Sunday, 9 November 2008

Review - The Audacity of Hope

It’s natural to think of politics as a straight line. This is particularly true of political theorists and philosophers who love their nice simple dichotomies. Liberalism, socialism, and science on one side: conservatism, capitalism, and religious faith on the other side. While it makes it gratifyingly simple to divide things up in such a neat fashion, it also exaggerates the division it portrays. When viewed through the magnifying glass of the media coverage, these divisions become less about small ideological differences and increasingly about raging feuds, bitter battles, and a world divided.

Barack Obama sees all this and calmly gives a common sense appraisal of the situation. Throughout the President-Elect’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, the theme is balance. More often than not when embroiled in the rivalry of politics - watching the increasing partisan division of right and left wing, picking sides and taking names - anyone watching the political scene forgets that the people they are arguing against are just that: people. People who want something out of life, people whose beliefs are slightly different from one’s own, people who may feel the same way about their guns and religion as I, for example, feel about books and philosophy. Obama gives a rough and admirably honest appraisal of the situation which reveals himself as much more a centrist than a liberal. His clearly stated aim is to heal the division between the Democratic and the Republican sides of his country and he puts the case forward with such devastating common sense that one cannot help but realise that they too have been in the wrong the whole time. I have railed against the neo-Conservatives, advocated my democratic socialism as the most rational economic method, accused George W. Bush of being a moron. And Obama’s book has made me realise that I have been as wrong as anyone.

A recurring value, one inherited from Obama’s grandfather and his recently-deceased maternal grandmother, is that of empathy: imaging yourself as someone else; putting yourself in another person’s shoes and walking around in them, as Atticus Finch memorably put it. Concentrating on the virtue of empathy enables one to see that other people just want what they think is right. People like Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Ann Coulter, and Bill O’Reilly aren’t monsters: they are not part of some right-wing conspiracy to destroy freedom and subjugate the American people. They are people, each doing what they think is right. Their viewpoints are amplified by the media and the grandeur of political office but that is the nature of the beast. I can’t fault them for their belief in laissez-faire economics any more than they can fault me for my belief in nationalised institutions. Obama states his case with honesty, humility, and most of all a penetrating intelligence: he argues persuasively that democratic politics is the art of finding a balance between the two opinions of partisanship.

The ethical code at work is that of Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Aristotle emphasised the dichotomous nature of ethical judgments between people and within individual character. For the individual and for society as a whole, justice consists in finding the Golden Mean between the two extremes, finding that place in the centre which strikes an advantageous compromise to both parties. That’s why Lady Justice holds her scales.

Reading a book gives you a feeling of knowing the author. Barack Obama sometimes comes across as an idealist but mostly he seems to be a realist; enough of a realist to know, as Tuesday proved, that sometimes things do work out for the best. He’s an intelligent man, eloquent and well versed in political philosophy and the American legal system. Most important of all, he seems honest and sensible.

Barack Obama’s book gives a remarkably honest evaluation of present-day American politics and some of the most sensible political opinions to come out of a politics book since John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. In the latter half he gives his own policies; many of which I cannot agree with. His stances on constitutional rights and equal opportunity, I find commendable. His positions on economic practice (although probably quite nebulous with the current economic crisis) and his foreign policy, I do not agree with. But his vision is not to satisfy the left-wingers or to enrage the right-wingers. He wants to bring the American people together under the shared value of empathy. He wants to find America’s Golden Mean. And no-one can find fault with that.

A caveat: I like to think I’m balanced enough that I would have read any book that the incumbent President cared to write. The onus is in you, George.

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