Monday, February 11, 2008

Old Man Obama

While Gnosticism can, at times, have its creative side, when it comes to truly understanding the shared human source of our creativity, there's nothing new under the Gnostic Sun, not the least the desire of anxious youth to avoid facing certain humbling existential and human questions, preferring to think of themselves instead in the figure of a Sun King, as John Lennon once creatively imagined.

The power of Barack Obama's rhetoric, its ability to appear profound while saying little but "unite", "change", clearly appeals to the would-be uniters, the sun kings of latter days, as is now becoming all too apparent. One could snicker that Obama is simply telling the most guiltily race-conscious people in America that he is going to somehow free them from their guilt by constantly reminding them of the need for "change" and "unity". It's like the priest who keeps promising the forlorn that the Kingdom of God will appear on earth any day now.

But there is a larger point to be made: what Obama represents is a form of rhetoric that has for ages appealed to the young (and young-at-heart), including many happily race-conscious generations. In politics, there is always a divide, somewhere, and always a place for magicians who promise to overcome this hard reality. It's not that there aren't moments in political life when we can indeed overcome divisions; but these moments are always only temporary, as every new consensus gives way to new forms of difference: a consensus is something exchanged by people who have to be different to be engaged in human exchange, people who can never just all become the same thing and then freeze history in place. We are beings free to love and to resent any consensus; we can have no consensus, no shared new sign or idea, that is not already in the process of being exchanged, changed, eroded, reformed, etc. To be human is to exchange differences about what is only ultimately, i.e. originally, the same.

Joseph Knippenberg, writing about Dennis Hale's thoughts on the need for us to recognize the inevitability of division in politics sums up the question succinctly:
Hale makes the entirely commonsensical and grown-up point that choosing means dividing. Unity requires the overcoming or suppression of politics. Obama promises to build the kingdom on earth, which amounts to the overcoming of politics. But people who promise that usually end up trying to suppress politics.

If Obama were serious about unity, he'd be Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, or Mussolini. I credit him with not being altogether serious. He's merely, as Jonah G. would say, a liberal fascist.
I admit to rather liking that moniker, but at the end of the day, one has to face the reality that calling liberal fascists by their proper name is not a way to win them over to reality, as the outrage over Goldberg's book suggests.

As I say, it's not that unity is never possible; it's not that we can't all agree to change; it's just that if we are all to agree on change it has to be over a real promise that is truly open-ended, open to a further exchange of differences, open to new, if yet undeveloped, divisions. And if Obama presumes to represent such a promise, he needs to make clear how he can set up a new political dynamic, a new form of exchange, by bringing new ideas and realities into play in a way that widely raises excitement that a new game, a new challenge, is about to be unboxed and no one yet can know who will learn to master this game, since all players have reason to hope. That's a consensus: the start of an exciting game.

Since my colleagues here at Covenant Zone are frequently discussing how one can appeal to young people, this post began with the idea that I would put up some thoughtful comments from Knippenberg's colleague at NoLeftTurns, Julie Ponzi:
John McCain will not get the same kind of youth support that Barack Obama gets. Indeed, he ought not want to inspire that kind of reflexive, unthinking and insipid prostration.

But all young people are not twits. There is plenty to be tilled from the fertile garden of thinking and emerging-in-intelligence youth. John McCain can start by reminding us that he, too, was once young. He can talk about character in a way that inspires rather than chastises. His story is an inspiring one. He has not used it to as much good effect as he might--partly, I think, out of a sense of modesty and partly out of a (sensible) desire not to bring up the whole Vietnam debate and, thereby, hearken back to the debates of the 1960s (yet again). There is some danger in this, I admit. But the debate that Obama wants to engage is, for all his youth and inexperience, a very old one. This can be demonstrated. The truth is that Obama is nothing new under the sun. And he can be made to look very foolish for thinking that he is. Young people are always insecure about the possibility that they look foolish. Don't offend them by telling them that they are foolish--but point things out that lead them to this conclusion on their own.

There are things a septuagenarian can do to inspire young people. Two of them are NOT pandering to or ignoring them. Appeal to their minds and give them credit for having minds and then, perhaps, you may win their hearts. Such a strategy would do more than win McCain and the Republicans young voters. It would go a long way toward winning him all kinds of voters in general. For, in this need to have respect for our minds and in the desire not to appear as fools, we're all very young at heart.


truepeers said...

One rather suspects "Brother Puma" couldn't keep his head above water in a real anthropological debate about Gnostic fantasies and about the shared basis of the human transcendent.

That debate is always open and free at Covenant Zone. The only rule is intellectual honesty without self-indulgent gawking and name calling.

Rob Misek said...

"And if Obama presumes to represent such a promise, he needs to make clear how he can set up a new political dynamic..."

Like a technological democracy.

On-line voting and referendums for every voter in every community on every issue every day.

Lets face it, our current experience with democracy is one vote every 4 years.

Scott said...

I rather dislike leaving any kind of comment, because it presents the impression that your writing is worthy of attention. I do, however, wish that you could make your arguments clear enough for one to comprehend.

I think in order for that to occur, first you should define what you mean by the term 'gnostic'. You seem not to be using any commonly shared definition.

truepeers said...


Now that you've gotten that apotropaic gesture out of the way, let's talk.

I refer to Gnosticism a lot at this blog. You could do some Googling and gain an impression. How we use words is more important than how we might define them, unless that is one is a Gnostic who believes the key to meaning is in the signs themselves and not in the reality the signs help us to see. I respect the dictionary, but it only takes us so far.

My understanding of Gnosticism comes largely from Eric Voegelin. Sure, his concern is to label all kinds of modern philosophies, Gnostic, and not to use the term simply to refer to early Christian heresies. That annoys some people, but I would defend him. His argument is that there is a perennial response to existential dilemmas that is usefully labelled Gnostic. Here is what I wrote on these lines to someone who asked me a similar question a few weeks ago at another blog:

Yes, my understanding of Gnosticism is largely from Voegelin and associated writers like GA’s Tom Bertonneau.

I don’t think all forms of leftism are or need be Gnostic, only that the dominant forms of modern leftism and liberalism have been. So, it would be too simple to say Gnosticism should only be thought of in a pejorative sense, though my polemical writing often gives that impression. It is a question of modern “progress” being blinkered and undermining itself with certain fantasies that nonetheless motivate, to an extent, for better and worse.

If Gnosticism is, traditionally, the belief that the creation as we have received it has somehow taken a wrong down turn, but that through special knowledge an elect may get back in touch with the true Creation, then the labelling of all variety of positivism and progressivism as Gnostic is most simply a recognition of a recurring tendency for thinkers to refuse the uncertainties of existence and our fallen condition, to deny the insufficiency of reason or wishful thinking to determine the future forms of the transcendent, and consequently to refuse a humility before human limits on controlling the mysteries by which signs transcend experience. It is to evince a desire for control over social developments, or alternatively an unwillingness to recognize social realties and existential conflicts at odds with Utopian-gnostic dreams of a new age of expert-divined Unity and World Peace, dreams that substitute for more hard-headed forms of deferring violence. To take a Voegelinian example, instead of coming to terms with leading nations Japan and Germany to realize their military role in maintaining global security, reflecting their existential weight and ethical-technical powers, the post-WW II liberal Gnostic forgoes peace treaties and looks to increasingly post-national elites and their UN projects as the solution to World Peace. We end up with most Western nations demoralized and unwilling to carry their full responsibilities to define and defend interests in a global system, preferring instead more abstract gestures like debating the pros and cons of anti-Americanism. Along with a recurring Utopianism, we allow ourselves fanciful notions about the “root causes” of conflict and resentment.