I'm emerging from the end of semester craziness. My teaching is done for the semester (save one meeting with an independent study group this afternoon - always a pleasant meeting of minds) and the big pile of grading will not drop on me until next week. A good time to catch up on blogging...
A blog friend sent along a link a couple of days ago (thanks Alan!) to a post by Andrew Sullivan: "The Tao of Obama: No Fight, No Blame." It's a simple post, just showing a photo of Obama and his new Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, with the text of passage 8 from the Tao Te Ching, taken from the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation:
The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. In dwelling, be close to the land. In meditation, go deep in the heart. In dealing with others, be gentle and kind. In speech, be true. In ruling, be just. In business, be competent. In action, watch the timing. No fight: No blame.
Not really sure why he chose this translation, but it gets the job done (an interesting comparison of this and other translations of this passage can be found here).
The point, it seems, is to suggest that, in choosing Kagan, and her relatively nondescript public face (not much in the way of scholarly writings, no judicial decisions, etc.), Obama is shrewdly avoiding fights in a manner that will both succeed in the longer term and insulate him from criticism.
And maybe all that is true. But is it Taoist? I think not.
I am already on record as suggesting that Obama has something of a Mencian streak (with the obvious caveat that Mencius would probably not have increased US military action in Afghanistan). And I have recognized some Taoist resonances in his actions. But the Kagan appointment is too strategic a political calculation to be Taoist in any meaningful sense.
Taoism encourages a minimalist approach to politics, something that, at the outset, makes it hard to apply to a position like President of the United States. Could any President (besides maybe Calvin Coolidge) detach himself from the political sphere and do nothing that would run counter to the natural unfolding of things? Not really. And maybe that is making too much of Sullivan's juxtaposition. But the suggestion that Obama's tactical avoidance of battle with conservative Republicans is Taoist misses other important aspects of his political stance, which strike me as more in line with Confucius/Mencius and Sun Tzu.
Obama is Confucian/Mencian in the sense that he has a vision of the Good, or "Humanity" (ren), and he is willing to use political power to move society toward that Good. That is what the health care debate was all about; and that is what financial regulation is all about. These are big projects with complex politics that Obama actively engages on a daily basis, as a good Confucian leader (and by that I mean Mencius himself in his constant efforts to persuade inhumane leaders to do the right thing) should do.
A Taoist would take a much more hands-off approach to all of this, something closer to contemporary libertarianism. Might that bring about terrible social consequences? Perhaps. But the Taoist would accept these as a reflection of the natural unfolding of the Way of humankind, which contains both humanity and inhumanity. Hard to see how any leader of any modern state could be anything close to a Taoist - although perhaps on specific issues a Taoist-like detachment might be maintained for a time. Taoism can tell us something about our modern predicaments, and it can serve as a very general guide for personal decisions, but it is not all that useful (and it does not want to be "useful") as a framework for public policy.
Obama's choice of Kagan may be better understood as using Sun Tzu tactics to achieve Confucian ends. As an accomplished politician, Obama understands strategy and tactics. He knows he is in constant battle with those who want to defeat him politically. No doubt he is attuned to the particular context of each battle he faces, what Sun Tzu discusses as "ground." The ground for Supreme Court appointments is the Senate and filibuster is a possibility. In other words, Obama is not in a position of clear political advantage in the Senate. He has to tread carefully, not provoke the opposition, not put other aspects of his broader political strategy in jeopardy there.
I think the "ground" of the Kagan confirmation battle comes closest to what Sun Tzu calls "key ground" or "communicating ground." Key ground is: "equally advantageous for the enemy and me." And communicating ground is: "equally accessible to the enemy and me." (11.4, 11.5). Sun Tzu says: "Do not attack the enemy who occupies key ground; in communicating ground do not allow your formations to become separated." (11.12).
Don't attack frontally; keep your troops together; caution: that is what Obama is about. He's reading Sun Tzu, not the Tao Te Ching, and Sun Tzu tells him:
He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot fight will be victorious. (3.25)