Obama, Literature, and Morality

February 11, 2013

Teju Cole, writing at the New Yorker's website, is sad that Obama's literary nature has not dampened his enthusiasm for drone warfare:

The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will.

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? ...

According to a report in the New York Times, the targets of drone strikes are selected for death at weekly meetings in the White House; no name is added to the list without the President’s approval.

Alan Jacobs replies with proper incredulity:

It’s so strange to me that there is still anyone anywhere who think that there is any connection whatsoever between a given person’s reading preferences and his or her moral stature. There is no "civilizing function of literature"; people will only benefit morally from reading literature if they already have a strong moral formation.

Exactly right. As to Jacobs' point—that the moral lessons we draw from literature are only as solid as the moral foundation we bring to the table before reading—it seems worth highlighting that the president ensures that he is the one to sign off on each killing. If there's anything we know about this president, it's that he has no deficit of self-regard. He sees no problem with drone warfare and wields the power of life and death because he thinks himself best-suited to make these decisions. The moral foundation that Barack Obama brings to the presidency—and, hence, the moral foundation he brings to waging of drone warfare—is the supposed infallibility of Barack Obama. There's a reason he and his legal team scrambled to create new rules of war on the off chance he might lose the election.