requiem for certainty

Obama Meliorism and Obama Criticism

with 9 comments

Well what an exciting time!

Obama’s acceptance speech last night offered a true occasion for pause, reflection, and consideration.  I would like to do a much fuller analysis and thanks to some of my students this morning my wheels are really turning about this just now.  But until such time as I can find time to write more let me flag two themes:

“Unyielding hope” – Obama is a meliorist (even if he, knowledgeable as he is, may have to look that word up).  The meliorist is the one who holds dear the conviction that we can, through our own efforts, make better lives for our selves.  The meliorist is neither the pessimist who sees gloom nor the optimist who sees brightness as automatically given.  Betterment is our doing, our energy, our achievement: so says the meliorist.  That Obama is a meliorist makes him a pragmatist and an American of the best variety our history has to offer.  (If you want to see something like a scholarly argument for this last point see my article “Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope“, which is a shorter and earlier version of Chapter One of my forthcoming book.)

“This is your election” – Obama is pushing participatory democracy which is much welcome after the eight long dark years of elitist democracy as foisted on us by Bush et. al..  I keep coming back to something Cornel West said in, I believe, his appearance on Bill Maher with Mos Def (but it may have been elsewhere).  He said that he would celebrate all night when Obama was elected but the next day he would wake up and become his biggest critic.  This seems so valuable to me just now because one finally has the sense that the President will welcome that criticism.  Of course one should not expect that Obama himself would actively respond to all of his critics, though it is plausible that he may have some dialogue with West at some point.  What one should expect rather would be that Obama would welcome as vitally important for democracy the process of that criticism and its more extreme forms, such as civil disobedience.  This is in many ways an emphatic inspiration for amateur cultural critics like myself.

If there was one bit of rhetoric in the speech which I did not care for it was the worn-out gesture for something called “national unity” all wrapped up with the bow of a pretty reference to Lincoln.  That much unity is apolitical.  Politics requires a healthy exchange between consensus and dissent.  Let us not pretend that division and difference ever stands in the way of our better unyielding hopes.

Here is what I would like to learn to take away from this moment: For our democracy to work we all must contribute what we can.  For some of us this contribution will be a work that is simultaneously meliorative and critical, hopeful and unsettling, progressive and destabilizing.


Written by Colin Koopman

November 6, 2008 at 7:18 am

9 Responses

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  1. Interesting thoughts, Colin. I wasn’t put off by the Lincoln reference as you were. I don’t think Obama was denying that there is (and perhaps ought to be) deep disagreement on all sorts of things among citizens in a free polity. On the contrary, I understood him as calling for a kind of respectful, participatory deliberation. (Remember his assurance in the speech that he will always listen to those people whose support he has yet to earn, “especially” when they disagree). I think the Lincoln-esque call for unity can be understood, not as a call to transcend disagreement, but rather as a call to political engagement, to be “united” in the conviction that we want to make the country better — even though people have different ideas of what “better” means.

    Another aspect of the speech I found incredibly moving was the reference to the forthcoming century, viz., “What will my daughters get to see if they are lucky enough to live as long as the 106 year old woman who voted in Atlanta”? To me, it was an eloquent embodiment of Emerson’s dictate that ‘the coming only is sacred’ and William James’s claim that “Pragmatism shifts the focus and looks forward…The really vital question for all of us is ‘What is this world going to be?'”

    Meliorism indeed!

    Dave Rondel

    November 6, 2008 at 5:28 pm

  2. I watched this election as a foreigner. And I felt like a foreigner. I’m glad that Obama won. But so much of the whole process surrounding his victory is quite alienating for me. I don’t like charismatic politicians. I don’t like preachy campaigns. I don’t like battle lines — and although Obama’s campaign made an effort to reach all parts of the political spectrum, and although I think McCain was pressured by circumstances to play up divisions in a way that is out of character for him, the supporters of both sides were still terribly condescending and uncharitable to one another. This is just what I’ve come to expect from American elections.

    Now that he’s elected, what shall we hope for? There will be some improvements over the previous administration. How could there not be? (There would have been improvements even if McCain had won.) But what substantive expectations is Obama bringing to office? He supports the big corporate bail-out. His economic policy is a confusing mess and involves counter-measures to the ill effects of other measures in the same policy program. There’s certainly nothing radical about it, nothing that has not already been coming down the line for many years now.

    I guess the upshot is, where you see signs for hope, I just see more of the same. Obama was the better candidate, but he is not going to solve every problem, and he’s not going to be able to create the conditions under which the American people can solve every problem. There are many problems he may well create, or exacerbate (eg. the economic crisis).

    As you know, “hope” is not an operative notion in my social thinking. I certainly hold the belief that you ascribe to the meliorist, “that we can, through our own efforts, make better lives for our selves”. But it’s not one that I “hold dear”. I would rather not. There’s a fine line between hope, and unrealistic expectation, and when you hold dear a conviction, you have emotional motives not to give it up even in the face of reasons and evidence contrary to it. To someone with unrealistic expectations, the realist will always look like a cynic, because he says “That can’t happen, this is a case where good intentions and hard work are not enough, in this case we will just have more of the same”.

    Jeremy Livingston

    November 7, 2008 at 5:01 pm

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Dave, I more or less agree. My way of styzling the call for unity is to see it as a call for something like Rawlsian public reason. As you know I have concerns that this idea should be the fulcrum for contemporary liberal democratic politics. It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It’s that it’s a bad idea if conceived as the apex of our politics. That is how Rawls saw it and I think that in his call for ‘unity’ this is what Obama is pushing toward.

    Jeremy, yes he is not sufficiently radical, his economic policies are of course a big mess (b/c every mainstream Democrat makes a mess of the economy), he is not sufficiently skeptical of state ‘interference’ in the economy, and he has an old-fashioned notion of regulation according to which the state regulates the market by opposing it (or bailing it out) rather than by working with it and setting goals for it which the market can then pursue as it will. The last thing we need is another New Deal. But it would be nice, e.g., if we had some sort of government-sponsored consumer-side expansion in the economy. It’s not clear how to do that. The stimulus payments last year were a good idea but were too little too late. Everyone is afraid of contraction. With real estate as inflated as it is, I think a short contraction could be beneficial in the long run.

    You are right to note how central hopefulness (or to use a more ‘philosophical’ word, meliorism) is for my thinking. I think it gets to the heart of what pragmatism is all about. There is a fine line where hopefulness can turn into wishful thinking. But I do not think that hopefulness entails daydreaming nor does it block the realist and the skeptic. The meliorist is not the optimist who refuses to hear the skeptic. The meliorist is the pragmatist who works hard to realize their vision but also accepts it when that vision is not being realized. In that event, the meliorist pragmatist does not give up. They retool. They take a different approach. They experiment anew. This requires a plurality of experiments taking place all over simultaneously.

    So I am trying to learn to believe this: If Obama can bring any sort of sensibility to American government, then I believe it is the sensibility of the strenuous meliorist working hard to realize their vision in experimental fashion.

    Colin Koopman

    November 8, 2008 at 5:13 am

  4. “[T]he meliorist pragmatist does not give up. They retool.”

    What is it that isn’t being given up? Is it a concrete vision or ideal? Surely those ought to be given up when they conflict with what is really possible. If I were to take up physics in the hope of building a bridge to the moon, not only would I have to revise my vision — I would have to give it up.

    Or do you think some parts of an ideal are less essential than others, so that those can be relinquished for the sake of a (perhaps temporarily) somewhat more vague objective?

    Or perhaps you mean “hope”, thinking of it as something inchoate that may underly any number of visions. But I have to admit, I wouldn’t know what hope is if it isn’t hope for something or other.

    What is the content of the “unyielding hope” Obama to which exhorts us?

    Jeremy Livingston

    November 13, 2008 at 10:58 pm

  5. The idea is that the meliorist never gives up their confidence, their self-faith, their hope that they can pour forth energies which will lead to the improvement of their lot.

    Of course one must give up ideals and visions from time to time. But this does not imply giving up everything altogether. It means swapping one dream for another less perfect but more realistic dream.

    So I guess this means that ‘hope’ is a rather general idea whose contents vary from situation to situation as those situations require. I am probably more generous toward this idea than you seem to be. Hope perhaps always has some specific shape, but a commitment to a hopeful frame of living does not yet entail any of those specific shapes.

    As for Obama’s unyielding hope — if pressed I suspect he would flesh it out with all the usual Democratic Party content than has been popular since the Clinton days. But part of the appeal in his message to me is that he offers the concept of hope on a more general level where it’s content is not yet specific. (To be unnecessarily fancy about it we could say that he develops this concept as what Ernesto Laclau would call an ’empty signifier’, that is a concept whose content always remains contested and which is somehow central to the establishment of coherence or consistency in a given social field.) In situating his meliorism at this rather general level where it’s appeal can be embracing rather than particularizing, he is I think right to think of hope as something that is ever yet quintessentially American. This, I think, explains his great success vis-a-vis other Democrats in recent times.

    Colin Koopman

    November 17, 2008 at 5:12 am

  6. […] makes him a pragmatist and an American of the best variety our history has to offer.” – REQIEUM FOR CERTAINTY BLOG  Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Something for everyoneObama Meliorism and Obama […]

    BYObama « Fierce Love

    November 21, 2008 at 3:56 am

  7. Overall, I agree with your comments on Obama’s speech. Perhaps the way to bridge the gap between academic discourse (in which we use the word ‘meliorism’) and public discourse (in which the word ‘meliorism’ would likely be met with the response ‘huh?’) is to coin a more accessible and roughly synonymous term. In Patricia Shields’s article “The Community of Inquiry” (Administration and Society, 35/5, 2003), she uses the expression ‘critical optimism’ as a rough equivalent to ‘meliorism’. I am a big fan of your article “Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope” (so much so that I quote it in opening my own recent paper on Ben Franklin). If some members of the Obama administration read your article, I wonder whether they might start calling themselves ‘pragmatists’ or ‘meliorists’ (or perhaps ‘critical optimists’) and meaning it in a more philosophically deep (or less rhetorically shallow) sense. On a side-note (and excuse me for the appearance of shameless self-promotion), this Friday two philosophical pragmatists (Eric Weber of the University of Mississippi and myself) will be presenting at the Dupont Policy Summit in Washington DC ( Supposedly, some members of Obama’s transition team will be in attendance.

    Shane Ralston

    December 3, 2008 at 3:43 pm

  8. Ooh congrats on the Policy Summit presentation, esp. if members of Obama’s team would be there. I’m trying not be terribly jealous. Let me know how it is (and say hi to Eric for me).

    I agree with the need for a more general term. I would never want to use the term ‘optimism’ or any variant here. This is mainly because I like the effective and easy contrast between meliorism on the one hand and optimism and pessimism on the other: while optimists think things must work out and pessimists think that they must not work out, meliorists hold that things may yet work out given sufficient energy, attention, and action by those who would bring forth improvement.

    Were I to need a handy term for this (drawn from the vernacular, as it were) I would just say “hope”. If I had to turn it into an -ism (why would I?) I would just offer, with a bit of a coy smile, this suggestion: “how about hope-ism?”

    Thanks for the comment.

    Colin Koopman

    December 4, 2008 at 4:44 am

  9. […] Obama being a meliorist that shows us how we come across this word in our daily browsing, please click here and for an interesting article in which the meaning of ‘meliorist’ is explained […]

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