Belmont Club

The philosopher kings

Michael Gerson at the Washington Post looks at the probability of disastrous Obama administration and the possibility of philosophical miracle. He’s smart enough to understand that the doom is more likely but consoles himself with the philosophy.

Less than two weeks away from his likely election as president, the debate continues about the nature of Barack Obama’s deepest political beliefs. Is he — as some liberals quietly hope and many conservatives loudly accuse — a closet radical? Or is he a more subtle and moderate political figure who embraced, then discarded, the leftism of south Chicago in pursuit of a restless ambition? There is evidence for both views.

The evidence for the former are his obvious and blatant associations with radical figures and policies. “For those in the first camp, Obama is the associate of Ayers, the acolyte of Alinsky, the friend of Pfleger, the disciple of Wright. The ACORN, in this argument, doesn’t fall far from the tree. It is undeniable that Obama’s record in the Illinois Legislature was conventionally liberal on crime and spending, and radical on abortion. During his brief U.S. Senate career, he has carefully avoided offending liberal constituencies.”

The auguries in favor of the latter are more subtle, and therefore are more likely to appeal to the intellectual. Gerson makes the case for Obama the centrist. “When the time came to embrace gun ownership, terrorist wiretaps and the death penalty, Obama adapted with little apparent struggle. When the moment arrived to throw his Chicago associates under the campaign bus, the vehicle did not slow much for sentiment. This might seem like cynicism, but Obama does not appear to view himself as a lapsed radical. He sees himself as the reconciler of opposites, the seer of merit on both sides, the transcender of stale debates.”

Whether you think Obama is a cynical radical or a transformative moderate critically depends on whether you take his record at face value or believe one can get inside Obama’s mind. If you believe Obama “sees himself as the reconciler of opposites, the seer of merit on both sides, the transcender of stale debates” then of course he’s a moderate.  But how would we know short of reading his mind? Be that as it may in the 21st century, the consolations of philosophy soothingly suggest that Obama will rein in Congress. Why? Gerson believes he Obama may be a “Niebuhrian man”. He notes that “one of Obama’s favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr … known as the theologian of conflicted humility — for his belief that human nature is flawed and fallible even, or especially, in the pursuit of good causes.” You can see where this is going.

In this view Obama, despite his radical record, will be compelled by his intellectual curiosity and his inner but conflicted goodness to rein in “the least responsible, least respected, least popular political institution in America — the Democratic-led Congress.” Gerson observes, “a closet radical would not even resist. A conflicted Niebuhrian, with ambitions of reconciliation, might make the attempt. But maybe only a passionate, committed, courageous moderate could succeed. Isn’t that ironic.” Other words besides ironic can be used to describe this line of thought. What is ironic is how many moderns, having rejected God as a false consolation and unsophisticated twaddle, seem to believe it is perfectly respectable to pin their hopes on such things as Niebuhrian philosophy to wish away off a foreseeable disaster.

We truly live in the Age of Aquarius, the Burning Man and the Mothership. This picture was being sold “at a street fair at Hayes and Octavia in San Francisco” according to Mark SteynOra pro nobis.  What odds would you give Niebuhr?