Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Ashbrook Center

Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen, an Obama supporter who is currently at the Institute for Advanced Study, is the subject of this Washington Post article (you can also click on a four minute interview with her). Allen is looking into the question of those anonymous and false chain e-mail claiming that Obama is concealing a radical Islamic background because "Allen studies the way voters in a democracy gather their information and act on what they learn." Allen thinks that the anonymity of such statements is the problem: "Citizens and political scientists must face the fact that the Internet has enabled a new form of political organization that is just as influential on local and national elections as unions and political action committees. This kind of misinformation campaign short-circuits judgment. It also aggressively disregards the fundamental principle of free societies that one be able to debate one's accusers." In some way she reveals more about her purposes in studying this issue in the short WaPo interview than in the article itself. I also think that this is interesting, although I would suggest to the WaPo (and Allen) that Hillary's not so anonymous response to a question on whether or not Obama is a Christian, "As far as I know," is also in the category of misleading and may explain this WaPo fact: "polls show the number of voters who mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim rose -- from 8 percent to 13 percent between November 2007 and March 2008. And some cited this religious mis-affiliation when explaining their primary votes against him."

Allen is the author of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. She spoke on the theme of the book at the Ashbrook Center in 2005.

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Discussions - 9 Comments

I happen to be of the opinion that Obama is Buddhist. I am encouraged in this view by Dr. Lawler who in a previous post suggested that if Romney were to join McCain on the ticket then there would be no Christians. John McCain is christian by indentification, but the fact that Dr. Lawler could bring it upon himself to ignore this fact was quite encouraging. Obama himself in the Audacity of hope suggests that he is a canvas upon which other people project their views, which suggests to me that I should feel free to do so as well.

In the Obama household growing up there were three religious texts that Obama differentiates from the "Greek, Norse, and African mythology" these texts were "the Bible , the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita."

Obama says, "On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple..."

"And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person I know."

"It is only in retrospect, of course, that I fully understand how deeply this spirit of hers influenced me...how it buoyed me through the rocky shoals of my adolescence, and how it invisibly guided the path I would ultimately take."

"It was in search of confirmation of her values that I studied political philosophy, looking for both a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real. And it was in search of some practical application to those values that I accepted work after college as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs, and hopelessness in their midst."

Thus Obama echoes the Dammapada which opens with pairs of sayings:"Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with wicked mind, suffering follows one, even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox.

Mind is the forerunner of (all good) states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with pure mind, AFFECTION follows one, even as one's shadow that never leaves."

In discussing his father in the chapter on faith Obama makes clear that his father is not spiritual, and impure in thought and preocupied with materialism with fierce unchanneled ambitions, one could almost suggest that the structure of the chapter corresponds to the teachings of the dammapada.

Now Obama himself is clearly christian and involved with christian churches, specifically black churches. Why black churches?

"And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that he historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world. Long before it became fashionable among telivision evangelists, the typical black sermon freely acknowledged that all Christians(including the pastors) could still expect the same greed, resentment, lust, and anger that everyone else experienced...You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not appart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away-because you were human and needed an ally on your difficult journey...it was because of this newfound understandings--that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved--that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ."

So, so much for the Buddhist hypothesis? Au contraire, It was simply a wise acknowledgement of Samsara that was the reason he chose the church in the first place! He may on some level be saying that Buddhism is impossible, but if I know anything about Buddhism, which I don't, nevertheless there are many paths and there is a path reserved for those who engage the wider world.

The Christian church certainly has many variations. The recent split in the Anglican Church is just an example of the many divisions and different expressions of Christianity in the wide world. When you get into the issue of spirituality, all bets are off. That we project our views is a liberty and a deception. Even those of us who cling to a Biblical fundamentalism can't help but be free to see that each in our own way.

Thank you for explaining Obama, a little, anyway, as I won't get around to reading that book anytime soon.

Will the "Institute for Advanced Study" next investifate who spread the stupid "Bush lied!" story around the internet?

I don't think the WaPo bothered to mention it, but Allen is an Obama supporter and contributor. Nice to see that our taxpayers funded schools get to spend their times playing partisan politics.

Two points:
1. Obama is likely to be more vulnerable to rumors than the average presidential candidate because he is a relative newcomer. The less people know about any person, the more vulnerable that person is to enemies who have some reason to fill (necessarily) empty minds with whatever suits the enemies' purposes. My own view of Obama, unlike that of Dr. Allen, is that he is likely to be a very bad president, but the reasons for that have nothing to do with the lies that come out of some of his enemies' mouths; the reasons for opposing Obama come out of his own mouth.

2. Dr. Allen made a very interesting point in the audio interview. Citing Federalist 10's argument about the extended republic and how it dilutes faction, she contended that the Internet, by making our republic effectively less `extended'--by allowing a whispering campaign to `go national' so quickly--the Madisonian argument no longer applies, or at least applies with much less force than it did in the 1780s. This is an extension of arguments that have been made, in their time, about radio and TV, but it does seem that the Internet works differently from the other media.

The Madisonian argument was never a very good one. It always struck me as suspiciously similar to the idea behind "divide and conquer", known to rulers from the dawn of human history. Divide "the people" into squabbling factions and the position of the rulers is secure.

Interesting that Obama mentions Madison in the same chapter on faith. In doing so he also suggests that it is somewhat of a folly to get too tied up with intellectual debates about Madison and Jefferson concerning seperation of church and state because the real actors were people like "the Reverend John Leland and other evangelicals who provided the popular support needed to get these provisions ratified. They did so because they were outsiders; because their style of worship appealed to the lower classes; because their evangelization of all comers--including slaves--threatened the established order."

Nevertheless he is a strong advocate for Jefferson, even in quoting John Leland to the effect that "it is error alone which is in need of government to support it; truth can and will do better without...it." I am guessing but it seems that Obama would argue that Jefferson's abstract view/predictions of what american faith would look like is an impossible conversation because it theoretically shortcuts the true determinants...

In his views on the Constitution he states that "It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the 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 progrom, the gulag, or the jihad."

"They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity. Jefferson helped consolidate the power of the national government even as he claimed to deplore and reject such power. Adams's ideal of a politics grounded solely in the public interest--a politics without politics--was proven obsolete the moment Washington stepped down from office."

Amazingly Obama stakes his entire view of constitutional jurisprudence upon Madison: "According to this conception, the genius of Madison's design is not that it provides us a fixed blueprint for action, the way a draftsman plots a building's construction. It provides us with a framework and with rules, but fidelity to these rules will not guarantee a just society or assure agreement on what is right." Rather Madison gives us a framework in the constitution, the bill of rights and the federalists for negotiating the tension between subjectivity and authority, or in Obama's own words: "it challenges us to examine our motives and our interests constantly, and suggests that both our individual and collective judgements are at once legitimate and highly fallible."

I don't think the Founders did reject absolute truth. The Declaration is is defining the natural rights of man and tying those to the Creator and creation makes those absolute. I don't have time to argue and you're not Obama anyway. Thank you for extending your explication. I hope you have found some cut and paste option for all of those quotes.

Nope, for the most part and in this case, I type them out by hand from the physical book. Of course my comments are usually reflective of whatever I have been reading, which usually isn't only the original post.

I am just here to try to get a free grad school education in Political Economy.

To give and get, in this instance, John Lewis. Thank you.

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