Between Principle and Practice (Part I): Obama and Cynical Reasoning

I have long been intrigued by the distance between principle and practice, how people respond to the distance, and what the consequences are, of the distance and the response. This was my major concern in The Cynical Society. It is central to “the civil society as if” strategy of the democratic opposition that developed around the old Soviet bloc, which I explored in Beyond Glasnost and After the Fall. And it is also central to how I think about the politics of small things and reinventing political culture, including many of my own public engagements: from my support of Barack Obama, to my understanding of my place of work, The New School for Social Research and my understanding of this experiment in publication, Deliberately Considered. I will explain in a series of posts. Today a bit more about Obama and his Nobel Lecture, and the alternative to cynicism.

I think principle is every bit as real as practice. Therefore, in my last post, I interpreted Obama’s lecture as I did. But I fear my position may not be fully understood. A friend on Facebook objected to the fact that I took the lecture seriously. “The Nobel Address marked the Great Turn Downward, back to Cold War policies a la Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al. A big depressing moment for many of us.”

He sees many of the problems I see in Obama’s foreign policy, I assume, though he wasn’t specific. He is probably quite critical of the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued, critical of the drone policy, disappointed by the fact that Guantanamo prison is still open, and by Obama’s record on transparency and the way he has allowed concern for national security take priority over human and civil rights, at home and abroad. The clear line between Bush’s foreign policy and Obama’s, which both my friend and I sought, has not been forthcoming. And he draws a logical conclusion: “a great turn downward.”

My friend sees a familiar failure: militarism wrapped in an elegant intellectual package (the reference to Schlesinger). In the distance between perceived principled promise and practice, “the best and the brightest” seem to be at it again: sophisticated rationalization for militarism reminiscent of the Cold War and its ideology, He sees the distance between the ideal and the practice as proof that the professed ideal was a sham. Perhaps he even makes the cynical move that the fancy words are but a mask for narrow self-interest (election and re-election) serving the interest of the powerful (the neo-liberal corporate elite). Is Obama’s advancement just about serving the interests of the hegemonic corporate order? Is their advancement linked directly to his serving their interests. Are the two primary cynical observations I studied in The Cynical Society all there is? It’s not what you know but who you know, and they’re all in it for themselves.

I, when I wrote my book and now, judge the ideal more independently, connected to practice to be sure, but connected not only in a cynical way, but also connected to the possibility of critique, a way to empower critical practice. Cynicism is the opposite of criticism, a major theme of my book. And now I read the Nobel lecture with this starting point. The lecture provides a guide to critically appraise Obama and his policies, and it provides the grounds upon which to critically respond to the shortcomings of the policies. As I put it in the post: “The Nobel Laureate Obama as critic of President Obama.”

I see no reason to take the flawed actions of the Obama administration as being somehow more real than the professed complex ideals expressed in the Nobel lecture. Action and ideal interact in an important and consequential ways that suggest future possibility.

Yesterday I read a piece, “Obama’s Drone Debacle.” It reports that the drone policy has been more determined by career bureaucrats in the national security establishment than by the President and his White House. “It’s clear that the president and the attorney general both want more transparency,” says Matthew Miller, a former senior Justice Department official. “But the bureaucracy has once again thrown sand in the gears and slowed that down.” This does not relieve Obama of the responsibility for his policies, but it suggests an ongoing battle within the administration that may yield a change in direction. The article cynically highlights that Rand Paul outmaneuvered Obama in his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to lead the CIA. This is “Obama’s debacle.” The Nobel lecture reveals the thought behind possible change.

Am I again just apologizing for the politician I admire? Perhaps, but I think there is more to it than that. For even as I am critical with my friend of directions Obama has taken, I see a leader trying to move the public and not just making empty gestures of change. I see a complicated ideal being kept alive and shaping foreign policy to a degree, if not enough for my friend and others with similar criticisms. The U.S. surely is disengaging from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more quickly with Obama, than we would have with either McCain or Romney. American foreign policy is moving away from extreme militarism that Obama’s Republican opponents proposed as a matter of principle. Principles matter.

And lastly the general point, without the ideal publicly visible, there is next to no chance that it will be acted upon. I saw and reported how this animated practice in the Polish underground. It explains why I think America is not only “the cynical society” but also a democratic society, simultaneously, with democratic ideals moving action, even as manipulation and cynicism are rampant. And more close to my intellectual home, it is why The New School for Social Research is a very special institution of higher education and scholarship, even when it has faced profound challenges and has been undermined by less than enlightened leadership for long periods of time. That will be the subject of my next “Principle and Practice” post.