Monday, November 15, 2010

Harvard History Professor Says: Barack Obama Great Intellectual, Pragmatic Centrist, I Respond: Who Needs Satire?

This article was published at Pajamas Media. Here is a somewhat improved and updated version.

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By Barry Rubin

You're traveling through another dimension--a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone! --Rod Serling’s introduction to the “Twilight Zone” television series

Just when you think the American intellectual elite has hit rock bottom you discover that the elevator is still headed downward. Indeed, it is hard to believe that much of what we are seeing isn’t satire.

On both points, consider if you will (as Rod Serling used to say introducing the “Twilight Zone” episodes) James T. Kloppenberg, a historian from Harvard University. The New York Times writer positively gushes at Kloppenberg’s great discovery: President Barack Obama is a centrist and “a true intellectual.”

Well, Professor Kloppenberg, let me give you my definition of an intellectual: An intellectual is someone who doesn’t need to use a teleprompter.

Okay, seriously, though, I am going to say that I don’t think Obama is a true intellectual and the reason has nothing to do with his policies or politics. An intellectual is someone who draws on a serious body of study and research to justify his conclusions as well as to educate others.

Where is the depth to Obama’s speeches and actions? Where is evidence that he really has absorbed history, philosophy, or law? What real ideas has he contributed to the American debate?  Where are the specific references to thinkers and writers that aren’t absolutely canned for him by his staff? Obama has no serious publications even in the Harvard law school journal he edited. Writing a couple of autobiographies doesn’t count.

The evidence just isn’t there. So Obama is not an intellectual but someone with the reputation of being an intellectual, whose policies are congenial to the current dominant ideas among Western intellectuals.

As for pragmatist, Obama is definitely not that either. A pragmatist is someone who looks for policies that work and is willing to change his views and actions sharply if he understands that something different is needed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton were pragmatists. Obama is driven to a greater extent by ideology and is notoriously inflexible.

Consider, for example, the failure of his economic policies. When Roosevelt concluded that a laissez-faire approach to handling the economic depression wouldn’t work he went through a series of other efforts, dropping each one if it didn’t measure up. Obama simply moves straight ahead on health care, stimulus, and other policies without significant compromise, adjustment to conditions, or even evaluating his mistakes thereafter.

Incidentally, the only criticisms the Times reported about Kloppenberg's thesis came from more than one person who complained that Obama wasn't left-wing enough.
Kloppenberg, proclaiming views that are obvious nonsense gave, in the Times's words, “a standing-room-only" lecture to “prolonged applause” about his forthcoming intellectual biography of Obama. He explained—I’m not kidding—that he sees Obama (quoting the Times reporter who was present) “as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.”

He compares Obama to “John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and…Woodrow Wilson.”

Oh no, Obama is quite different from them. After all, they never received the Nobel Peace Prize despite many great accomplishments (though Teddy Roosevelt did, after he negotiated peace between Japan and Russia!). Obama got it but has no great accomplishments as president. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison created the American political system and produced some of the most realistic (pragmatic, centrist) political philosophy in history.

As for Lincoln, he was decidedly not an intellectual but a keen student of reality, a clever pragmatist and anything but an ideologue. Woodrow Wilson was probably the last actual intellectual to have been president of the United States.

These men were the exact opposite of Obama in most ways.

As for the intellectual influences on Obama, Kloppenberg ridicules the notion this has anything to do with leftist or anti-colonialist factors, despite the presence of so much of these things in his background. Oh, no:

“Adams and Jefferson were the only anti-colonialists whom Obama has been affected by….He has a profound love of America.”

Yes, that must be why he quotes the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (including the part about inalienable rights coming from the Creator), and the Federalist Papers so much (note: sarcasm).

Look, you can love Obama if you want to do so and vote for him, too, (even, given Chicago’s traditions, vote for him several times) because you like his views and policies. But it is not necessary to believe such nonsense to do so.

In some very real ways, the dominant forces on the American intellectual scene have gone nuts, becoming America's village idiots out of touch with their own country and reality itself as the French aristocracy was at the time of the revolution there. Having little to do with the great history of intellectual liberalism, they mistake being partisan flaks for proper academic work and have put left-wing ideology in place of Enlightenment values. They are the Mad Hatter at the tea party.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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