 30-year trend to an obscene concentration of wealth — one percent of the population reaping more than 20 percent of the income — that has so diminished the means, so drained the purchasing power of the average American. Few politicians and policy wonks are as clear as Reich about the remedy to rebalance and build the whole economy: boost all incomes under $50,000 with direct supplements; and restore real taxes on the biggest earners with a marginal rate of, say, 55 percent. Today’s pattern of concentration, speculation, bust and stagnation recapitulates the crisis of the Great Depression, he’s saying. And it calls again for a Great Teacher:

What Obama needs to do is connect the dots. Americans don’t see the big picture. They don’t see the narrative. They don’t hear the story. They don’t understand that we’ve had three decades of flat wages, that almost a quarter of all income is now going to the top one percent. They don’t understand the connections between all of these issues and problems. They don’t see that there is a large tapestry here. A leader needs to weave that tapestry, show how one thing is related to another. We’ve not had a president who did that since Ronald Reagan. The tapestry he wove was the wrong tapestry; it bore no relation to reality. But at least he explained. He showed how “a” relates to “b” relates to “c”. He did connect the dots…

Robert Reich with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, September 24, 2010

Podcast • May 4, 2010

David Remnick: The "Race" Route over Obama’s "Bridge"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Remnick. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3) David Remnick is hanging out and indulging me here, late on a book-tour evening, in a little polite rattling of the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Remnick. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

David Remnick is hanging out and indulging me here, late on a book-tour evening, in a little polite rattling of the racial premise of his Obama story, The Bridge.

Race is Remnick’s theme — through young Obama’s assembling of an identity; in the local black politics of Chicago that first roughed him up; in the discontents around the Obama presidency in mid-2010. To me, contrarily, the tell-tale theme of the Obama story is Empire and the sorrows thereof, going back to family tales of colonial Kenya and Obama’s renunciation of “dumb wars” like Iraq.

I’ve been second-guessing Remnick’s emphasis since his remarkable New Yorker piece on “The Joshua Generation” in the issue of November 14, 2008. I wrote him at the time that I thought he’d misheard Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s famous “God damn America” speech. Wright’s “jeremiads,” Remnick wrote, “were meant to rouse, to accuse, to shake off dejection.” They were “part of a tradition well known to millions of church-going African Americans…” But I presumed to point out they weren’t standard rants at all. That “God damn America” line, I noted, “was first spoken in 1903 by the greatest of all American public intellectuals, William James, about the invasion, mutilation and occupation of the Philippines.

“It applies precisely today,” I emailed Remnick. “Reverend Wright’s outburst reflected not especially the sound of the black church but rather the popular intuition, now happily ratified by a national election, that the war in Iraq and nearly eight years of the Bush Doctrine are a damnable violation of our constitutional values and our place in the global, nay universal, scheme of things. The vote on November 4 was as much about Empire as it was about Race, or McCain or Bush, or the Meltdown.”

Remnick tracks the anxiety in the country today, the Age of Obama blues, to the “radical change” of complexion in the White House. I track it rather to the disorientations of extended empire — for example: the Golden State of California, at the brink of bankruptcy, issuing scrip, while Obama surges in Afghanistan, using drones against pre-modern tribesmen and American soldiers each costing $1-million a year. That’s a taste of the tension in our fast gab about a ripping good read in biographical journalism.

CL: Suddenly it dawns on me that we’re looking at David Remnick, who is one of the great writers on post-Soviet Russia. There’s a connection with a picture I can’t get out of my mind. An Italian legal scholar visiting Brown, stood up in the middle of a conference and said: “Don’t you realize, Obama is your Gorbachev… Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said in so many words, “the other pillar of the Cold War is shaking. You’ve come up with a good man in a desperate situation — in debt, in disrepute around the world; China is growing and will come out of the recession in a better way than the US will. There are all sorts of strains on the empire, and the real question for Obama, maybe the only question, is: can he hold this thing together?”  So: tear and compare, David: Gorby and Barack.

DR: Look, I in many ways am an admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev, and I certainly think he was the most important political figure in the post-war world in the 20th Century. But a lot of what he did was sensibly and humanely manage the utter dissolution of the last empire on earth – and you will disagree with me on the world “last,” I know. A lot of of what Gorbachev did was with a very different intent. Gorbachev’s initial intent and even his intent all the way through was to have an outcome of a more humane, socialist communist party led Soviet Union. He did not intend for the Soviet Union to dissolve, he only dissolved the Communist Party regretfully after the August coup of 1991. Poetically are there parallels? Maybe. But in terms of practical politics? No. 

I think your analysis of China is, with respect, blind to the fact that the Chinese themselves have far, far, far deeper economic disparities and problems than we normally talk about. When we focus on China we tend to look at the booming Shanghai and the booming Beijing, and forget that there are hundreds of millions of incredibly poor people in a country with no democratic norms whatsoever.

To me, I would pose the question differently. To me, the ideological challenge of the 21st Century to some degree is posed by Russia and it is posed by China. Russia and China, each in their bravado, deeply question the Western presumption that free markets — however regulated, however not, depending on your politics — free markets and democratic norms go hand-in-hand. The Chinese and the Russians are saying “Baloney! We are developing faster than we ever have economically, and we do not cede the notion of democratic norms.”

That to me is the über picture that I see, more than I see a great parallel between Obama and Gorbachev.

David Remnick in conversation about The Bridge with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 29, 2010.

Podcast • March 18, 2009

Obama & Hip Hop: The Transracial Drumbeat

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age ...

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age of Obama. Add this to the open-source mix of Obama ingredients, along with the “black prophetic tradition” of church and civil-rights history:

Part of it is that sense of swagger… the confidence with which Barack Obama carries himself and the fluency he brings, across racial lines… You listen to Barack Obama’s speeches from 2004, and you hear consistently the drumbeat of the common good, a broader understanding of race.

So that dogged trans-racialism — I am not going to say that he is post-racial, because he is very much someone who takes us deeper into race, rather than away from it — defies some of the binary ideas of Black and White that a lot of black political figures over the last several generations have used to consolidate power. That is his “threat,” and maybe also a place we can see him picking up on hip-hop, a movement that has on it a clear association with black identity, but from its birth, was multi-racial, was about community across racial lines: Latinos, White hipsters of lower Manhattan coming together with hip-hoppers to create this new form.

There is a new American reality out there. We’re only starting to catch up with hip-hop in that regard. We are just catching up to where hip-hop has already been. Barack Obama manifests that.

Jay-Z has a line on that song, “My President is Black,” in which he says, “My president is black/ in fact he’s half white/ So even in a racist’s mind he’s half right/ So even if you got a racist mind its alright/ My president is black but his house is all white.” There is so much joy in that, and so much behind the correction that Jay-Z is giving to Young Jeezy’s line of “my president is black.” Adding that half-white element is so fundamental to understanding how Obama works.

A lot of people, Shelby Steele in particular, have thought about Obama as a kind of bargainer — a Bill Cosby, or better yet, a Heathcliff Huxtable for American politics in the twenty-first century: someone who is identifiably black and yet curries favor with whites, or at least makes them comfortable and unburdens them of some of their sense of guilt… I think that this misses some of what Obama does and what Obama can do in part because of his biraciality. There is a way that he has the capacity to bridge the divide, not in an artificial way of placation, but as a genuine embodiment of himself. Because he has already had to do that in his own life, his own personality.

Ralph Ellison has that phrase, “the completion of personality.” What we have seen, and we are able to witness it in [Obama’s] memoir, Dreams From My Father, in particular, is a child of mixed racial origins and a lot of mixed connections with the Black and African sides of his origin, nonetheless finding his way, stumbling his way, toward a sense of wholeness. And maybe, just maybe, he can help this country do the same thing.

Adam Bradley in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 11, 2009

Adam Bradley makes a polished case for the rough diamonds of rap and hip hop. It’s “new-school music but old-school poetry,” he says, solidly founded not only on African oral tradition, black “signifying” and word-play artists like Muhammad Ali (“the first heavyweight champion of rap”) but also on the ancient sounds of strong-stress English poetry back to Beowulf.

Bradley was raised both classical and hip: home-schooled in Salt Lake City by a grandmother who fed him Shelley and the Romantic poets; and night-schooled by a big brother who led him through town. In his Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, you can feel Bradley’s valiant drive to justify the sound of rap to two exacting influences: the queen mother of “close reading” who taught him at Harvard, Helen Vendler; and the fussiest of all authorities on jazz, Ralph Ellison, whose posthumous novel Three Days Before the Shooting Adam Bradley had a large hand in re-editing. Bradley wants to show the rest of us how to hear hip hop as, love it or not, the poetry that speaks for and about the real universal civilization of the 21st Century…

My big question is still: what’s the chance that hip hop will return to us someday as art of genius, with the majesty of Count Basie in Sweden in 1962? Or this recent rearrangement by a string quartet in Paris of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from 1959?