I understand where Damon Linker is coming from in his latest column on President Obama’s predilection for playing professor-in-chief, but I think it behooves him to consider the possibility that the President is not confused about his role, but is consciously trying to do something different with it – possibly something foolish, but possibly not. It’s hard to know without examining what that “something” is.
But let me start with a cranky quibble. Linker says:
What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.
Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how thisgroup of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.
That’s certainly one way of understanding morality – but far from the only one. Etymologically, “morality” comes from a Latin root that relates to manners – and manners are indisputably a historically- and culturally-rooted matter, and not at all universalistic. Aristotle, and modern-day Aristoteleans, would surely agree that it’s specious to talk about ethics and morality as something independent of a community’s self-understanding. Historically, in the United States, “morals” legislation has been overwhelmingly particularistic in orientation, either referring explicitly to (Protestant) Christian conceptions of morality or more generally to “community standards” that turn out to be rooted in same.
What Linker appears to have in mind is Kantian conceptions of morality. I know he’s read his Hegel, so I know he knows how this conception can be attacked – but more to the point, he knows that even within the liberal tradition there are other ways of coming at the problem.
The same criticism can be leveled at Linker’s account of politics: this is one way of understanding the realm of politics, but hardly the only one. For Aristotle, politics was distinguished from ethics inasmuch as the former treated questions of collective organization, the latter questions of individual good (said good being only truly discoverable within the context of a collective). The two realms, though, were inextricably related; politics wasn’t just a matter of tribalism, but of discovering truths about the best way to organize groups of human beings in harmony with their natures. And the Greeks eagerly exported this conception across the empire Alexander conquered. In modern terms, virtually all politics have appealed to and advanced some conception of the good. The American Revolution was a political movement, but it was dedicated to a bunch of propositions that went beyond “we don’t like paying taxes so we’re going to stop now.”
I’m aware that Linker is, himself, dedicated to certain propositions about the distinction between these spheres. I merely ask that he recognize that his is a distinctive program with both political and moral implications, as opposed to something everyone agrees on and for which the President of the United States merely “lacks appreciation.”
So: Linker thinks politics should be tribal, while morality should be Kantian. And he’s upset that the President, in his remarks . . . did what exactly?
If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.
Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?
I’ll say it again: as an intellectual exercise, Obama’s remarks weren’t wrong. Christianity has been invoked to justify a wide range of moral atrocities down through the millennia, and the Crusades, Inquisition, and Jim Crow are all excellent examples. I would welcome and praise an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates making that exact point.
But Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t the president of the United States, and Barack Obama isn’t a writer for The Atlantic.
A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact.
As I say, I get completely where Linker is coming from. He wants the President to make a practical, not a moral, case for engagement in a war against ISIS, and to leave it at that. Here’s a threat, here’s how we’re going to address the threat, and our boys have the threat well in hand. All in a day’s work.
But let’s consider a variety of possible reasons why the President might have taken the rhetorical tack he took beyond what I acknowledge is a personal preference for the lectern.
First of all, he may genuinely be concerned not only about ISIS but about the possibility of inflaming American moralistic nationalism by engaging with ISIS. The President may feel that, properly aroused, our country might very quickly get behind a far more robust effort to “kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths” and might not, in fact, be so particular about who else gets killed in the process. The reaction to his prayer breakfast speech, and the disposition of the opposition party on these matters, suggest that such fears are not entirely specious. And so, he wants to let us know, this is not a great crusade against evil. It’s more like a police action against a particularly monstrous group of criminals. He may want us to understand ISIS as more the heirs to the Manson family than to Saladin.
Second, he may be concerned about diplomacy. The best – likely the only – effective response to ISIS must be one rooted in the Sunni world. Perhaps America can help, but we can’t lead except from behind. And so, he repeatedly returns to formulations of the conflict calculated not to offend the sensibilities of allies in the region who we need to occupy the front lines. Part of that ritual formulation is to say: this is not a conflict between tribes; it’s a conflict between good and evil within another tribe; and we’re taking the side of good not because we are the good tribe but because taking the side of good is good.
Third, he may be thinking not as President of the United States but as Leader of the Free World. Linker may decry the fact – plenty of writers here at TAC decry it daily – but the United States occupies a quasi-imperial position in the world system. We’re the global hegemon, the hyper power, the indispensable nation. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, a crown we should covet to keep or a poisoned chalice we should try to put down, it’s still a fact. And it’s obvious that the President views his role as managing that position as effectively as possible. From the perspective of that position, the Muslim world is not a foreign tribe but a difficult and restive province far from the imperial center.
Or, you know, maybe he was thinking that this was a prayer breakfast, a singularly appropriate place, one would think, to speak from a position “beyond” tribal politics. Of course, if politics and morality are to be treated as strictly separate realms, then a prayer breakfast is a singularly inappropriate place for a President to speak at all. Maybe Linker’s problem isn’t the President’s failure to conform to the “bully pulpit” expectations Americans have, but to those expectations in the first place. But those expectations have a long lineage.
President Obama’s warnings about the danger of self-righteousness owe an obvious debt to Niebuhr, but they also trace back to President Lincoln’s warnings about Northern self-righteousness in the cause of anti-slavery. Lincoln was acutely aware that the South’s cause was self-interested, but that awareness led him not to condemnation but to compassion, because he understood that it implied that the anti-slavery North, if it had the climate and history of the South, would likely have adopted the same stance. Right was still right, and wrong was still wrong, but judgment belonged to someone more exalted than the President. Nobody should pat themselves on the back for choosing right; very likely, the choice was less-costly for them than for somebody who chose wrong. Our proper stance is charity for all, malice toward none.
Perhaps that puts a finger on the real problem. Lincoln used complex moral language to address a nation wracked by civil war, but ISIS is not us, and perhaps wars are fought more effectively when the people are encouraged to see the enemy as uniquely evil, ourselves as uniquely good. But if so, that’s an argument against American hegemonism, against limited war – and against engaging with ISIS. It’s an argument that a properly “tribal” politics is inconsistent with our quasi-imperial position, and that if we want to avoid carrying the flag of the crusades we had better carry no flag at all so far from our territorial waters. It strikes me as strange to choose to marry a policy argument of that sort to a critique of the President for being insufficiently solicitous of the sentiments of Johnny Jingo.
Or maybe Lincoln was just confused about the distinction between morality and politics.