Sunday, June 24, 2012


The title of this blog post is taken from a course that I took in law school back in 1984. Far from being Orwellian, the course was liberating. It was taught by a Brazilian professor named Roberto Unger, who was revered among the school’s progressive students as the campus’s leading leftist intellectual. Supposedly, he was the first person allowed to publish an article in the Harvard Law Review without a single footnote. I don’t know if that’s true or just a legend, but it impressed us students just the same. And indeed, when taking his course, we almost forgot we were in “professional school.” Unger’s class was a place where ideas mattered, passion mattered more, and the only thing that was discouraged was the refusal to think big.

Back in ’84, Unger was unquestionably a socialist. I did my final project on why private property is needed. Suffice it to say, that wasn’t your typical Harvard Law School experience.

Despite how much I enjoyed Unger’s course, I had largely forgotten about him until this past week, when I noticed an article about him in the Huffington Post. Apparently, a few years after I graduated, a certain Barack Obama enrolled in Unger’s course and they kept in touch even after Obama graduated. In 2008, Unger was an advisor to the Obama campaign. Like every other progressive (myself included), he was presumably smitten with Obama’s potential to do for the progressive movement what Ronald Reagan did for the conservatives 28 years earlier.

You could hardly blame Obama for reaching out to obtain Unger’s advice – whether or not you agreed with Unger’s positions, he is a thinker who commanded respect. He didn’t beat around the bush, always defended his positions with logical precision, and wasn’t afraid to take positions that aren’t popular. When it comes to being a public intellectual of the left, Unger was the real deal -- which makes his current statements about Obama even more noteworthy.

In a video posted on May 22nd, Unger called for Obama’s defeat in the upcoming election, arguing that "He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States." Unger went on to say that an Obama defeat is necessary for "the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life." Now he did acknowledge that Obama’s defeat would be problematic in terms of “judicial and administrative appointments," but added that "the risk of military adventurism" is the same under Obama as it is under the Republicans.

Unger’s deepest critique of his former student came in the domain of economics. He summarized Obama’s economic policies as follows: "Give the bond markets what they want, bail out the reckless so long as they are also rich, use fiscal and monetary stimulus to make up for the absence of any consequential broadening of economic and educational opportunity, sweeten the pill of disempowerment with a touch of tax fairness, even though the effect of any such tax reform is sure to be modest." This, Unger said, “is less a project than it is an abdication." Then Unger continued on to list a series of specific complaints:

  • "His policy is financial confidence and food stamps."
  • "He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices."
  • "He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money."
  • "He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice."
  • "He has reduced justice to charity."
  • "He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight."
  • "He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle."

You get the picture. Unger was expecting a progressive. What he got instead was a guy who was trying to run a unity government that would bring together two parties beholden to corporate interests. This is not the kind of “reinvented democracy” that the professor had in mind.

Then again, compared to the other symbols of democracy we have around the world, Obama comes across as positively divine.

Look at the mess in Egypt. The expectation is that when all the dust is settled, the military group who has run the country for decades will have so stripped the presidency of its power that the election results announced today hardly matter. So yes, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is “President,” but it is far from clear that his presidency is anything more than symbolic. As of now, Mubarak’s military remains in control. Then again, here’s the real kicker -- when you compare Egypt’s plight to that of Syria’s, it truly does seem like an Arab Spring in Cairo

Of course, it may aptly be said that Syria is in no respect a democracy and Egypt is only pretending to be one. So we can’t use those examples to show the limitations of democratic governance. No? How about looking at the Palestinians in Gaza. If I’m not mistaken, they had a free and fair election and Hamas won. Now you will find Hamas engaged in yet another rocket war with Israel, in which innocent Arabs and Jews are giving up their lives or limbs for a cause I’m not quite sure I understand. Such are the fruits of a legitimate election.

Please don’t tell me that democracy is a cure-all. Please don’t tell me that free elections can’t actually make things worse. They can. But as a general matter, they sure beat the alternatives.

Consider the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln from the battlefields of Gettysburg. Lincoln chose to end one of the most poignant speeches in recorded history with the following words:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It all starts and ends with three things – free and open elections, honest campaigns and informed electorates. In each case, we Americans pride ourselves on having taking this process seriously for literally centuries. Today, however, our political process is truly being strained.

People ask me sometimes how it is that I, a political progressive, could remember Ronald Reagan so fondly. And my answer is always the same – I thoroughly disagreed with the thrust of his policies, but at least he campaigned with integrity about the way he intended to run the Government, and America got the President they intended to elect. My support for Barack Obama in 2008 was based in part on a hope that he would be that same type of President, only in this case, we’d be electing a true progressive.

Well, I turned out to be wrong, as Unger has noted. But when I look at Obama’s opponent this year, I hardly see another Reagan. The Romney who competed for the Republican nomination was practically a right-wing nut, and now, we are seeing a very different, more measured Romney – “Romney-Lite,” so to speak. On a topic as important and politically sensitive as immigration rights, for example, Romney has gone from advocating “self-deportation” (talk about the theatre of the absurd) to remaining as silent as a Quaker prayer hall. He is afraid to say what he really thinks, because God forbid, many of his flat-earth constituents might decide to sit out the election if he does. So instead, he is simply going to tell us that he will do something smart … only we can’t know what it is until after we elect him.

Is that the way democracy is supposed to work? Is that the kind of “reinvented democracy” Unger is truly looking for?

OK, OK, prof. That’s a cheap shot. I understand your argument is not so much that we should vote out Obama because Romney is better, but we should vote out Obama in order to jump start the progressive movement, which will remain moribund as long as Obama is in power. And I will grant you that as long as Obama is in power, the progressive movement in the United States will remain largely moribund. We have only the recent defeat in Wisconsin as evidence that the movement remains, shall we say, less than robust. But I want you to pretend, for a moment, that you get your wish and Mitt Romney wins. What exactly do you think will happen then?

Would you predict that America will unleash a group of public intellectuals like yourself who will take to the airwaves and usher in the second coming of the New Deal? Would you predict that the best-and-the-brightest will stop flocking to corporate law firms and will instead head over to MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and give us the kind of crack investigative reporting and analysis that the public hasn’t seen here in decades? Would you predict that the Democratic legislators who we count on to ensure that the laws of the land are sane will all of a sudden forget the corporate moguls to whom they have been beholden, and suddenly become passionate advocates of the homeless and the helpless?

Or would you simply predict that the government would become even more right wing?

I forgot – you’ve already made that last prediction. And yet you still want Obama defeated. Prof, I think you’re letting your passions get in the way of your judgment. Apparently, hell hath no fury like a professor scorned.

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