Since the so-called “hermeneutic turn,” initiated and sustained by that Teutonic proclivity for ratiocination, we’re told that everything—on the page and off the page—is a text, and therefore it’s interpretation all the way down. As philosopher James K. A. Smith explains it: “There is no uninterpreted reality, no brute facts passively sitting there to be simply and purely seen. Rather, we see the world always already through the lens of an interpretative framework governed by ultimate beliefs. We could say that we always already see the world through a worldview.”
Two recent intellectual biographies reveal that neither the left nor the right have privileged access to the brute fact of Barack Obama. Our forty-fourth president is a text whose meaning is slippery to admirers and adversaries alike. On the left, there’s Harvard historian James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama—a title that plays on the inscripted nature of his subject. Kloppenberg interprets Obama as a specimen of American philosophical pragmatism:
It has become a cliché to characterize Obama as a pragmatist, by which most commentators mean only that he has a talent for compromise—or an unprincipled politician’s weakness for the path of least resistance. But there is a decisive difference between such vulgar pragmatism, which is merely an instinctive hankering for what is possible in the short term, and philosophical pragmatism, which challenges the absolutists—whether their dogmas are rooted in science or religion—and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation.
Kloppenberg has effectively inoculated Obama against all criticism. He’s not a vulgar pragmatist like Bill Clinton, so don’t expect a move to the center this year. He’s not an absolutist like George Bush, so don’t expect the permanence of principles in the flux of circumstances. If either the public or perpetuity should judge him a failure—unable to deliver the messianic “Hope” of his campaign propaganda—he’s not to blame because the God-fearing and gun-totting rubes aren’t ready for a philosophical pragmatist in the White House.
In his perceptive review of the book, Peter Berkowitz has raised the following paradox: How do we reconcile Kloppenberg’s Obama as “an exemplar, in word and deed, of moderation, balance and accommodation” with what appear to be the brute facts: his failure in office ”to find common ground with conservatives and independents; his refusal to slow down and win over a majority before proceeding with large-scale reforms; and his readiness, as president, to vilify those who disagree with his policies and purposes”? The solution is simple: Look to the one doing the deconstruction. Mr. Kloppenberg is a theorist, and as Berkowitz notes:
Theorists of deliberative democracy typically denigrate the messy give-and-take among actual flesh-and-blood citizens and dismiss it as the outcome of flawed procedures for conversation. They prefer the conclusions that derive from abstract and sometimes intricate theories. Meanwhile, in the guise of rejecting absolutes, the adherents of philosophical pragmatism absolutize partisan progressive goals and reconceive "moderation" as merely exercising patience and flexibility in the pursuit of progressive ends.
A critical interpretation of Obama would require the interpreter to first critically view himself. James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal has happily provided this view for professors like Kloppenberg: “Professors imagine Obama is one of them because he shares their attitudes: their politically correct opinions, their condescending view of ordinary Americans, their belief in their own authority as an intellectual elite. He is the ideal product of the homogeneous world of contemporary academia. In his importance, they see a reflection of their self-importance.”
On the right, there is Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage. A peculiar title considering the subject’s technocratic coolness, it reflects the author’s interpretation of Obama as situated within the anti-colonial ideology of his father. D’Souza writes:
From a very young age and throughout his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America’s military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father’s position that the free market is a code word for economic plunder. Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America. He began to detest corporations as institutional mechanisms for economic control and exploitation. In Obama’s worldview, profits are a measure of how effectively you have ripped off the rest of society, and America’s power in the world is a measure of how selfishly it consumes the globe’s resources and how ruthlessly it bullies and dominates the rest of the planet.
Like Kloppenberg, D’Souza interprets Obama through a predictive model of behavior. But rather than inoculating Obama against all criticism, D’Souza’s model vilifies his every move. The answer to any puzzle about Obama—passing healthcare legislation in the face of public opposition, giving speeches that apologize for American exceptionalism, nationalizing the automobile industry, supporting the Islamic Center near Ground Zero—invariably has the same answer: He’s an anti-colonialist.
Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, did not hesitate to lambaste this bestselling conservative author in his review of the book. To reformulate the question we asked about Kloppenberg’s book, how do we reconcile D’Souza’s Obama as exemplar, in word and deed, of anti-colonial ideology with his blinkered fidelity to liberalism? Again, the answer is simple: Look at the one who is doing the deconstruction. Ferguson writes:
Trained as a young man by Jesuits, D’Souza must be familiar with the principle of Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is always the best; if it fits the case at hand, there’s no need to go looking for more complicated theories. Yet there’s a cramp in the mind of the committed party hack, a terrible need to believe that one’s adversaries are more ominous or sinister than observable reality suggests. Thus Bill Clinton wasn’t merely an opportunist; he had to be a committed leftist and a criminal to boot. George W. Bush wasn’t merely a well-meaning, incompetent conservative; he had to be a Falangist. What Obama truly represents—unchecked liberalism, genus Americanus—is worrisome enough without dragging in the sad, gin-soaked carcass of his father or the hypnotic power of Roberto Mangabeira Unger.
D’Souza would, in other words, do well to heed the medical adage for making a diagnosis: "When you hear hoof beats, don't expect to see a zebra," that is, do not diagnose a rare or exotic disease when all the symptoms point to a common ailment. When all the brute facts point to a horse and the observer continues to suspect a zebra, it tell us little about the subject of observation and a lot about the mind of the observer.
These books teach us two hermeneutic lessons of crucial importance. First, psychologism results in psychobabble. If the goal of interpretation is, in the words of Wilhelm Dilthey, “to feel the states of mind of others,” how can you be sure that you’ve left your own frame of mind and entered that of another? Kloppenberg and D’Souza aren’t reversing the process of writing and getting to the psychic reality behind Obama’s expression, but projecting their own psychic reality on him.
An Ivy League professor sees in Obama—surprise, surprise—a mirror image of himself, whereas a conservative policy analyst sees in Obama a reverse—or grotesque—image of himself. In both cases, the interpretive act is distorted either through lionization or demonization. An overemphasis on who is speaking will always obscure and distort what is being said and to whom.
Second, the text is autonomous. Obama, like the rest of us, is inscrutable to himself, and therefore an overreliance on his writings may obscure more than illuminate. Put differently, no one is a self-expert: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9). Neither Obama nor his readers can possess or exhaust the meaning of his words.
Meaning arises in the I-Thou conversation between author and reader, so that interpretive practice is not merely reproductive but also productive. Kloppenberg and D’Souza have failed to offer reliable productions of meaning because the text (Obama), however weak in determining its own meaning, has “a rather remarkable recalcitrance in the presence of arbitrariness,” as philosopher Merold Westphal puts it. What the text yields, in the case of Obama, is not so much philosophical pragmatism or anti-colonialism, but good old-fashioned liberalism.
Christopher Benson is a writer in Denver. He writes on cultural and religious issues in The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, and Christianity Today. His blog is Bensonian.org. Peter Berkowitz’s review of Reading Obama is available here. James Taronto’s review of Reading Obama is available here. Andy Ferguson’s review of The Roots of Obama’s Rage is available here. Mr. Benson's own reflections on the State of the Union address can be read here.