Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Unified Field Theory of Obama: Response to the Critics

In this thread, Steve Sailer asks two good questions. First, what the hell does "incompletely theorized common ground across more comprehensive narratives" mean? And, second, where do Barack Hussein Obama's loyalties lie?

I am a little reluctant to get into a discussion of Rawls in light of the fact that I know one of my occasional readers is a genuine expert on the subject. I just read Political Liberalism once, and tried to make it through A Theory of Justice. Rawls actually refers to "comprehensive conceptions of the good" and I foisted the po-mo "narratives" on him. But basically, the idea is that the liberal state brackets the more fundamental questions of meaning and morality, and instead tries to find essentially procedural rules that allows everyone to more-or-less do their own thing without stepping on anyone else's toes too much. In contrast to the ancient ideal, the modern liberal state relegates the pursuit of virtue or perfection to civil society and excludes it from politics. It accepts that its citizens will tell themselves different stories about who they are and what is important in life, and just makes sure that they all drive on the same side of the road and don't make left turns without signalling.

But for Rawls (or for Trudeau), this compromise has to be a principled one. Anyone who comes to the modern state with a story about how his ancestors were treated gets told that we can only be just in our time. Deal. The state can't recognize your identity - that's civil society's job.

Like Mulroney, Obama thinks this isn't going to work. Just because everyone would be better off just letting the past go doesn't mean that it can happen. On the other hand, Obama, like Mulroney, has considerable confidence in his own ability to recognize the source of each side's cussedness look enough for everyone to realize the mutual gains from resolving their non-zero-sum conflict. So the basis for the compromise comes from somehow framing each side's version as part of a single story, and the compromise itself turns out not to be principled liberalism, but something genuinely contingent.

Obama's not a "technocrat" at all, except maybe by comparison with recent Republican nominees for President, because he tends to think the finding the mutual gains is the easy part.

Now we Canadians know that Mulroney's confidence didn't quite pan out. He was indeed a talented man, and IMHO, a great prime minister, but he couldn't quite figure out how to compromise issues of identity. (Compromising issues of interest is relatively easy.) Hence, the Meech Lake fiasco. In the end, the Anglos -- and even more, the relocated market-dominant minorities that make up the leadership of the New Canadians -- were too invested in the liberal, procedural compromise to accept that the "distinct society" clause was a pretty minor concession in the scheme of things.

As for Obama's loyalties, I have no doubt he considers himself attached to the black population of the South Side of Chicago, albeit by adoption, not birth. That's only a problem if you think that blacks and whites have opposing interests in the US, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't. Of course, all politicians -- especially "transformative" ones -- must first be loyal to their own star, and I have no doubt that Obama is no exception to that principle.