Saturday, April 12, 2008

Obama on the Bitter Working Class Clinging to Guns and Religion
Freedom Versus Nature, Human Rationality, and Some Drive-By Kant

This is obviously bad politically for Obama, though I'm less worried about that. I know that "gotcha" politics has been raise to a fine art in the age of the interwebs and YouTube. Who knows whether this will have legs?

But as for the content: I've heard some pundits flailing around trying to explain what's wrong with what Obama said. My initial take is that, by asserting that people are clinging to e.g. guns and religion because they're bitter about their economic situation, Obama is in essence asserting that their beliefs are irrational.

On the standard account, we give non-rationalistic, causal explanations (e.g. psychological or economic ones) when people are acting non-rationally. So, if Smith begins running around naked singing 'Pop Goes the Weasel," or asserting that demons are attacking him, we will generally look for some causal explanation--e.g. a chemical imbalance. If, on the other hand, Smith thinks that 2+2=4, or that wood comes from trees, we don't look for a non-rational causal explanation. In such cases we suppose that Smith's beliefs are brought about by the facts in a rational (note: this usually means something like: free and non-causal) manner. Smith believes that wood comes from trees because he's rational, and because wood does come from trees. He recognizes the fact. No appeal to his economic situation or any chemical imbalance is needed.

So, by giving a causal, non-rationalistic explanation for some subset of people's religious beliefs, Obama is in danger of suggesting that that's the way all religious beliefs should be explained. And that's tantamount to saying that those beliefs and the believers are irrational.

That's probably not what he thinks, but that's what he suggested.

Interestingly it's characteristic of the fairly far intellectual and political left to give explanations of beliefs that make all or almost all beliefs irrational and subject to causal explanation--especially of the social variety. Whatever Marx thought, many of his intellectual descendants seemed to believe that all beliefs--with the possible exception of beliefs like Marxism is true--have to be explained economically or in terms of other social causes. This is what adherents to the so-called Strong Program in the sociology of "knowledge" believe. The view is almost certainly false, and possibly self-refuting, but it's all the rage on the intellectual left.

Anyway, there are all sorts of interesting issue here, but I'm supposed to be working. I will say that at the core of this issue is a dispute about the fundamental nature of humans and the world. And also Kant's fundamental distinction between freedom and nature. The standard view lurking in the background here has it that our rational beliefs are, roughly, freely and rationally adopted, whereas our irrational beliefs are forced on us by things like chemistry and peer pressure. Lots of obvious problems and questions pop up immediately, but, hey, it's back to work for me...


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

But the worst of it is that anyone who disagrees with Obama [and we are led to presume, leftist orthodoxy] is being irrational.

How is civility and mutual respect possible in that environment?
I have encountered this myself.


3:54 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

WS, it's the Rovian approach - try to damage your opponent's strong suit. My take is here.

Here's a guy who's not at all rich by Presidential standards, who actually has some experience outside the economic elites, and two wealthy elite opponents are faking the common touch. The elite media is only too happy to go along.

Somewhere there's a trail of faxes from the RNC and maybe from the DLC to the media. They started with bowling, moved to oj, then lighted upon the current BS. When this is done, there will be another one queued up.

The central idea is to paint Obama as just another out of touch white liberal.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Interesting point, LL.

Yeah, sometimes it seems that anybody who's smart, is interested in ideas, or has interesting ideas is automatically painted as an elitist snob, no matter how un-like that he may be. It's like the view is: if you're not a dolt, you're a suspect. And, of course, with W, it sometimes used to seem that being dim was supposed to be sufficient to make him just reg'lar folks. Hey-al, a stupid zillionaire is jes reg'lar folks.

Having one foot in academia and one foot still planted in rural MO, I think I have some kind of perspective on this stuff. Most of the people I'm close to on each side of this fence are non-snobs about the other side, but it's clear that snobbery does exist in both places. You're absolutely right that Obama should be the candidate least susceptible to this...but any little opening, no matter how small, and the bad guys are going to jump for it. He really does have to be more careful. But you say thousands of sentences in a campaign, and something's definitely going to come out wrong.

What about OJ?

8:13 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Having one foot in academia and one foot still planted in rural MO, I think I have some kind of perspective on this stuff. Most of the people I'm close to on each side of this fence are non-snobs about the other side, but it's clear that snobbery does exist in both places.

This is true.

However, sometimes, it's not just all talk.

WS risks falling into the corollary of Godwin's Law [substitute "Hitler" here]--

"As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one."

Unfortunate. This is so predictable, it's painful. You get angry not because people won't hear you, but because they see through you.

Dismiss the outrage as Rovian nonsense, but something real is happening here, both what Obama said, and the outrage at it.

I really think y'all should vote for Obama, and send all your money to his campaign. You agree with him. You genuinely and sincerely agree with what he's really saying. Maybe most of America does, and he'll be elected president.

But you fall into error that the rest of America can't tell the difference. He is not being misquoted here, or being taken out of context.

We all know what's what, and if we didn't, Barack Obama just made it much clearer.

We, the American people, shall vote accordingly.

9:48 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

Well, jeez, Tom-the-American-people, I didn't say Rove is behind it, only that it's his technique.

If I understand your objection without cutting and pasting your dilatory links...

'Cause I have to say this last is incoherent even for you.

Nothing "real" can come out of the TV talking heads, though they can manufacture hot air even more plentifully than politicians.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

It's not all technique, mate. It's not just about "words."

We must overcome our pomo addiction to thinking that it is.

I'm gonna try to treat you straight-up from here on in, that our differences are in basic philosophy on the nature of man, not reducible to an exchange of ill will because of it.

I really think Barack Obama thinks certain stuff, and so do you. It makes neither of you bad people.

I just want to vote the other way, because I don't share your vision of America and the human person as a whole. Distill the blahblahblah, and surely something essential and substantive remains.

This should be OK with both of us, as we're both liberals, in that classical sort of way.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

What's up with oj???

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Winst,


3:41 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

Jimmy D., thanks for a wonderful excursion to Scotland. (Note to TVD: Don't bother.)

WS, the oj story (not OJ!) is limned by Media Matters here.

TVD: Yes, our differences are basic and extend well beyond words. I never said it was all technique, but this series of media ruckuses is. You'll disagree about that, too, as you've already called it "something real".

The media circuses are manufactured bullshit. Their purpose is to distract from deeper meanings of the choices we face. For Hillary, they provide one last way for her to cling to her slim hope to be the nominee. For McCain, they hide the yawning chasms between even Hillary and him on policies that will actually affect the lives of regular Americans.

Pomo addiction? What? Where? In politics???

I frequently dispute your usage - you very often use words in ways that seem transparently calculated to blur their intended meaning. I won't stop doing that, but it's not pomo; I resist your flirtations with newspeak because it is the death of intellectual power, the eventual replacement of truth as a goal with might makes right.

That's one of the reasons Bushists and their apologists dismay me. Ten years ago they were completely inflamed in asserting that, goddammit, words have meaning. Now, they have no idea what words mean (e.g. 'torture'), so they search for fig-leaf rationales to force them to mean whatever they need them to mean.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm off Bush.

Obama calls all these messes "distractions." I call them saying what he really thinks. I don't think they're gotchas.

As for Rev. Wright, I don't believe Obama agrees with him per se. But I think he won't stand up to him, just as he won't say anything about Carter meeting with Hamas.

And you really didn't assert a single fact or engagable argument, LL, just a torrent of invective and bitterness. Sen. Obama's got your number.

People like Wright and his flock voting for Obama are understandably bitter. People not voting for Obama are understandably bitter, but cling to guns and religion.

I see a theme running through all this. Very pomo.

2:45 AM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

Damn, I fed the troll again. My bad.

It's not really a surprise that he can't find any argument to engage and yet he continues to find some reason to argue. Even when I agreed with him on his central point...

8:25 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Of all the loony BS non-issues that have been spotlighted in this campaign, that OJ thing probably takes the cake.

It's especially bizarre to me, since I usually do exactly the same thing--that is, ask for OJ instead of coffee. I had no idea that this was in any way noteworthy...but I guess that just shows how far gone I am into elitist pointy-headed intellectual-dom.

I'm only seeing one half of your discussion, LL, but my guess is that the topic is still: did Obama's "bitterness" comment point to anything real/important?

The answer is almost certainly 'no,' but it's the kind of comment that can, sometimes, point to important attitudes. That is, as I was saying above, it's the kind of comment that can show that somebody thinks that religious beliefs, positive beliefs about guns, and so forth are irrational and require causal explanation.

The question is: does Obama think that's so? Obviously not. He's Christian himself. He's also got positions that are in many ways more pro-gun than HRC's: she, e.g., wants to confiscate our firearms during emergencies, Obama does not. Though she's now trying to portray herself as the new Charlton Heston or something.

As for xenophobia: well, in my experience, there IS actually a measure of that in the rural Midwest, and it IS we should treat that separately.

But, as I think you're noting, the issues laid over all this have to do with the nature of our public political discourse. When, in the course of uttering thousands of sentences, a candidate utters one that has multiple interpretations, one of which is bad, it's suddenly a crisis. CRISIS!!!!!11

There are actually tacit rules for resolving such problems in ordinary conversations: you ask the speaker what he meant.

I guess one idea in politics goes like this: you can't trust them to tell the truth when they're paying attention, so you take such apparently unguarded slip-ups as being very significant--windows into their real beliefs. Or somesuch.

I actually DO think that what Obama said is worthy of our attention, (but not *much* attention). But since it happens in a context in which both the other candidates are saying way worse things, the HRC campaign is channeling the spirit of Lee Atwater and so forth, this issue actually fades into relative insignificance in my book.

The inference we're invited to make here, is, of course, something like this:

Obama said one thing that has one interpretation on which it's the kind of thing an "elitist" might say. Therefore Obama is obviously an elitist.

Cripes. Hell is the absence of reason. I can hardly even watch this stuff anymore.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Jake Tapper:

Obama Allies Avoid Trying to Explain Most Controversial Part of His Remarks

1:38 PM  

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