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

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Raadhuset Main Hall at Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2009. © Pete Souza |

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 . . .

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