Monthly Archives: April 2013

President Obama’s Implicit Philosophy

Obama Unicorn Rainbow

In politics as in philosophy, the controversies and debates that constitute the vast majority of discourse are based on oppositions, binaries, dualities, and all manner of contraries, from pro-choice vs. pro-life and gun control vs. the second amendment to science vs. teleology or materialism vs. idealism. If you’ve read any of my posts here thus far, you’ll know that I favor a mode of thought that seeks to integrate all such polarities, finding partial truth in disparate, seemingly incommensurable modes of thought. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his essay on Coleridge in a quote that I’ve already reproduced in several other contexts, but which bears repeating:

In almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and . . . if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

If you’ve been following my debate with Matthew Hutson or with Levi Bryant, you’ll know that I try to put this maxim into practice as much as possible. As Mill understood, issues are not controversial unless there is some essential truth expressed by both parties in the debate.

I’d like to suggest in this post that President Obama consistently puts into practice a similarly integral mode of thought in dealing with the many controversial issues in which he is constantly embroiled. Instead of attacking his opponents, taking a brave and rigid stance denouncing the moral turpitude of those who disagree with him, he is always focused on finding middle ground, procuring “good ideas” from both sides of the aisle, and attempting to form a consensus. When he does lambast conservatives, it is not usually for the inherent incorrectness of their beliefs, no matter how much he may disagree with them. Rather, Obama almost always takes his political opponents to task for their unwillingness to compromise and for their underhanded tactics that keep lawmakers from having real, substantive debates about issues. He is always ready to admit that he is imperfect, that his views are open to correction and evolution, and he consistently attempts to live up to the fact that he is the president of all Americans, not just progressives.

Speaking of evolution, I see the fact that the president long claimed that his views on gay marriage were evolving as a primary instance of the integral mode of thought. He understood that his personal beliefs and his public pronouncements were two different things, that he must not make the perfect the enemy of the good, as he often says. For the last few years of his first term before he announced his support for gay marriage in May 2012, many of his supporters, myself among them, were angered and frustrated by his unwillingness to state his position definitively. However, what I always hoped was the case, though there were times when I had my doubts, was that he knew the reality of the situation was that if he had come out in favor of gay marriage sooner, he probably would not have gotten elected, and thus would not have had the opportunity to effect change at the highest level of our government. This may seem like a rather cold and self-serving calculation, but I believe that Obama’s primary motivation is truly the good of all, and that he is ultimately a pragmatist, not in the usual sense in which this term is employed to mean “practical” or “realist,” but in the sense in which it is employed by William James.

Obama seems to have known that in order to achieve his ideal, which in this case I believe is full equality for LGBT people, he would have to balance his inherent progressivism with the cautious optimism and hopeful persistence that has been the hallmark of his presidency. He knew that many of the conservatives who oppose gay marriage, beneath their often vitriolic hatred and fear of difference, almost universally possess a more positive quality, which is a deep reverence for the past. With this understanding of one of his opponents’ primary positive motivations, he was able to demonstrate a genuine sympathy with conservatives just enough to allow the more moderate members of that group at least to see the possible validity of his more progressive views, which he expressed far more directly as a younger man. This judicious impulse to see all sides of the issue may have been the factor which tipped the balance of public opinion ever so slightly in favor of the progressive side of the debate. In politics as in philosophy, this respect for one’s opponents’ positions, no matter how much one disagrees with them, seems to be the most pragmatic way of producing the desired result of eventually coming to consensus. Rather than conservatives and progressives mutually demonizing one another in a state of armored stasis, Obama lets his opponents do the demonizing while he kills them with kindness, often genuinely seeming to see the value in what they affirm, a reverence for the past, but disagreeing with what they deny, in this case the idea that this reverence requires them to refuse equal rights to others.

Thus, my suggestion is that Obama is the first genuinely integral president. His very identity, the son of a white mother and a black father, is itself an integration, which seems to have ingrained into him the mode of thought that seeks to bring opposed and seemingly incommensurable modes into conciliation, to find common ground, to push through paradox to find the deeper truth. If, as Jean Gebser first suggested, we are witnessing the birth of the integral age, or if, as Richard Tarnas suggests, we are experiencing the birth pangs of a new world view, then the fact that we have now had a president who so strongly exemplifies this world view, even if his accomplishments fall well short of his ideals, perhaps indicates that the epoch which integrates premodern and modern, science and religion, intellectual and affective epistemologies, has truly begun, though it will almost certainly not be elaborated in its fullness for generations. It is even possible that late 2012, which marked Obama’s reelection and thus the collective affirmation of the mode he exemplifies (as the current world figure who probably most embodies both our collective hopes and fears), will be seen by posterity as a primary initiatory moment of this emergent mode of thought on a collective scale. Perhaps the Maya were right after all.


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