I’ve cued the above YouTube video the point where Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger – journalistically identified as “Obama’s Former Harvard Law School Professor,” one of the greater names in American letters over the last generation or two – enunciates his words of betrayal: “President Obama must be defeated.” To my ear Unger’s pronunciation bears the residue of practiced de-Latinization, most clearly and perhaps tellingly audible in the shift of accent off the expected penultimate syllable of the President’s surname. (The de-Latinization of the professor’s first name in the video title ironically reinforces awareness of such linguistic nuance.) The wrong-sounding rhythm at this all-important naming of the new enemy, the traitor-tyrant-president, subtly emphasizes the foreignness, the “alien”-ness of (alienation betrayed by) Unger’s own message and method, even as he proceeds to a bill of particulars against the President in phrases that echo the quintessentially American indictment of a tyrant from 236 years ago.
Unger is committing no treason, not against against our elected tyrant nor against our democratic capitalist tyranny nor against our exceptional way of life. His betrayal is of philosophy, if likely offered from the highest allegiance to its precepts and requirements as he has understood them his whole life long. Garry Wills’ response to Unger therefore has the problem exactly in reverse, re-produces the mistake in mirror image: Unger does not suffer from or exemplify “The Curse of Political Purity.” His problem is more an organic impurity, a discursively suicidal mixture of political and philosophical blood types through the medium of polemics.
Wills’ idea that Unger or a thousand Ungers might do to Barack Obama what Ralph Nader supposedly did to Al Gore or what H. Ross Perot supposedly did to George Herbert Walker Bush depends first upon a presumption of inerrant knowledge of the counter-factual. Second and at least as debilitating, it depends upon a presumption of the immediate political significance of intellectuals in general. Wills may be right that Unger’s political recommendations are unsound, but Wills shares Unger’s unlikely assumption that they can or ought to matter. Yet Unger or anti-Unger are about as likely to bear on President Óbama’s re-election prospects as the words “voice of democratic prophecy” are likely to appear on a bumper sticker in Ohio or sound out from an attack ad on Florida television. Not that the meaning of democratic prophecy and the content of Unger’s political critique are irrelevant: They are or would be in a sense too relevant. Their importance and to the political point their implementation would seem to lie well beyond the capacities of a single electoral contest to absorb. To the extent they imply an element of “worse, the better” revolutionism, an express willingness to take casualties while setting the stage for a greater battle, they would be by definition beyond the capacities of the political system itself.
Alexandre Kojève (“Tyranny and Wisdom,” emphases in the original) provided a clearer, or at least more reasonable, conception:
…[I]t would be perfectly unreasonable for the Statesman to want to deny the philosophical value of a theory solely because it cannot be implemented “as is” in a given political situation… It would be equally unreasonable for the philosopher to condemn Tyranny as such “on principle,” since a “tyranny” can be “condemned” or “justified” only within the context of a concrete political situation. Generally speaking, it would be unreasonable if, solely in terms of his philosophy, the philosopher were in any way whatsoever to criticize the concrete political measures taken by the statesman, regardless of whether or not he is a tyrant, especially when he takes them so that the very ideal advocated by the philosopher might be actualized at some future time. In both cases the judgments passed on philosophy or on politics would be incompetent… As for the “mediating” intellectuals, they would be unreasonable if they did not recognize the philosopher’s right to judge the philosophical value of their theories, or the statesman’s right to choose the theories which he regards as capable of being actualized in the given circumstances and to discard the rest, even “tyrannically.”
Unger still wants to answer the young Marx’s call upon philosophers not just to understand the world, but to change it. Wills wants to walk the same path that Unger, with impressive clarity, has marked out – for instance, in the six minutes of the YouTube that few even of the mediating intellectuals, like me focused on the “betrayal,” will consider – but Wills wants to walk that path more slowly and carefully, lest America stumble off it into Rick Perry’s Texas (a left-liberal’s toxic hellhole and little else) – perhaps never to emerge, perhaps to dwell there needlessly long at needless human cost. The President… has appointments. The masses, who would collectively have both to speak and to hear a truly “democratic” prophecy also seem to have other business – always up until the day that they do not anymore. On that day, if it ever comes, the Statesman may find Unger or some tincture of Unger to hand. Before that day, if it ever comes, there is no choice for the Statesman but to ignore his advice, perhaps while keeping the essence of his thought in view, from whatever more or less appropriate distance.
As for the rest of us, in the meantime enjoyment of the luxury of not counting enough for us to estimate the degree with any yet-discovered microscopic instrument, we can do whatever we want with Unger. It would be reasonable of us not to take seriously that part of what he says that cannot be taken seriously, that part which will tend to be what he and others most want to take most seriously.