Monday, July 06, 2009


Carlin Romano (Univ. of Pennsylvania) recently wrote an excellent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education heralding President Obama as our first "Philosopher-in-Chief," an honorific given to him largely as a result of the nuanced cosmopolitanism that characterized his Cairo speech entitled "A New Beginning" (full text and video of that address here). I was actually at a meeting of scholars and activists for Israeli/Palenstinian peace the night after that speech, and remember many of the Arabs and Muslims who were present talking about the significance of the Cairo address, how absolutely unprecedented it was, and how Obama seemed to signal for the first time America's willingness to not only acknowledge, but also endorse, our obligations to the global polity. Romano traces the extended philosophical roots of Obama's cosmopolitanism-- through Cicero, St. Paul, Kant, Arendt, Patocka, Derrida, Rorty and Appiah-- while at the same time noting the unusual symmetry that seems to exist between his personality and that philosophy. Obama is, according to Romano, "cool, polite, generous, cosmo." He is a uniter, not a divider. He is a master rhetorician, with the rare ability to inject a palpable sense of capital-H History into his addressses. As Simon Schama noted, he is "our new American Pericles."

Obama's cosmopolitanism is a particularly admirable virtue, I think, given the absolute mess we're in at home. People are out of work, many are out of money, out of their cars and their homes. The "quagmire" of our domestic medical care system is rivaling the one in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of the fifty states is operating on I.O.U.'s, if it's operating at all. And yet still, Obama looks onward, upward, and most importantly, outward. Somehow, he manages to navigate the tricky pitfalls inherent to philosophical cosmopolitanim, even and especially the "bad" cosmopolitanism in which America might view itself as a City on a Hill and the rest of the cosmos as putative wards of a "global America." Unlike his predecessor, he is an proselyte of the best sort, an evangelist for statesmanship, conversation, deliberation, and measured, incremental, progressive change.

In 399 B.C.E., during the Golden Age of ancient Athens, Pericles said: "As we are a democracy, we can never fail." He would be proven wrong within a few years, as his once-great democracy crumbled and disappeared. Thankfully, our new American Pericles does not seem to suffer the same hubris. Obama, I think, knows that we can fail-- yes, we can-- and his cosmopolitanism is grounded in this realization. That's a cosmopolitanism I can believe in.


e. said...

glad to see you back in business!

Eralda LT said...

Hi! I found your site through elizabeth. Great reads, thoughts, etc. I completely agree with you on Obama. A few days ago I read a Plato quote that spoke of the need the world has for philosopher kings (or something of that nature, can't remember exactly). I turned to my husband and said: "That's what Obama is." He embodies certain philosophical sensibilities that have been absent for a very long time in most leaders.

Perspectivist said...

Indeed, my first thought was, "myth of the metals." Gold soul, and whatnot.