Archive for December, 2008

Pragmatism, ideology and bad history.

December 15, 2008

Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates complains about the “fetishizing of pragmatism” that’s come with the giddy media head-fever over the election of Obama. He’s certainly right. The notion that more “pragmatism” and less “ideology” would have kept us out of the Iraq War, for example, seems far too limited. Was Congress being “pragmatic” or “ideological” when it voted to give Bush the power to wage whatever kind of war he wanted?

The notion that technocratic know-how and Yankee ingenuity can triumph, all by themselves, over arrogant over-reaching ideology is just another species of the progress-worship that became popular at the end of the 19th century. It ensnared Mark Twain, who invested a fortune in useless gadgets even as he ridiculed a technology-obsessed society in his novels. It ensnared the Progressives. It was popular during the Clinton years, when one heard again and again about the “end of history,” the world-flattening power of Globalization, the species-transforming force of the Internet. The refrain is as persistent as it is desperate: If only we could free our bodies and our minds from the trammels of foolish human nature and turn civilization over to the forces of logic, reason and technology, everything would be okay.

It’s all bunk, as they used to say.

Ideology is at the core of republican government. The notion that we are ruled by laws and not men is an “ideology”; belief that the Constitution should be upheld is an “ideology”; belief that power rests in the hands of the people is an “ideology.” Ideas matter. They cannot be divorced from our society; when they can, we will no longer have a society.

The thing that troubled me most about Barack Obama during his campaign was his reluctance to state any principles he believed in other than “getting things done.” Pragmatism, to be sure, is a positive attribute. I’d rather have a pragmatist in office than a giddy, empty-headed idealist any day of the week. But pragmatism alone doesn’t make policy. It doesn’t explain what leaders do. “Pragmatism” can be used to justify corrupt politics as easily as it can be used to justify anything else. It’s an instrument, not an end.

Unfortunately, after a promising beginning Coates declines into one of those odious leftist lectures on Awful American History, worthy of the worst excesses of Howard Zinn:

No one should ever, ever forget that Lincoln said that. Not because it makes him a bad president, but because points to the limits of naked untempered, pragmatism. Indeed the history of black people in this country offers evidence that pragmatism is, itself, just another ideology. Lincoln may well have been a great president, but on arguably the most vexing question facing this country, his record is mixed. He opposed slavery as an institution, but also opposed equality and voting rights for blacks. To my mind, his thoughts on race were pedestrian, ordinary, and unimpressive. He was, in a word, pragmatic.

I don’t have much inclination to unpeel this particular wrapper of cliches, half-truths and deliberate misunderstandings. Suffice to say, however, that I agree with Coates’ main point: Pragmatism alone (“untempered,” if you will) is a useless and empty creature. It can also be used in the service of evil — not merely corruption, but evil.

That’s as far as I can go. Coates is as wrong in his estimation of Lincoln as are the foolish liberals now hailing him as the godfather of “pragmatism.” Lincoln was the one American president — or, at least, the only one since the founding era — who fully embodied the spirit of the Republic. To denigrate his accomplishments — for my money, the most astounding political record of any republican statesman in history — by an ahistorical reading of an out-of-context quote is exactly the sort of flaccid sentimental drivel designed to drive people out of politics. (Were it coming from a court historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin, I would suspect this sort of commentary to be designed to do just that. But leftist carping like this is only designed to justify leftists’ disdain for political action.) He’s also flat wrong about Lincoln’s record — Lincoln didn’t “oppose voting rights for blacks,” he endorsed them in his final speech. Since the speech prompted the racist John Wilkes Booth to murder him, one can venture that Lincoln ended his life on a supremely unpragmatic note.

Which simply goes to show, I think, that “pragmatism” and “ideology” are a false dichotomy to rank with, say, “interventionist” and “isolationist,” or “idealist” and “realist.” That is, it’s a fake rivalry that serves to mask what actually happens. What should matter to us is not whether our president has ideas, but whether they are good or bad.

A tale a friend of mine in Turkey may appreciate.

December 8, 2008

“Not so many years ago, in a village in the mountains of south central Turkey which could be reached only by an almost impassable 20-mile ‘road’ that required many hours to navigate even by wagon, I asked the village elders why the community showed no interest in fixing up the road so that they could get their crop into market more easily. One old man looked around and grinned at the others, shook his head, and said, ‘Well, you know, if we had a good road in here, we’d have all sorts of government officials coming by.'”

— Richard Robinson, The First Turkish Republic, 1963, pp. 41