In the Wake of Herbert Marcuse
Prof. Paul Eidelberg
Herbert Marcuse was the philosopher of the New Left, which surfaced in academia in the 1960s and has since permeated American higher education.
Marcuse’s philosophy is an amalgam of existentialism and Marxism with a dash of Freud. I limit myself to existentialism which more readily solves the mystery of Senator Barack Obama.
The most well-known existentialist in the 20th century was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was a moral relativist who chose to become a Marxist—not because Marxism is true, but because he deemed Marxism a convenient suit for the “nothingness” of his soul—a tabula rasa inherently devoid of identity. Sartre is famous for his philosophical dictum existence precedes essence. This dictum raises the question of an individual’s authenticity. To be authentic, one must choose one’s essence, that is, one’s own identity, which may also be called one’s “narrative.”
Of course, the fact that Obama is biracial has intensified his quest for identity. But Obama has also been influenced by existentialism, which requires the individual to mold or create himself. He cannot be authentic by affirming and living according to the principles of his nation’s heritage.
Besides, in this postmodern era of multiculturalism, the heritage of each nation appears arbitrary, another “narrative.” For almost a century, America has been immersed in a partisan, “liberal-conservative” narrative. Obama transcends this narrative, or so he would have us believe. His views of government have much in common with Progressivism. Progressives rejected the rigid constitutional system of checks and balances. They were inclined toward statism and were therefore skeptical of American individualism. Obama, it seems, offers Americans a post-liberal-conservative doctrine of CHANGE. In fact, however, he believes, or would have us believe, that CHANGE has ever been the essence of the American narrative, that is, from the very birth of the Republic.
This contradicts the Declaration of Independence. Obama is of course aware that the Declaration affirms the existence of “self-evident truths.” Since these truths are derived from the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” they must be deemed immutable, contrary to Obama’s apotheosis of CHANGE. The Declaration is not the emergence of a narrative. Thomas Jefferson and other signers of the Declaration never thought of this document as a “story,” or as the nation’s mythology.
Nor did Abraham Lincoln (with whom Obama has the audacity to compare himself). Contrary to Lincoln, Obama regards the Declaration as well as the Constitution as fundamentally racist. The junior senator from Illinois has obviously been tainted by revisionist (or “abolitionist”) historians who even portray Lincoln as a racist. This cynical but actually simplistic view of the Great Emancipator was rejected by no less than his admirer, the great negro slave Frederick Douglas. Consider this passage from Thomas L. Krannawitter’s recent book, Vindicating Lincoln (2008):
As Frederick Douglas explained in an 1876 speech at the dedication of the Freedman’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park, “Viewed from the genuine abolitionist ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.” Douglass understood, however, that Lincoln was more political, therefore more effective in bringing about an end to slavery, than the abolitionists: “But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
Lincoln regarded the principle that all men are created equal—equal in their unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—as a self-evident truth, absolute and immutable, indeed, the foundation stone of Republican government.
In contrast, Obama’s The Audacity of Hope rejects any absolute truth, political or theological, that binds future generations. Change for Obama is not only a political but a philosophical principle. But from this it follows that Obama can say or be one thing today and something quite different tomorrow. Recall his flip-flop regarding Jerusalem: undivided one day, and divided the next.
Obama’s apotheosis of change is conducive to opportunism, indeed, to Machiavellianism. To be authentic, however, one must not lay down any set of principles as if they were immutable. This goes quite well with the Marxism of Herbert Marcuse’s book Repressive Tolerance. Even a regime based on tolerance (such as America) is repressive if it does not undergo revolutionary change.
Obama has been called an “empty suit”—which fits the dictum existence precedes essence!
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