Obama’s ‘ideological utopianism’


Palestinian child in his home

Obama’s speeches are becoming a classic, no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for those studying English, at least in Japan. Certainly, after eight years of Bushisms, Obama’s words sound like Shakespeare. Hence, few would have complained if the Nobel committee would have awarded him the Nobel in literature. Notwithstanding that,  in listening to Barack Obama’s 36-minute Nobel lecture we may wonder whether a mistake has been made and if the President was supposed to receive the Nobel in Philosophy for his contribution to contemporary Sophism instead of Peace. Indeed, if Barack Obama should be compared to somebody for his Laureate Speech, it would certainly not be Martin Luther King or Gandhi, but perhaps rather  John Lennon.

Both imagined a world  of peace, but with one very tangible difference – instead expressing his vision via a microphone, Obama’s imagination manifests itself by means of military might that has sadly gifted Afghanistan with few successes and many deaths.

Many, from the Right to the Left have commented upon his Nobel speech (see, among others, Michael Tomasky, Robert Costa, Jacob Heilbrunn, James Fallow, and among academics Varisco) so I will not discuss here whether Obama’s unexpected Nobel Prize for Peace was deserved or not. Rather, I prefer to focus on the side effects of what I have called Barack Obama’s ‘ideological utopianism’ and the long term consequences that it may have for some Muslim communities. Scholars have described and explained ideology in many different ways. Here I wish to quote Robert Higgs:

Ideological expression aims to persuade, but not in the cool dispassionate manner celebrated by the rational ideal of science and philosophy.  Of course it may be rational, at least in part, and it may appeal to indisputable facts.  But the persuasive power of ideological expression arises for the most part from neither logic nor facts […] Ideological rhetoric usually takes a highly figurative, quasi-poetic form. Metaphor, analogy, irony, sarcasm, satire, hyperbole, and overdrawn antithesis are its common devices.  Ideological thought is expresses in intricate symbolic webs as vaguely defined as they are emotionally charged.

We exaggerate only a little if we say that in ideological expression imagery is everything […] Ideologues, hoping to attract those who lack the time or capacity for extended reflection, encapsulate their messages in pithy slogans, mottoes, and self-ennobling descriptions.  When these terse war cries produce the desired effect they mobilize large numbers of diverse people.  The secret of their success lies partly in their evocative moral appeal and partly in their ambiguity and vagueness, which allow each person to hear them as lyrics suited to his own music. (Higgs, 1987, p. 48)

Higgs describes ideology as mainly an emotionally charged rhetorical device aimed to provide one voice and one discourse the magical effect of being pleasing to each listener. Reading again Obama’s main speeches, particularly those addressed to Muslims, such as the much celebrated event in Cairo, emotional imagery is central.
However, this is not the only element of Obama’s strategy.  He also, and more relevantly, seeks to provide a utopic mirage for a new world in which happiness, peace and the fulfillment of basic human aspirations – particularly for the oppressed and the poor of the world  (many of whom today happen to be Muslims) – will become reality.

In other words, this means equality, equanimity, justice and respect among people and nations under the vigilant eye of a benevolent empire that is ready to sacrifice its own sons and daughters for your freedom (even if this may mean a ‘momentary’ enslavement of your country and the death of some of your relatives).Of course this benevolent empire is the US, as we can understand from the Nobel Speech of the President:

The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.

We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other people’s children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Questionable is, of course,  the declared  ‘enlightened self-interest’ and even more so is the discourse of democracy when various US administrations, in their foreign policy, have shown a certain preference and support for (supposedly) easily controllable dictators and corrupt presidents (see the last Afghan elections). But it is not historical realism that Obama aims at in his speeches but rather the creation of a general mood in which people can see the ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.

Obama’s ideological utopianism seeks to bring, globally, as many people as possible – and certainly a great number of alienated young Muslims – toward a utopian vision in which, ‘the collective unconscious guided by wishful representation and the will to action, hides certain aspects of reality. It turns its back on everything which would shake its belief or paralyse its desire to change things. (Mannheim 1936: 36)

If such utopian mentality is successfully achieved, issues may be postponed indefinitely instead of being addressed; actions of the US administration which contradict Obama’s words may be tolerated as never before, and a general sense of change and ‘new era’ shall overcast the significantly less-rosy reality.

In addition, Obama’s preaching can deliver a ‘think pink’ message that also appeals to a significant number of young Muslims. Yet the situation on the ground, obscured successfully by utopian rhetoric, is different – just to mention a well known few: Guantanamo is still open after Obama’s promise in Cairo to close it by the end of the year, Bush anti-terrorist tools (such as the rendition program) are still fully operative, more innocent Muslims than ever have been killed by Obama’s orders to increase drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Israeli blockade is now even stricter on Gaza and its citizens are even in worse economic and aid conditions than under the Bush administration.

Yet many are hesitant, at the present, to criticize Obama’s actions. His ideological utopianism is working and buying time for the current US administration and its, both morally and strategically, questionable decisions. Ideological utopianism, as a methodology, however, can only buy time.

In the long term it has very bad side effects as when the promised utopia fails to materialize, mass disillusionment will follow. For example, moderate Muslims – the majority in this world – who wanted to believe in a new era of respect and peace, will start to question their ‘Obama dream’. Any US president that follows will face the dramatic reality that, regardless of whatever s/he may say or promise, s/he will never be believed.

Additionally, at that point, following Obama’s promises to Muslims and the ‘Muslim world’, a simple sentence such as ‘the US is not at war with Islam’ will be laughed at. Unfortunately, an ideology of dystopia may well follow so that the problem, instead of being attributed to the US having an unwise President, will be presumed to be the responsibility of the US as a nation.

Obama, in his Nobel speech has emphatically concluded:

Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

This assuming that the young protestor will indeed be thankful to the United States, and likewise the dreaming child.

Yet, if Obama continues down the road of utopian promises of peace and well-being while there is death and suffering on the ground, beneath the rhetorical rainbow, many young protestors – even more than today – will march to end the brutality to the cry of ‘death to America’, and even more mothers who face punishing poverty will take the time to teach their children that a cruel world still has a place for a martyr against the ‘American devil’.

4 thoughts on “Obama’s ‘ideological utopianism’

  1. I was astonished by people’s response’s to Obama’s election – one Muslim told me he cried with joy. There was reason to celebrate, of course – he isn’t Bush. But was he about to bring an end to the US Imperium? Don’t be silly! Bush embedded sufficient crypto-Schmittian fear in the peoples of America (and elsewhere) to last a generation.

  2. Pingback: C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Closing the week 52

  3. Mr Obama is worse than Bush, for in his equivocations and dissembling he confuses the issue to shed a non-existent light upon his achievements, which are nil, and his dreams, which are about enslaving his own people to the whims of a tyrannical federal monolith— something Mr Bush did not share.

    Arrogance and deception is what the American presidency seems to be about— which mirrors the current political climate as one observes the UK, Germany and the fools in Copenhagen. As for the others, looting and transfer of wealth is an old ploy— too bad the producers of this wealth are still blind to this theft.

  4. The man has a silver tongue, no doubt about that. His ability to utter the most deep rooted falsehoods with an air of civilization and even grace, making our Imperialistic polices sound like manna from heaven … even when the heavens are abuzz with US unmanned death squads … is breathtaking. Well put, if people thought Bush was a hard act to follow, Obama is creating a nightmare for his successor, and the American people.

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