More and less radical, more and less nihilist — Obama comes in on the “less” side, but then a little bit of nihilism goes a long way. To quote from The Audacity of Hope:
Implicit . . . in the very idea of ordered liberty was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.
There is no absolute truth — and that’s the absolute truth, he argues. Such feeble, self-contradictory reasoning is at the heart of Obama’s very private and yet very public struggle with himself to determine whether there is anything anywhere that can truly be known, or even that it is rational to have faith in. Anyone who believes, really believes, in absolute truth, he asserts, is a fanatic or in imminent danger of becoming a fanatic; absolute truth is the mother of extremism everywhere.
Although it’s certainly a good thing that America avoided religious and political tyranny, no previous president has ever credited this achievement to the Founders’ rejection of absolute truth, previously known as “truth.” Is the idea that human freedom is right, and slavery wrong, thus to be rejected lest we embrace an “absolute truth”? What becomes of the “universal truths” Obama himself celebrates on occasion? Surely the problem is not with the degree of belief, but with the falseness of the causes for which the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, and the jihad stood. A fervent belief in religious liberty is not equivalent to a fervent belief in religious tyranny, any more than a passionate belief in democracy is equivalent to a passionate longing for dictatorship. Has he forgotten Martin Luther King’s reflections on this question in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? After drawing on Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to distinguish between just and unjust laws — a distinction postmodernism makes impossible to uphold except ironically — King offers a defense against exactly the kind of charge of extremism that underlies Obama’s renunciation of absolute truth.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” . . . And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or for the extension of justice?
Nothing like the moral clarity and moral reasoning of this passage will be found in Obama’s speech on race. It was hailed for its comprehensive empathy with black Americans who have long suffered racial scorn and discrimination, as well as with working-class whites who resent affirmative action and immigration. Predictably, it called for a national conversation on the issue, with a view to mutual understanding and to all factions’ discovering their need for a sympathetic state to recognize their grievances. His predilection for such conversations is the reverse side of his rejection of absolute truth. In The Audacity of Hope, within two pages of his criticism of the Founders for allegedly excluding black Americans from constitutional protection as equal human beings and citizens, he warns against all such sweeping truth claims, and indeed praises the Founders for being “suspicious of abstraction.” On every major question in America’s early history, he writes, “theory yielded to fact and necessity. . . . It may be the vision of the Founders that inspires us, but it was their realism, their practicality and flexibility and curiosity, that ensured the Union’s survival.” Obama cannot decide whether to blame the Founders as racists or to celebrate them as relativists; to assail them for not applying their truths absolutely to blacks and Indians along with whites, or to praise them for compromising their too-absolute principles for the sake of something concrete.