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In These Times: Why Cynics Are Wrong

Posted by Trey Smith on November 16, 2008

There’s a really good article by Slavoj Zizek posted at In The Times.  He offers some insights on a topic that many of us on the left have been discussing all month — the overall significance of the Barack Obama victory.

On the one hand, no one can deny its historical significance.  Had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. been told that a black man would be elected to the Oval Office less than 50 years after their assassinations, I believe both men would have laughed until they cried.

On the other hand, notwithstanding this historical triumph, will the Obama administration be yet another example of politics as usual? Since leading conservatives and power brokers eventually gave the nod to the man from Illinois, it indicates that they believe he won’t upset their apple cart and may strengthen it.

Anyhow, here’s how Zizek addresses these points and more:

Days before the election, Noam Chomsky told progressives that they should vote for Obama, but without illusions. I fully share Chomsky’s doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: From a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will just do some minor face-lifting improvements, turning out to be “Bush with a human face.” He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus effectively even strengthen U.S. hegemony, which has been severely damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.

There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction — a key dimension is missing in it. It is because of this dimension that Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggles for majority with all their pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good, American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, in that moment of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

What kind of sign am I talking about? In his last published book The Contest of Faculties (1798), the great German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant addressed a simple but difficult question: Is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress in freedom, not just material development.) He conceded that actual history is confused and allows for no clear proof: Think how the 20th century brought unprecedented democracy and welfare, but also the Holocaust and gulag…

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