In his famous essay, What is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant writes:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.[note]Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’” In Political Writings, 54–60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.[/note]
I was reminded of this passage as I read George Packer’s recent piece in the New Yorker entitled, Choice: Hillary’s idea of the Presidency vs. Obama’s. Although the media has allowed the difference between Clinton and Obama to be defined in terms of her experience versus his vision, the more appropriate distinction is really between her immaturity and his maturity.
As the Packer article makes clear, the Clintons thrive on the adolescent politics of partisanship. Thus, in the face of her loss in Iowa, Hillary announced her strategy to go negative on Obama by saying “Now the fun part starts.” When presented with a way to offer discounts to the elderly in Arkansas during Bill’s tenure as governor, Hillary responded: “The last thing we need to do right now is something for folks who didn’t vote for Bill.”
Sidney Blumenthal, a long-time senior advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, puts it succinctly when he says: “It’s not a question of transcending partisanship. It’s a question of fulfilling it.” The immaturity of such sentiments, masquerading around as a kind of political realism and toughness, is palpable. It is an immaturity born of years of fighting the vicious and hateful right wing of the political spectrum. In the end, however, it is a reactionary politics that tends to degrade the political dialogue and drive us to that which is worst in us: the petty, the spiteful, the belligerent.
No one believes that the likes of Grover Norquist and Karl Rove will ever give up on the politics of hate. However, there comes a time when a people must emerge from its self-incurred immaturity and become adults. The adolescent politics of the Clinton administration gave us the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Lewinsky affair. Of course, this was vastly more innocent and benign than the violent adolescence of the Bush administration, which lied its way into war, tried to torture its way out and now, it seems, has won for itself an economic morass to go with its quagmire in Iraq.
A genuine transformation of our society and our position in the world can be accomplished only if we can cultivate a political maturity capable of thinking for itself.
It is time we grew up.