I finally got around to reading Paul Krugman's assessment, in the 23 Oct issue of Rolling Stone, of the Obama presidency. I found it sober, temperate, realistic, and balanced. I think Krugman is somewhat too "Rosie Scenario" vis a vis the economy, and I also think he gives the foreign policy / national security area rather short shrift. Given that the US has withdrawn troops from what turned out to be the longest war in U.S. history, "No news is good news" is eminently arguable. Ditto the President's reluctance to reintroduce American forces into the Levant against ISIL. In some contexts, foot-dragging is not a bad thing. But on the whole and in terms of broad outline, I think Krugman is much more right than wrong.
I think so even more when I read the "bookend" piece by Cornel West in the 5 Oct Salon. In fact, Dr. West's critique is typical of critiques I've read from progressive religious believers, all of which -- that I've read, anyway -- share a common impatience with the historically normal, art-of-the-possible, pedestrian, mundane, two-steps-forward-one-step-back political process that is oddly resonant with the strong taste for the eschatological usually more associated with fundamentalism. The Cornel Wests among the President's critics hanker for revolution, not evolution, equating the latter with failure and mere prostitution to the status quo. In that respect, and as indisputably different as they are in so many other respects, Dr. West and like religious critics of the Obama Presidency share common strands of ideological DNA with, say, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and the entire Left Behind eschatological-myth cycle. That is, I think, true for a number of reasons:
o Religiously grounded preference for clarity and impatience with ambiguity
Again, one usually associates this characteristic with fundamentalist Christianity. But on a number of issues, progressive Christians can be as “damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead” as Admiral Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay … or as straight-ahead determined as Bush and Cheney and Rice when they were haunted by visions of mushroom-shaped exclamation points. People on either end of the ideological spectrum who find trafficking in ambiguity repugnant, morally, religiously, or intellectually, are as a consequence vulnerable to the blandishments of literary trope dominating nuanced analysis. They tend to get carried away by their own figures of speech. Sermons trump white papers. In a way, this impatience is understandable: when the Kingdom of God is at hand, one hesitates to ask the Congressional Budget Office for a dispassionate analysis of the costs versus benefits. But Krugman is a secularist, at least in terms of his public, professional persona. So the Krugman article positively thrives on nuance, ambivalence, and ambiguity: “could have been better, but still pretty good … and maybe better in the future” is a fair first-approximation summary of much of his Rolling Stone piece. It has also historically been a fair first-approximation summary of -- without exception -- all innovations in the American welfare state: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, family leave, unemployment insurance, child-labor laws, etc., ACA being only the latest. By contrast, Dr. West simply bulldozes such comme-ci-comme-ca hand-waving aside with rhetoric about the “Black prophetic tradition” and the like. As I read Dr. West’s Salon article – an excerpt from his book, which I have not read – I was struck with a sudden and unexpected nostalgia for the rhetorical style of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew how to use trope, metaphor, and simile – yet without, for all that, allowing himself to be used by them. For example, Dr. King referred to the effects of the pathology of racism on racists themselves, noting that slave-masters needed liberating as much as slaves. With Dr. King there was never a sense of the "good guys" on that side and the "bad guys" on this side. Racism, both individual and institutional, was an equal opportunity victimizer. By contrast, Dr. West is quite well instructed as to who the "bad guys" and "good guys" are, and where the line is located that pristinely demarcates the former from the latter.
o Preference for revolution over evolution
This tendency is hardly surprising, since it derives from the model of salvation proposed by all three of the great monotheisms. One thinks of St. Paul on the Damascus Road, of St. Augustine being admonished to “Take and read”, of Martin Luther being struck by lightning, of Blaise Pascal’s experience of “Fire!”, of the Archangel imperiously ordering Muhammad to “Recite”, of Moses before the Burning Bush, etc., etc., etc. If one wanted a non-monotheistic instance of this, I suppose one could cite Gautama Siddhartha’s lightning-stroke of enlightenment while seated under the bo tree. But in any case, this is not politics. This is epiphany. Problem is, religiously motivated and committed progressives often tend – it may well be unconsciously – to model the former along the lines of the latter.
I remember more than a few conversations I had with friends in the weeks leading up to the 2008 election. I told them – McCain and Obama supporters alike – that Barack Obama would do well to be even more wary of his political friends and of his ideological confreres than of his professional adversaries. With the lone exception of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Republicans were a known quantity: they were implacably opposed to him and everything he represented, and always would be. But Mr. Obama’s friends expected ‘way, ‘way, ‘way too much – and were accordingly more susceptible to voters’ remorse when – not “if” but “when” – Mr. Obama failed to deliver, as was bound to happen. If one wanted to wax homiletical / sermonic -- which I try not to do -- one could even say that Barack Obama is an instance of Zechariah 13:6: And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. But the President can perhaps take bitter comfort in knowing that the demands that were made on him by his religiously grounded critics, and the standards used to repudiate his leadership, would also have been used to evaluate, and likewise no doubt repudiate, the hypothetical presidencies of Barney Frank, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren ... Hay-yull's Bay-yulls! ... even Jim Wallis, if any of them had been elected Chief Executive. Romans 3:23 -- For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God -- applies to all, and by that criterion anyone will have "always already" failed. Political "friends," especially religiously motivated ones, are like hungry pit-bulls: friendly enough ... but only tentatively so and only as long as they are fed. But to be fair, in large measure, this was Mr. Obama’s fault for trying to out-Cornel-West Cornel West by getting carried away on the wings of his own campaign and Inauguration-Day rhetoric about fundamentally changing the culture, both moral and political, of Washington, DC. This set a dangerous precedent and led him to make promises that he could not keep – that, really, no one could keep. In fact, I doubt that this was an isolated case, because the President seems to have a tendency to engage in sweeping rhetoric now, only to have to walk it back later, resulting in a loss of credibility. One thinks in this regard of his ill-considered remarks about the “red line” of chemical-weapon usage in Syria and assurances of keeping your health-insurance plan if you like it. The President, Dr. West, and progressive religious folk generally would do well to remember former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s remark that you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.
o The false dichotomy of religious – or at least, Christian -- moral calculus
Actually, I’m tempted to remove the “or at least, Christian” qualifier. I only leave it in because the Christian tradition is the one I am most familiar with. But all three great monotheisms seem to espouse a kind of scorched-earth dichotomy in their moral assessments – or at least, their most prominent spokespersons do so. But certain New Testament texts prevent us from concluding that this tendency is altogether attributable to Christians’ overly scrupulous moral sensibilities. On the contrary, this approach to moral reasoning is actually there in the text. For example, James 2:10 says (KJV) For whosoever shall keep the whole Law but offend in one point is guilty of all. And there are the words attributed to Christ Himself in Matthew 5:28 (KJV): But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. The latter, in fact, begs the question of why, if one has already committed adultery by virtue of subjective desire, then what does one have to lose by completing the act physically? Now, I am sure there are resolutions to this question. In fact, I can think of several just offhand. But the fact that it is even possible to ask it should set off the trip-wire of our critical faculty, and tell us that the wheels are at least loose on the bus, even if not all the way off. In any case, this extreme Essene-like moral dichotomy – pristine righteousness or utter depravity with nothing in between – seems to be the criterion that religiously grounded critics of the President and his presidency employ in evaluating the Obama years.
He promised to release the prisoners from Guantanamo. He didn’t. Therefore, he is a failure. Period. He uses drones to prosecute the Nation’s adversaries. Therefore, he is a failure. Period. (Incidentally, one wonders what it is about drones specifically that renders such actions and policies morally problematical. Would the President’s critics be happier if there were a pilot in an F-18 dropping a JDAM on a target? There are real and grave problems with using any instrument to prosecute any war the way drones are being used, especially against American citizens, but those problems are constitutional, pertaining to the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments and the War Powers Resolution, not the particular technology being employed. Yet the President’s progressive antagonists major on the latter and minor on the former. Substituting human-piloted aircraft for drones will not, e.g., render the FISA Court proceedings adversarial.) He did not push for a single-payer health insurance system. Therefore, he is a failure. Period. Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. Having "offend[ed] in one point", he is "guilty of all". Honestly, it’s enough to make you wish you had voted for McCain or Romney … hmmm … wait a minute …
At the end of the day, however, it is important that we temper our view of what both Prof. Krugman and Dr. West are doing by realizing that they are doing generically different things, superficial similarities notwithstanding. Paul Krugman is analyzing. Cornel West is preaching. The two are not interchangeable. Least of all are they the same. So it is misleading, at best, and downright illegitimate, at worst, to compare one to the other ... as -- yes, to be sure -- I have just done. A President’s – any President’s – legacy is a complex Gestalt of compromises, aspirations, wheeling-and-dealing, elevated ideals, grubby affirmations you may not feel very enthusiastic about, denials you may have to phrase meticulously (as in cautions about “what ‘is’ is” … ) … etc., etc., etc. … all in pursuit of goals that – so you are convinced – may justify such temporizing. With most of us, the vast majority of us, there are, even so, compromises we will not make, that establish broad limits about what we are willing to do and the middle paths we are willing to walk. Politics is not for the righteous, and if you want to retain your moral virginity in its Edenically, prelapsarian pristine state – never run for public office. Preaching keeps us honest about ultimate final causes. It reminds us that there is such a thing as "true north," even if we often have to steer north-by-north-west or north-by-north-east or even on occasion steer for the North Pole along a Great Circle route by going due south. But keeping our eyes glued to the compass makes it more likely that we will hit the iceberg that is in this particular spot right now. Paul Krugman's secularist analysis is about the icebergs, not about the geography of the entire ocean, and correspondingly uses a different type of compass.
A Brookings Institution white paper never launched a spiritual reformation. But preaching is not policy.
James R. Cowles