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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Congratulations, Mr. Pragmatist

In previous posts [1], I have claimed that Obama is a prototype of the philosophical pragmatist and at the dawn of his self-declared "new era of responsibility" I would like to follow up to illustrate how this philosophy is playing out in practice. Again, the essence of pragmatism is the rejection of principles in principle. Quoting Ayn Rand:

A principle is “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.
To disagree with a principle or an ideology for a specific reason or fact is one thing, but to reject principles or "ideology" as such is to reject the human method of cognition and reduce man to the state of an animal. Such a mind rejects the possibility of truth and mindlessly clamors for "practicality" and "compromise". Quoting Ayn Rand again:

...To make it more grotesque, that haggling is accompanied by an aura of hysterical self-righteousness, in the form of belligerent assertions that one must compromise with anybody on anything (except on the tenet that one must compromise) and by panicky appeals to “practicality.”
The desire to "compromise with anybody on anything" is the hallmark of the pragmatist and such a desire necessitates contradiction. Consider the following foreign policy statement from Obama quoted in this article:

“Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security and we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats,” Mr Obama said.

First note that he offers a bold "Let me be clear" as if he is going to clarify his position. He then states that we are "committed to Israel's security" and "support Israel's right to defend itself." Now to implement such a policy in principle would entail a certain logical progression. In other words, such a policy would entail defining "legitimate threat" and then supporting Israel if it were to defend itself from such a threat. In the present case, Israel means to defend itself from Hamas which is a brutally repressive military regime which barbarically slaughters it's own people, states in its charter its intention to destroy the state of Israel, and routinely launches rockets at Israel from Gaza. Wouldn't that constitute a "legitimate threat" and therefore justify Israel's invasion of the territory? Quoting the same article:

But in comments referring to the Gaza conflict he added: “I was deeply concernedby the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”

He called on Arab governments to “act on” the promise of a Saudi-led 2002 Arab peace initiative by supporting the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas “taking steps towards normalising relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”

Supporting Israel would mean decrying the loss of Israeli life and blaming Hamas for all the deaths that have resulted since Hamas' actions necessitated the invasion. In fact, the Palestinian "civilians" are the one's who elected Hamas as their leaders! Were American's concerned about German or Japanese "civilians" in World War II? This statement is a blatant contradiction. He attempts to sanction Israel's defensive actions while at the same time he undermines them by referencing his own emotional reaction to the logical consequences of the action. But, of course, to the pragmatist there is no contradiction. The concept of contradiction implies the concept of objective truth. If nothing can be really true, then how can any one claim contradict any other claim?

Israel upholds the rule of law and recognizes basic individual rights and therefore represents a bastion of western civilization amidst the barbarism which pervades most of the middle east. Israel can not "compromise" with regimes that do not recognize its right to exist and brazenly call for its annihilation. A regime that does not respect the rights of its own people can not be trusted to respect the rights of other nations.

However, as a pragmatist, Obama must act. What should he do? Should he recognize the objective distinction between Israel and her enemies and relate the interests of Israel to the objective interests of the United States which you think might include freedom and individual rights? Of course not. There is no objective truth. No "culture" is better than any other. He is "not concerned with ideology but with facts." He seeks "peace" - without ever understanding what peace actually means.

Objectively, "peace" is a state or condition that exists in the absence of war but it can not mean simply the momentary cessation of hostilities. If this were the case, every time soldiers stopped shooting it would be considered a state of "peace". "Peace" also implies "harmonious relations" or "freedom from dispute" which implies a long term political resolution based on two governments recognizing the right of the other to exist and respecting each others territorial boundaries. This does not mean you necessarily agree with everything the other country does, but it does imply a certain fundamental relationship between the two parties.

Based on this fact, how can there be "peace" between Israel and Hamas if Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of the Israeli state and the imposition of Islamic law? The pragmatist can not think in such terms. "Peace" to the pragmatist means absence of fighting right now. Therefore, the goal must be to get the parties to stop fighting - at any cost. Logically, since Israel is stronger militarily, Obama must ask Israel to sacrifice itself to its enemies in order to achieve "peace". After all, if Israel were to continue to destroy its enemies it will result in death and that must stop right now. Won't stopping the fight now allow Hamas to regain its strength and lead to further attacks on Israel in the future leading to even more death in the long run not only of Palestinians but of our Israeli allies? Of course, but Obama must be pragmatic.

I think there is another element to Obama's pragmatism which explains his contradictory policy. An important aspect of pragmatism is that it is a philosophy of nothing. It rejects principles per se. Therefore, a practitioner of pragmatism accepts ethical premises from the prevailing culture amounting to a default philosophy which underlies the direction in which the "action" takes place. Obama's default position is liberation theology or Christian Marxism and this implies that he must side with the Palestinians. Why? Note the reference in his statement to the Palestinian civilians "who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long." Notice he states this as if it is simply a natural fact without cause and without any attribution of responsibility to the Palestinians themselves. Israel is strong and capitalistic (relatively speaking of course) and the Palestinians are weak. Poverty anywhere is a form of social injustice which can only be explained by Marxist exploitation theory, i.e., the "rich" abusing the poor. Quoting wikipedia:
Liberation theology is a school of theology within Christianity, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. It emphasises the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, particularly through political activism. Its theologians consider sin the root source of poverty, recognizing sin as capitalism, and capitalism as class war by the rich against the poor.
Notice the reoccurring pattern of Muslim attacks on Israel followed by a military response followed by calls for "peace" and "compromise" followed by attacks, etc. The whole basis of Obama's approach to foreign policy is based on the idea that there is no objective distinction between good and evil. This is why he claims he will negotiate with Iran and why his first call to a foreign leader as President was to Palestinian President Abbas allegedly "to make good on his promise of 'ushering in a new era of peace'".

I'm sure this will lead to an "era of peace" in the same sense that 1938 and 1939 were an era of peace for Britain after Chamberlain ceded the Sudetenland to the Nazis.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for the article. It neatly integrates philosophical insights (the nature of pragmatism in our culture today) with particular events (President Obama's statements on the fighting in Gaza).

One minor aside, for congratulations: You correctly note that peace is a state of being. Contrary to left-wing activists, peace is not a "process." Further, as you note, peace is not a mere absence of shooting at a particular moment. It is a state of harmonius relationships--which in a free society means trade.

The Rat Cap said...

Thanks Burgess.

You cite a great example that I had not considered. The so-called peace "process" does not make any sense as you are either in a state of peace or you are not. "Peace process" is a modern euphemism for appeasement. Great call on that one.