Obama’s speech last night was a vindication of liberalism, based as it was on appeals to people from all walks of life. And I can’t help but think that it represents, or comes close to representing those very values important to American Jews, and which most American Jews recognize as their own contribution to contemporary liberal discourse, which I would identify as group interest, social solidarity, obligation to others, the linking of links and binding of bonds.
What he said before the entire country is that “What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”
And these are fine words, and I don’t want to play the game that has disappointed so many progressives of projecting too much of my own values onto Obama. But I found myself wanting just a little more when Obama confirmed faith “in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America” without adding “a just America.” Or is that a category mistake, this confusion of politics and justice? I’d like to think not, but I may be wrong.
For a much more lachrymose or snarky view, see Glenn Greenwald’s opinion piece in the Guardian in which Greenwald identifies and laments the kinds of compromise that we should all expect to see Obama cut with the Republican led House. I’m already at steps 2 and 3 that he marks off as the first steps in the slippery slide to moral perfidy. I think we can own up to this, because that’s what liberals do, they compromise, they cut deals, they try to split the difference. That’s the way the system of split government works, for good and for bad, and I don’t see how Greenwald and left-leaning or, for that matter, dispositionally aligned right-leaning pundits get around that that inconvenient constitutional obstacle to perfect political consummation.
As regards academic critical theory I would like to think it’s time to be done taking seriously the fascism of Carl Schmitt, and the messianic-apocalyptic jive from Benjamin and Taubes through Agamben and Zizek. I’m wanting to pay attention to more small-bore, slow human things. Obama might be rather chilly. But the form of liberalism articulated by him last night has nothing chilly to it, none of the frigidity of Locke, Kant, and Mill. I’d like to think it’s tough and tenderhearted like the liberalism or proto-liberalism of Mendelssohn, synthetic like Hegel, and pragmatic like Dewey. And maybe too, just a little cynical, understanding that “the people don’t want social justice.” My view here is more “rabbinic” than “prophetic.”