Susan Neiman on President Obama
Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the Einstein Forum, having previously taught at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. The Wall Street Journal called her 2008 Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists “an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country.” Her 2002 work, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, explains philosophy’s quest, touching on Kant, among others, as one perpetually in search of a perfect understanding of evil. Born in Atlanta, Neiman received her doctorate degree from Harvard University.
Question: Why is Obama the best choice for President?
Neiman: I’m trying to think of a short answer to that question because when I began writing this book I-- Actually, I’d had the-- The word “grown-up idealist” is a word that had occurred to me for a long time in thinking about Kant and indeed in teaching Kant. I’ve been teaching Kant now--wow, gosh, let’s see--for nearly 20 years on and off so when I was teaching Kant at Yale I used the word “grown-up idealist” to describe Kant’s view as I’ve explained it to you. Barack Obama is the first politician that I have ever come across who I genuinely think has an eye for both the way things are and the way that things should be. I think he embodies the American dream in a way that we have not ever seen in a way that embodies both the immigrant dream, a sense of perspective about the rest of the world, combined with a genuine appreciation of the American dream. And I think he’s absolutely brilliant. What convinced me about Barack Obama was actually his first book, Dreams From My Father, and- which is a book that I’ve been recommending to people who then walk away saying, “You know what. Even if he’s not-- Even if he doesn’t become President, this is such a good book.” Anyone would have been proud to have written it. It’s subtle, it’s reflective, it’s self-reflective, it’s self-critical, it’s observant and it’s poetic, all of which are- reveal a sense of character that I think we’ll all be proud to have in our next President. And a final point that I have not seen anybody raise about Obama is the following: Obama really does represent the triumph of the civil rights movement. There is racism in this country; there is no question. We’ve also seen it in the election and electing Barack Obama will not get rid of it although it will be a giant step forward. I think one reason why so many people of all ages are being inspired by Barack Obama is that the civil rights movement really is a moment that Americans--in our recent history--that Americans can be genuinely proud of. It was a genuine moral- morally political movement with all of its frailties. I just saw a terrific play called The Good Negro downtown which talks about the frailties and the infighting and all of the things that happened in the civil rights movement and yet it was a unique moment. We don’t have an instance of that in other countries. You have countries throwing off colonialism but you don’t have a moment in which a country looked at its own ideals and said, “Hey, we’re not living up to them and it may be bloody and painful and hard and reluctant but we’re going to change because we know that we’re not living up to the standards that we set to ourselves.” And I think a sense that this is a- this is- this crystalizes something in America to be proud of again is perhaps what Michelle Obama meant with her slightly misspoken comments that I completely understand. When my own teenagers who look at politics completely skeptically up to now see an interview with him on television and come to me and have been making fun of the grownups for being excited for a while, “Ma, I get it. He’s for real and if he’s elected it will change the world.” And I have to say Barack Obama has made America an offer we shouldn’t refuse.
Susan Neiman on Immanuel Kant and the grown-up idealist
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