Susan Neiman

It's the metaphysics, stupid

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Neiman
February 28, 2008

DEMOGRAPHICS, WE are told, will determine the Democrats' endgame: When all is said and done, what counts is tribal loyalty. The notion that politics is ultimately about helping your friends and hurting your enemies has been received wisdom since fifth-century Athens, when Socrates challenged it by suggesting that his neighbors shift their focus to ideals. Few were ready to hear him then, and now it's the same shift of focus that fuels the Obama campaign.

We've heard so often that politics is negotiation between competing interests, and everything else is self-serving fluff. Senator Barack Obama's rejection of this belief has proven his greatest strength. It is crucial to understand why this is so, for the claims that his campaign is running on nothing but rhetoric will only get louder as the race wears on.

Strange as it sounds, this is an election where metaphysics may count more than demographics, and focusing on the latter misses the point. Metaphysics determines what you hold to be self-evident and what you hold to be possible; what you think has substance and what you can afford to ignore. Hope is based on, or undermined by, your metaphysical standpoint.

In the past few years words like realism and idealism have been thrown around so often that few people stop to examine them, and philosophers are more likely to groan at the glibness than to set records straight. But the main points are so simple they've now been set to music. A realist is someone whose attention is restricted to what's true, that is, the way things are. An idealist is someone who focuses on what should be true, that is, the way things ought to be. Grown-up idealists pay attention to both. While never losing sight of the facts on the ground, they don't believe the world as it's given to us exhausts reality as a whole.

As Obama points out often, this is a particularly American perspective. When the Founders wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident," they were not only not self-evident; they weren't even true. Americans have gone a long way toward making them true because we've shown, time and again, that despite slavery and sexism and economic inequality, we believe they should be true.

If it's a message so catchy that it has now made the rounds of cyberspace as a star-studded video, it's also one with roots as deep as Immanuel Kant. The "Critique of Pure Reason" is not easy reading, but it makes some startling claims. Kant tells us that Plato's ideal of a perfectly just state was always dismissed as a utopian dream; but if everyone had worked to realize those ideals, they would be true today.

"That may be very well in theory, but it won't work in practice" - this old saw, wrote Kant in 1792, depends on a misguided view of reality. Ideals conflict with reality because that's how they work. In offering us a different vision of how the world could be, they guide and goad us to make reality live up to ideals.

Five years ago, Robert Kagan made news by supporting the looming attack on Iraq with the claim that Europeans were Kantians while Americans were Hobbesians. He argued that Europeans are blinded by a Kantian dream, in which ideas of peaceful negotiation, international courts, and sharing global wealth make things work. But though we too would like to live in a dream world, Americans recognize the hard facts of this one, and are resolute enough to respond to them - thereby taking on the burdens that let Europeans dream on.

Kagan's transatlantic analyses were widely criticized on historical grounds, but even shakier are the premises behind them: what's real is an unending struggle for power, goods, and glory, while everything else is just hype. Let's call this view Hobbesian, though the real Thomas Hobbes was subtler.

True, the cycle of fear Hobbes believed to be central did reflect the universe of the Bush administration, which brought the world closer to Hobbes's realities than it had been before. But Hobbesian convictions could no more sustain the American right than Marxism sustained the American left, and the reasons are the same.

Whatever their political convictions, Americans incline to metaphysics, which underpins their beliefs that ideas of right and justice can transform just about any old world. Here recent conservatives mirrored American self-understanding far better than self-described realists to the left or the center - presumably one thing Obama meant by pointing out they've had ideas.

Whatever else Kant may have been, he wasn't soft-headed or sappy - charges that have been leveled at Obama and his supporters. And even many supporters speak of following their hearts, not their heads. But ideals are not emotions, and they aren't even dreams.

After seven years of an administration whose precarious relationship to truth has brought so much disaster, it's no wonder that many critics have demanded a return to realism. Hillary Clinton calls herself realistic while insisting she is optimistic, too. This is not just a difference in rhetoric. Consider what you mean when you tell someone: be realistic. It's another way to say: lower your expectations. It's also connected with a view of maturity that holds growing up to be a process of becoming resigned.

We've all heard the message that the best part of your life is that cusp between adolescence and adulthood. It surely isn't true; most empirical studies show that people tend to get happier as they get older, work out their own identities, and measure their strengths and weaknesses. Since few of us would actually choose to be 16 or 22 again, the only reason to promote the message is to prepare young people to demand less from their lives.

Obama's is a message to demand more - and not just for the young. His idealism is unsettling to many not because it's naive, but because it poses a challenge. If you assume that things cannot get better you have nothing to do but sit back and watch them get worse.

For years, we thought the best we could leave to our children was a world that hadn't self-destructed. Now we've begun to imagine that we might leave them a world that's a little better than the one we were given. Three years ago, many thought a great Democratic ticket would be Edwards/Obama - in that order. Idealist though I am, even I never thought the country would be ready to consider Obama in 2008. Look how far ideals have taken us.

Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum, and author of the forthcoming "Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists."

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