Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Stay sharp, Obama!

In Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile on Barack Obama (“The Conciliator” May 7, 2007), the presidential candidate is reported as saying: “There are universal values I will fight for. I think there may have been a time and a place in which genital mutilation was culturally appropriate, but those times are over. I’m not somebody who believes that our foreign policy has to be driven by moral relativism. What I do believe is that we have to apply judgment and a sense of proportion to how change happens in any society—to promote our ideals and our values with some sense of humility.” These sentences undermine one another in troubling ways. First, “universal values” would necessarily travel across time and space; that’s what would make them universal. To accept genital mutilation as a historical and cultural phenomenon, then, would be to critique the very logic of “universal values.” “Moral relativism” has become a cliché often deployed by the right to lambast precisely the “humility” which Obama later advocates. The problem here is that even though moral relativism is a fraught term itself (morality and relativity are two utterly distinct ways of understanding the world), Obama essentially accepts this contradictory stance in the previous two sentences: he claims to support universal values, but also concedes that time and place make such values culturally acceptable—or not. While I deeply respect and agree with Obama’s pleas for “humility,” “proportion,” and an understanding of societal “change,” I am nervous that his invocations of “universal values,” “ideals,” “judgment,” and the scarecrow of “moral relativism” threaten to compromise his status of a fresh political persona; this language sounds eerily similar to the confused, lofty, and inapplicable rhetoric that we have become all too familiar with over the past eight years.