Liberal? Conservative? Moderate? Pragmatist? New Democrat? What is Barack Obama anyway?
Here is his response after eight weeks in the White House:
“Asked if ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ better defined his philosophy, he said, ‘I’m not going to engage in that.'”(1)
In refusing to be categorized, Obama categorically categorized himself.
He is America’s first “post modern” president.
Which calls for an explanation . . .
In the Western world, the 1500s-1800s was a period of astonishing scientific and technological breakthroughs. They were both cause and effect of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the nation-state.
Those breakthroughs were accompanied, stimulated, and legitimised by a revolution in thought propagated by, among others, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Kant, Lock, Spinoza, Newton, and Montesquieu.
A new era, very unlike anything prior to it, dawned: “Man was alone, quite alone, in a vast and complex cosmic machine. Gone were the angelic hosts, gone the devils and their pranks, gone the daily miracles of supernatural intervention . . .”(2)
This new constellation of people and facts, things and ideas was “modernism.” It had a polar star: “The whole educated world in the eighteenth century was convinced, as never before or since, that the most beneficent and the most divine force in human life, man’s supreme achievement and his brightest jewel, is science.”(3)
Science’s triumph allowed for the creation and fructification of a new idea in the world: “progress,” a faith in an ascending future following knowable laws. Reasonable plans could be made; goals could be envisioned, worked on, saved for; dreams were even dreamed about the perfectibility of mankind and society.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Darwin and Einstein carried full speed ahead that absolute faith in science and progress.
But two world wars, racial and ethnic genocides, The Great Depression, psychoanalysis’ illumination of the dark corners and corridors of the human mind, the reality and prospects of nuclear and bio-chemical wars, famines, terrorism, and signs of an impending environmental world catastrophe: all deflated modernism’s limitless optimism about science and progress.
Hence, the rise of “postmodernism”:
The belief that higher, eternal laws will someday be unfurled has been replaced by an acceptance of mundane statistical probabilities. Causation has been reduced to a hypothesis — usually a null hypothesis — implied by correlations which, when challenged, suddenly do not “prove” anything. Determinism of any sort has come to be viewed as a superstition at best, an outright lie at worst.
The hope for a unified theory, the search for The Big Idea that will tie it all together, has been consigned to the appropriately-named “string theory.”
In our Age of Ambiguity, i.e., postmodernism, truths are not only multiple but parallel, serial but discontinuous, additive and not cumulative, and if conflicting, allowed to conflict. An unvoiced axiom declares that all truths are created equal, which poses this question: is culture being replaced by information?
In the arts, process and reality are no longer separate: process is reality(4) — the only reality. That reality consists of sensations — a steady, Heraclitian shower of sensations produced by colors, materials, tastes, tactile touches, smells, sounds, sweat, sex, violence. Been to a movie lately?
Two book titles displayed an acute appreciation of process as the final reality: “The Medium Is The Message” (Marshall McLuhan, 1964) and “How Does A Poem Mean?” (John Ciardi, 1959).
In postmodernism, where relativity is an absolute and only chance can be “pure” and “alone” — in other words, where the unconditional truth of the conditions which condition truths goes unchallenged — it is only appropriate that the plurality of schools of thought (read: eclecticism) would expand exponentially, almost by the minute.
Those schools and minutes are parts of an endless present with no beginning or end — The Conveyor Belt Effect, in which the subjective and the objective worlds, principles and practices, forms and substances, Flipper and feldspar, thoughts and things, sensations and adventures, chicken and chocolate milk, appear one-after-another on an endlessly-moving conveyor belt that carries them along and does not sort anything out or go somewhere.
You do not have to leave your chair to experience directly and immediately postmodernism and The Conveyor Belt Effect. If you are connected this instant to your favorite articles website, look around at other articles. You will see everything from “Cubic Zirconia Bracelets” to “Recapture Your Life After Bankruptcy.”
Modernism’s unbounded faith in progress has been replaced by a boundless faith in uncertainty. Terrorism, as manipulated uncertainty, may be THE sign — albeit a deformed caricature — of our times.
The writing on the wall I saw in 1992, in a Geneva train station gave in two words both modernism’s death notice and postmodernism’s birth certificate: “No Future.”(5)
Obama is neither the only post modern American politician nor is he the first.
Turn the clock back to 2003, when this report was published about California’s prospective governor:
“In his first post-election visit to Sacramento in late October a reporter asked [Arnold] Schwarzenegger what to expect from his first days in office.
‘Action, action, action, action,’ Schwarzenegger said, repeating a word he must have heard often during his movie career. ‘That’s what people have voted me into the office for.’
But action toward what end? . . .
[T]he new governor’s agenda is rather vague. The clearest indication of the direction in which he intends to lead the state is the 20 appointees to senior posts in his administration he announced over the last three weeks. The nominees were from across the political spectrum.
From example, Schwarzenegger nominated Terry Tamminen, a Democrat and a staunch environmentalist, as head of the California Environmental Protection Agency. But on the same day, he nominated James Branham, a Republican timber company executive, as Tamminen’s deputy.
‘The obvious lesson is that he will govern the way he has appointed, the way he campaigned and the way he came into politics — from left, right and center,’ said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution . . .
‘You will see a blend of ideologies — that’s Arnold in a nutshell,’ said Whalen . . . “(6)
Almost every city in France has a sign with an arrow pointing sometimes left, sometimes right. The sign reads “Toutes Directions.” All Directions. If you do not believe you can go in all directions at once, just follow the arrow.
See where you end up.
(1) Peter Baker, “Obama defies easy political labels by melding philosophies,” International Herald Tribune, March 16, 2009.
(2 John Herman Randall, Jr., “The Making of The Modern Mind,” Columbia University Press, New York, 1976, p. 227.
(3) Ibid., p. 279.
(4) Alfred North Whitehead remarked in 1929, in reference to “that ultimate, integral experience” that “is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system.” Alfred North Whitehead, “Process and Reality,” Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1960, p. 317.
(5) For a basic discussion of postmodernism, see Leonard B. Meyer, “Music, The Arts, And Ideas,” The University of Chicago Press, New York, 1994.
(6) John M. Broder, “Testing time begins for Schwarzenegger,” International Herald Tribune, November 18, 2003.
He authored “The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion.”
For his website, go to Thomas Belvedere.