Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ideas and motives

Yesterday, over at Contentions, John Podhoretz attacked David P. Gold­man for writing this last Friday on a First Things blog:

Obama is the loyal son of a left-wing anthropologist mother who sought to expiate her white guilt by going to bed with Muslim Third World men. He is a Third World anthropologist studying us, learning our culture and our customs the better to neutralize what he considers to be a malignant American influence in world affairs.Podhoretz calls this passage “disgusting,” and he is exactly right. Those of us who oppose President Obama’s “fundamental transformation” of America must not totter into such language. Not merely because it is ad hominem. More tellingly, the distinction between “real” motives and what a man publicly professes—the unblinking confidence that “real” motives can easily be identified, even though they are nowhere expressed—has long been a staple of Left dis­course.

Even more disgusting—obscene, in truth—is the arrogant certainty with which Goldman unmasks the sexual motivations of Ann Dunham, the President’s mother, now fourteen years dead. If this is not, as Podhoretz says, “beyond the pale both intellectually, ideologically, and as a simple matter of taste,” then nothing is. The mystery of a person’s sexual life is just that—a mystery, revealed only to intimates, who are their lover’s secret counsel. There is no possible means by which anyone else can know any­thing at all about another person’s sexual experience, and to speculate about it is characteristic of the totalitarian mentality, from which nothing is permitted to be concealed.

But Podhoretz also directs fire at the second half of Goldman’s accu­sation:Casting Obama as a malign foreign influence is a particular and unforgivable intellectual madness on the Right over the past two years. There is nothing foreign about Obama’s ideas or ideology, alas, which can be understood, in my view, almost entirely from the curricula and extracurricular ideas endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in col­lege.This too is on target. Obama’s, um, ambivalence toward Israel comes as little surprise, for example, to anyone who is familiar with the fact that he studied at Columbia under Edward Said.

All I would add to Podhoretz’s point is that the “ideas or ideology . . . endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s” did not start there and then. Leftist ideas have enjoyed a long and charmed life in America. As early as 1887, after four anarchist leaders were executed for causing the Haymarket riot (and one killed himself the night before), the fifty-year-old William Dean Howells, champion of literary realism in America, wrote: “[T]his free Republic has killed five men for their opinions.” As a consequence, the judgment upon America for “every unjust and evil deed” committed on these shores now “goes on forever,” he said.

That judgment has been installed in the American university curricula for some time. At all events, it is wiser and more instructive, I think, to locate a man’s political sins in the intellectual tradition that he has uncritically embraced. The conservative movement stands for the propo­sition that ideas, not fetid and hidden motives, are the real reality of human expe­rience.


R/T said...

Let us focus instead on President Obama's observable actions and words rather than making the mistake of divining his ideology and its roots. That focus alone will persuade any objective observer that "change" is coming, and it is not a good change.

hbl said...

I think it's interesting that you criticize "fetid and hidden motives" when the article on Israel that you link to is just as shameless in trying to find hidden motives for Obama's "pro-palestinian" stance.

"...he will do everything he can to downgrade US relations with Israel while maintaining his constant genuflection to the likes of Iran, Syria, the Palestinians and Turkey."

Give me a break. I'm not "anti-Israel" in the slightest, but I think you could have picked a more informative post on Obama's policy in Israel. Just my two cents.

D. G. Myers said...

You may or may not like her article, but to say that Caroline Glick is “trying to find hidden motives for Obama’s ‘pro-[P]alestinian’ stance” is mistaken.

The question that Glick poses is this: “But if his campaign against Israel wasn’t driven by a presidential temper tantrum, and it isn’t aimed at promoting peace, what explains it? What is Obama trying to accomplish?”

What, in a word, is its objective? An objective is distinguished from a motive in being, well, objective.

hbl said...

Touche. In any case, thanks for the great blog. Just found it a few weeks ago; now it has become my go-to time-killer at work. :)