Obama9: Black and White 11.02.13

My blog this morning is both attached and the same version follows to allow you to chose ether (or neither) to read. It documents and reiterates the intractable conflict between Obama’s social democratic agenda and the economic conservative beliefs. Using a variation on Jonathan Haidt’s thesis, the blog makes the counter-intuitive case that Obama is trying to peel off cultural conservatives in service to a common set of virtues rather than a common set of interests, thereby weakening the Republican base even further and strengthening his own democratic base and his determination to go down in history as a transformational president.

Hward Adelman

Obama9: Black and White 11.02.13


Howard Adelman

The phrase ‘Black and White’ has two opposite connotations. If you say the issue is black and white you usually mean it is either one or the other. But black and white can also mean both ‘a’ and ‘b’ and not either/or. Either/or categorization is exemplified in Adam’s assignment to name the different species. What you see is either a dog or a cat. Of course, such dichotomous categorization tends to commit the fallacy of exhaustive options. For what you see may be neither.

If I divide the American polity into Republicans and Democrats, I leave out both the independents and fringe groups such as the Greens (in the US they are still fringe) and Libertarians, though the Republican Party includes some Libertarians. Most significantly, black evangelicals who could be expected to be Republicans voted for Obama. Similarly, if I divide the right into community versus economic conservatives, I again leave out the libertarians and subsume religious conservatives as a sub-category of community conservatives. And if I do that I have to explain why Black religious conservatives voted overwhelmingly for Obama on the left.

If an individual, say Adam, is divided into a body and soul, an embodied self and a disembodied self, as Simon May did in his book on Love, and if you import the Christian version of the Garden of Eden myth wherein the passions of the flesh are blamed for Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, then the embodied part of the soul is blamed for the Fall or at least the inability of reason to keep control of the unruly passions.

This is the message of Plato’s version of the chariot tale in Phaedrus (246a-254e), at least the initial part on which I focus. Plato’s story differs from the one in the Katha Upanishad of more than a century earlier found in the Ratha Kalpana (1.3.3-1.3.4) by having a driver but no passenger; it was a chariot of war akin to those seen in movies of the Roman empire. Second, in Plato, the embodied self is represented by two different winged horses, a black and a white one. In the Upanishads, the horses provide only sensibility and are not driving forces; the chariot is the body and has no independent source of motion. In Plato’s story, the reins are the means of controlling and guiding the horses. In the vedic tale, the reins are equivalent to what Plato dubbed understanding or instrumental reasoning that were used to guide the horses. Higher reasoning belongs to the charioteer that can focus on the ultimate direction and aim of using reason to achieve Truth. There is no passenger equivalent to the true self that is independent of all tension and conflict.

But the major difference is that in the vedic tale it is the outside world that presents the challenge of choice to the charioteer between that which is pleasurable to the senses and that which is preferable when the consequences of choosing one or the other are examined. Only the soul that fails to conduct an examination chooses the pleasurable. In Plato’s version, the major source of the problem is internal rather than external stemming from divisions within the soul.

The major point of Plato’s story is to differentiate between the noble white steed and the ignoble black horse. The white horse represents the embodied virtue of courage (or spirit or boldness), not a rational impulse itself, but rather one that can be guided by intelligence by means of the reins of instrumental reasoning, and the ignoble unruly black horse representing embodied passion, lust and love as divine madness discussed yesterday and in the review of Anna Karenina. It is the wild horse that cannot be guided by reason either in its higher form or as an instrumental calculation. It is a mad passion that can only be kept in line by being yoked to the white horse. If the charioteer loses control, the chariot, the horses and the charioteer crash to earth. If proper control can be exercised by intelligence, the horses and the chariot using the combined forces of courage and the wild passions that have been tamed can rise to the heavens of higher reason.

Examine the difference between the above and my interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in yesterday’s blog. First, in both stories there is a difference between a spirited element and a more passive one, but in my version of the Adam and Eve story, the spirited element is embodied in the curiousity of woman to learn and find out about others through actual experience. Adam, who represents rationality, is distracted and passive, insensitive to both the other and even the needs of his own body and projecting all embodied qualities on woman. Secondly, reason is not divided between a higher reason focused on Truth and an instrumental reason dealing with direct management of the material world, but between the scientific reasoning of objectivity that looks on with a detached attitude and an embodied and committed reason which is Machiavellian and characterized by guile. But the biggest difference is that in the evaluation of my interpretation, the blame is not placed on mad passion. The major weakness belongs to reason that is detached and cut off from passion, for it is passion combined with guile that allows the couple to escape the confined and enclosed world of the garden and enter history and a world of action and creativity.

I will get to Obama soon enough but first I want to introduce another scholar, Jonathan Haidt of New York University’s Stern School of Business who has undertaken a great deal of research in political psychology and, in particular, on the political psychology of the schisms in American political culture as articulated in his latest book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In a previous book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he articulated the fundamental great ideas drawn from history that he brought together, in particular the writings of philosophers who, according to him, have been the best psychologists over the last two millenia as guides to cut through the shoals of divisiveness and political polarity that has been widely documented.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt adopts the traditional view that the most critical division in the psyche is between reason and automatic impulses, only he uses the metaphor of two different riders on the back of a pachyderm for, from his perspective, neither part of the psyche can manage and direct such a huge and powerful beast on their own. Only by working together can the two guidance systems control, train and direct the political beast. Unlike termites or bees, humans are the only form of life that live in collectivities but without the benefit of consanguinity and an automatic built-in communal control system to prevent conflict. Precepts like love thy neighbour as oneself play that role and allow us to create cities, large social systems and nations not based on blood. A clear understanding of love and its various expressions is the prime method for fostering cooperation. If Simon May focused on love on the interpersonal level, Haidt focuses on the uses of love on the macro-political level.

One must not only sharpen our rational skills but master the methods of being in tune with our automatic emotional reactions through processes like meditation and cognitive therapy. Further, as I described yesterday, the failure to accept responsibility and examine one’s own faults as well as failing to see reality before us instead of filtering what we see through pre-established frames and ideological glasses are the inhibitors of cooperation and forging a common morality in society. Religion has served that purpose in the past and the secular religion that Simon May described dedicated to romantic love just does not cut it. So the effort must be concentrated on getting reason and impulse, the white and the black horse together, not by means of yoking the two together and using the noble spirited white horse which can respond to rational guidelines to ensure the black horse does not get out of line. Each capacity must be respected for what it brings to the table as a foundation for cooperation.

Haidt focuses on the main division between the liberals and conservatives. Liberals priorize: a) care for others versus militant combat mainly directed at perceived enemies; 2) fairness in which justice delivers rewards and punishments proportionate to the positive contributions and harm contributed respectively; and 3) liberty and autonomy of subjects above all in a resistance to tyranny and oppression. Conservatives priorize the key virtues of loyalty, respect for authority and the sanctity of the good life as opposed to disloyalty, betrayal, treachery, subversion of formal legitimated authority and degradation. But unlike liberals who tend to play down loyalty, respect for authority and the purer life, conservatives also value care, fairness and liberty. Haidt is not only clearly focused on the chasm between liberals and cultural conservatives, rather than the rivalry between economic liberals versus economic conservatives, he also finds that conservatives are more inclusive in their value priorities for they are more in touch with their moral and ethical intuitions.

Whereas I have told a story of the importance of intelligent guile and embodied passion confronting the observations and categorization of detached reason, which I suggest may characterize the writings of economic conservatives infused with passionate polemic, Haidt in his effort to get cultural rather than somatic Blacks and Whites to work together has relied primarily on moral intuition supplemented and supported by reason that can be used for persuasion under special circumstances in cases where the other is open to both looking and justifying. Haidt’s elephant, unconscious automatic processes of intuition that are very powerful must be addressed by practical moral reason required to defend and advance a position (Haidt’s rider). (See Haidt’s response to the criticisms of Gary Gutting and Michael Lynch in The Stone on 7 October 2012.)

The objective is to ensure our justificatory reasoning and our direct intuitions cohere both in identifying what is wrong (the practices of the Soviet Union for example) and in identifying what is right and proper. Since intuition matters the most for beliefs, especially strong when anchored in partisan identities, civility and cooperation require appealing to the evidence that reason can grasp and the arguments that can link those observations with intuitions. The values articulated by those intuitions must be recognized and respected not ignored or belittled if there is to be civility and a healthy civil society. This has to be given priority. This is the role of indirection and the guile of reason – avoiding direct and destructive confrontation over differences. One is required to hear and attend to the key values grasped and held dear by others and making "good thinking and openness to compromise redound to a politicians credit" so that hyperpartisan posturing and inflexibility become sources of shame or humiliation.

The message is both white and black not either white or black. But note the primacy is given to black, but not as passions, impulses or curiousity in partnership with eros, but as intuitions or what the scholars of the Scottish enlightenment called sentiments. Reason must attend, service and reconcile those intuitions. That is why primary attention must be to virtues and intuitions rather than placing the primacy on deontological transcendental rational foundations a la Kant or consequential calculations for determining policies and deciding on actions. That is why practice, training, and habit are required that reinforce and strengthen those virtues.

Haidt also has an interesting political agenda for resolving the current impasse and chasm in the political conversation. He essentially suggests an indirect route. Avoid trying to reconcile economic liberals and conservatives who are so fundamentally divided over the approach to the national debt and rising inequalities between the top 20% and the rest, but particularly the top 1% and the rest which he views as seeds for dissent and future chronic conflict. Instead he implies that cultural liberals reconcile with cultural conservatives who have their own concerns about the rising numbers of single parent households and exponential increases in the imprisoned population in the United States and do not have the embedded dogmas of reason that are blind and deaf to both the empirical evidence (global warming) and the counterfactual evidence undermining the belief that reducing taxes can get the country out of debt. But most of all, pure economic conservatives are often cut off from their moral intuitions as sure are they about the rightness of their rational conclusions. They have one distorted take on Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations as endorsing a Darwinian competition where only the fittest survive ignorant and blind to Adam Smith’s work, The Theory of Sentiments.

Evidently when Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 and then the subsequent election, Haidt was thrilled because Obama wanted to speak to the centre and reconcile the polarities. Those polarities have become more entrenched since. Has Obama failed because he has fallen into the trap of his liberal Democratic supporters in failing to understand the right and attend to their concerns about loyalty, authority and sanctity, an "intuitive" advantage they hold over the liberals?

Whether Obama did or did not reach across the aisle in his first term, his inaugural speech in his second term threw down the gauntlet before the economic conservatives. As Fred Barnes wrote in The Wall Street Journal in his column, "Obama’s Inaugural Intentions: The president reached out to Democratic interest groups. Republicans? Not so much" (21 January 2013 online), it was a speech in praise of Big Government. Obama had waved a red flag before the economic conservatives in the Republican Party with his call "for a bigger and more ambitious federal government". While Obama paid lip service to cutting the debt, he exempted "Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security". As Obama said, "These things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us" as he reached out to various interest groups in the Democratic Party corral – gays, minorities, feminists, immigrants. There was not a sliver of an offering to compromise with the economic conservatives.

As Barnes went on, "The speech should debunk two myths about Mr. Obama and his presidency…that the president is really a pragmatist and a centrist"…and "that Mr. Obama is eager to compromise with Republicans but has faced unprecedented obstructionism on their part." The experience of the first term does suggest that, indeed, Obama has faced unprecedented obstructionism, but Barnes is correct in asserting that only "an ideologically committed liberal could have delivered the address that Mr. Obama did." I went back and re-read the inaugural address. I would amend Barnes. Only a social democrat would write that kind of speech. As Barnes wrote quoting FDR’s 1937 inaugural address, "Democratic government has the innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable." If Obama had been willing in his first term to wheel and deal with the economic conservatives, he was now committing to fighting them tooth and nail in the trenches.

So Obama does not seem willing to wheel and deal with the economic conservative, and, personally, I do not blame him. They have given no indication of compromise and they voted virtually one hundred percent for the Republican Party. But Obama did more which Barnes ignored. He began with an assertion of virtue ethics, the unique virtues of America and of its constitutional faith. (See Sandy Levinson cited in an earlier blog.) "What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’" America had a founding creed and it was not "the most to the fastest". That creed through the Civil War was renewed and interpreted to mean, "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together." And it was renewed and interpreted again in the New Deal with its massive investments I infrastructure and in regulation. "Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers."

Barnes treated Obama’s next appeal as just a rhetorical and misleading gesture to conservatives, a praise of individual initiative and responsibility and scepticism about the unlimited power of government. As Obama said, "Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character." This was another celebration of virtue ethics. Given what went before, it would not cut it with economic conservatives who do not believe that America is what it is because of its virtues but that it is what it is because it follows a set of natural economic laws which are eternally true and valid.

As Obama said, spitting in the faces of the economic conservatives, "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." American economic recovery has begun by challenging the laws economic conservatives hold sacred. Obama appealed, not to social democracy as a creed but to patriotism. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." How could he say that when he had just thrown the gauntlet down before the economic conservatives? Because he was launching his appeal to cultural conservatives who are not wedded to a faith in the natural laws of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. As he appealed to the principles of individual initiative and responsibility that unites economic and social conservatives, he also appealed to the core belief of his own constituency, equal opportunity that was not incompatible at all with the community conservative creed. "For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship."

Obama explicitly appealed to a new creed for a new age, one that united virtue ethics with a belief in equal opportunity and fairness, caring with justice for all, individual responsibility with community solidarity rooted in a unique American tradition and loyalty to the nation’s ideals. "We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed." Obama was trying to drive a wedge between the extremist individualism of economic Republicans and the virtue ethics of cultural conservatives.

The commitment to security can be fought with unmanned drones, "through strength of arms and the rule of law" (no more torture) rather than an imperial army sent thousands of miles overseas. (Read my blog later this week.) By extricating America from endless ground war abroad, the resources will be available for investment in infrastructure and countering climate change. By relying and bolstering alliances rather than going it alone, through a marriage of interests and conscience we will appeal to those abroad who aspire to freedom while living in culturally conservative communities. The principles of our "common creed", the one that can unite liberals and community conservatives are "tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice." The issue is not big government or small but the core virtues of a nation.

If Romney gave up on the 47%, Obama has come to recognize that he cannot convince the economic conservatives but he could win over the cultural conservatives, or at least a portion of them whose stands on virtues as the core of politics was unshakable but whose stands on gay marriage and abortion, on immigration and climate change could change with times, change at a much slower pace than the values of liberals, but change they could, they have and they must. The specific issues were not the deal breaker, the core virtues were.

Economic conservatives are going beyond efforts to keep urban liberal voters from getting to polls. For the 2014 election they are targeting congressional redistricting to ensure that electoral college votes are determined by congressional districts that favour more sparsely populated rural ridings instead of determining electoral college votes by state wide counts. (see the Freedom Outpost, Kevin Fobbs, 7 February 2013) Economic conservatives have dedicated themselves to long term trench warfare. In the meanwhile, Obama is attempting an end run around them by hiving off community conservatives to support the Democratic Party and ensure a new majoritarian coalition for the next few decades and ensure his place in the pantheon of transformational presidents. While Republicans fight amongst themselves whether and to what degree to blame Romney for not appealing to Hispanics, Asians, and immigrant voters – Blacks are always left out – Obama has gone on the offensive to steal away at least part of their community conservative base.

Is this realistic? How can they deal with Obama’s explicit endorsement of gay marriage? Republicans who support individual rights have little problem. What about community conservatives? As heterosexuals increasingly opt for living together outside of marriage, the strongest supporters of marriage and even the family in which a stable, loving home is the best environment for ensuring a child’s development seem to be coming from the gay community. Read Ken Mehlman’s (George W. Bush’s gay campaign manager in the 2004 election who subsequently became chair of the Republican National Committee) op-ed "making the Same-Sex Case: Legalizing marriage for gay couples will cultivate community stability and foster family" in The Wall Street Journal (20 November 2012). "Conservatives—and I count myself as one—succeed when we attract new supporters to timeless traditions. [Note; "timeless
traditions", not individual rights] The Republican Party’s loss in this month’s presidential election resulted partly from a failure to embrace some of America’s fastest-growing constituencies. One area of significant change is in attitudes toward legal equality for gay Americans." (See Kevin Hal in The Iowa Republican (29 January 2013) where the appeal for gay support comes from a traditional virtue based foundation.)

This is but one example. Others can be offered which I will detail when I examine first the domestic policy and then the foreign policy of this Obama administration later this week. But first I want to characterize Obama’s overall battle plan.

Tomorrow: Obama9: How White and Black Become Red

On Invisible Men, Monstrous White Whales, Giant and Colossal Squid 12.02.13

[Tags Obama, cultural conservatives, economic
conservatives, Haidt]

Obama9.Black and White.11.02.13.doc

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