Barack Obama is a pragmatist, James Kloppenberg tells the New York Times. No, he doesn't mean Obama is practical-minded; no one thinks that anymore. In fact, Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian, disparages the "vulgar pragmatism" of Bill Clinton while praising Obama's "philosophical pragmatism":
It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.
Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. "It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers," Mr. Kloppenberg said.
Kloppenberg has a new book coming out, "Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes and the American Political Tradition." According to the Times, Kloppenberg "sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president," a "true intellectual." Such philosophers are a "rare breed": the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Wilson and now Obama.
"Imagine the Republicans driving the economy into a ditch," the philosopher president said the other day. "And it's a deep ditch. It's a big ditch. And somehow they walked away from the accident, and we put on our boots and we rappelled down into the ditch--me and Jack and Sheldon and Jim and Patrick. We've been pushing, pushing, trying to get that car out of the ditch. And meanwhile, the Republicans are standing there, sipping on a Slurpee." John Dewey had nothing on this guy!
If the president does not seem to be the intellectual heavyweight Kloppenberg makes him out to be, the Harvard historian has an explanation: Obama is a sort of secret-agent philosopher. "He would have had to deny every word," Kloppenberg tells the Times, which helpfully explains that "intellectual" is "a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites."
When Sarah Palin called Obama a "professor," some professors accused her of racism. What she really meant, they claimed, was "uppity." Kloppenberg's similar characterization, however, draws a quite different response:
Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York's Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. "The way he traced Obama's intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama's academic background seems so similar to ours," said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.
One assumes that Andrew Hartman is a serious scholar, although one doesn't know for sure because one has never heard of him. Barack Obama, by contrast, is a scholarly dilettante, a professional politician who has moonlighted as a university instructor.
Yet Hartman's remark about Obama's "academic background" is revealing. Professors imagine Obama is one of them because he shares their attitudes: their politically correct opinions, their condescending view of ordinary Americans, their belief in their own authority as an intellectual elite. He is the ideal product of the homogeneous world of contemporary academia. In his importance, they see a reflection of their self-importance.
Kloppenberg's thesis reminds us of another elaborate attempt at explaining Obama: Dinesh D'Souza's "The Roots of Obama's Rage." D'Souza, like Kloppenberg, imputes to Obama a coherent philosophy, in D'Souza's case "anticolonialism." It is a needlessly elaborate explanation for an unremarkable set of facts.
Occam's razor suggests that Obama is a mere conformist--someone who absorbed every left-wing platitude he encountered in college and never seems to have seriously questioned any of them. Kloppenberg characterizes Obama as a skeptic, not a true believer. We're not sure he has an active enough mind to be either one.