John Dewey? Or Franz Fanon?

Well, one of those.

Two pieces of political propaganda are hitting the shelves almost simultaneously, James T. Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, and Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage. One can get the gist of each of them here and here. I have not read either book, so anything I say must be taken with a grain of salt. First, the good news: the First Amendment lives. You can say almost anything about the president of the United States and suffer no consequences at the hands of the government. We should be rightly proud of that. Not only that, but apparently we live in a society where the pressures to conform to a unified community view are sufficiently light that two views so divergent can be articulated, find adherents, and flourish.

And yet, and yet. First of all, these two books suggest the limitations on one approach to understanding others. In philosophy of language, there is this discussion about the conditions of the possibility of interpretation; two views have emerged. According to one, which Dan Dennett calls “the Normative Principle,” interpretation requires that we assume that others are rational, that most of their beliefs are true (this always startles cynical non-philosophers until one notices that this includes beliefs like “it is raining now” and “can openers open cans” and the like, so that the majority of beliefs are also exceedingly dull). I advert to this idea incessantly; this is what I’m doing when I say “charity requires…” or allude to Donald Davidson, who with W. V. O. Quine, bears most of the responsibility for the idea and its impact. My only originality is to suggest that using it in political discussion is not only an epistemic necessity, but an ethical and political virtue. In any case, we must start here before we can locate the crux of disagreement.

Most political discussion, however, is not conducted under the auspices of the Principle of Charity, but instead using another set of hermeneutical techniques most associated with the “masters of suspicion” Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. It is only slightly ironic that we find this sort of thing as frequently among conservatives now as we do among liberals (the reason being, again, Ayn Rand, who, in assimilating Marx and Nietzsche, served as a conduit of these techniques to the right). The basic idea here is, when someone speaks, assume that they are lying if you can identify some self-interested reason why they would do so. I wish I could say “the dangers of this are obvious” but apparently not yet, not to enough people, so I will just say that they range from well-poisoning and indifference to evidence, all the way to, at their far extreme, madness. The results of a dogged refusal to be lied to are no guarantee that one will get closer to the truth. Consider the following remarks, in an Amazon review of a book about “alien abduction”:

“It’s all well and good for people to be researching this subject. As an ‘abductee’ (that word just doesn’t do it justice), my first thought when I heard Mack had finished his book was ‘It’s about damn time a major figure got into the field’. But then I got really ticked-off when I heard about his past life regression and other new-age consciousness theories. I read the book and was appalled that someone of his collegiate stature would be lured-in by this contactee bull dung. Sure enough, months go by and his contactees start admitting they made the stuff up. OF COURSE THEY DID! Anyone who thinks the…’things’ act with ethical benevolence is either lying or delusional. The truth is bitter and unpleasant.”

No comment is necessary.

But the problem with the two Obama books I want to discuss is elsewhere. I had said there are two principles of interpretation. The other is what Dennett calls “the Projective Principle” which begins the process of interpretation with the assumption that others are like myself. And both books illustrate its limitations, since each of them is utterly in thrall to the assumption that Obama is, in important respects, just like the author. This is perhaps more evident in the case of Kloppenberg, a historian with interests in the relations between philosophical pragmatism and political progressivism in American history, who finds after a careful but sympathetic reading of Obama’s writings that he seems to be a man with an affection for philosophical pragmatism as a basis for political progressivism. I don’t think this is entirely wrong, but there may be a bit of overthinking here.

The role of projection in D’Souza’s book is less obvious but no less important. Less obvious because on D’Souza’s view, Obama hates America because of his Third World Anticolonialism. Now D’Souza loves America. D’Souza, being a Third World (Indian) immigrant, hates Third World Anticolonialism. What could be more opposed? Yes, but D’Souza and D’Souza’s Obama have one thing, the biggest thing, in common: they both view everything through the lens of a conflict between America and Third World Anticolonialism. For D’Souza, Obama’s is the road not taken. Obama is D’Souza’s Jungian Shadow. One small clue here is that D’Souza carefully warps the data about Obama’s residency in the United States (by not counting Hawaii as a part of America) to make the case that he was not sufficiently enculturated by American values before beginning his political career, because Obama only came to the real United States after growing up elsewhere for exactly the same number of years D’Souza grew up elsewhere before emigrating to the United States.

Both of these cases shows that the Projective Principle is epistemically dangerous. There is something faintly absurd about turning a middle class Hawaiian who came up in the era of disco, a lawyer who reinvented himself as a kind of faux Martin Luther King in order to facilitate becoming the next Bill Clinton, into either a toga-draped deep thinker, or an AK47-toting jungle insurgent.

During the 2008 campaign, there was much talk about Obama’s messianic qualities, real or fake. I am reminded of David Bowie’s wonderful turn as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. Pilate asks Jesus to do magic tricks for him, and Jesus refuses. Pilate replies,

“This means you’re just another… politician.”

Yep, pretty much.


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