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The Pragmatist > Letters

Web Letter

Just watched Chris Hayes's "Pragmatist" session on CSPAN and curious whether he's been able to do any research on the Florida caller's volcano incineration plan. But seriously, next time he may want to consider pleading the same answer ("far far outside my area of expertise") to other, perhaps less obvious areas of non-expertise, namely some of the technical finance topics discussed today.

For instance, the war bonds idea: the logic that savings rates and patriotic fervor would determine such a program's success is lost on me--thought it was surplus capital and prospect for returns? And sdid you know yields briefly went negative on the ten-year treasury last month? Turns out investors valued the safety of the US government as guarantor enough to get back less than they put in on a nominal basis. So why exactly could treasury not issue depreciating zero coupon bonds to curb deflation?

If this mess we're in has anything to do with policymakers failing to understand the technical ramifications of their actions, let's all just raise our hands when we don't really know the answer, and admit it.

David B. Brooks

Winston-Salem, NC

Jan 11 2009 - 10:19am

Web Letter

Interesting thesis that triggers a number of thoughts, some of which may even be relevant.

It is my sense that we humans value guidelines which will help us avoid having to become so wrapped up in decision-making that we effectively grind to a halt. Some of these guidelines are value-based, while some are based upon experience, and thus are a reflection of what has, or has not, worked for us in the past. Some of the guidelines are well-reasoned and thoughtful, some are more a product of instinct or impulse that appears to have generated a desirable result.

We could probably find a number of sources for these guidelines, which may involve the convergence of a number of complicating factors. Quite often we develop elaborate rationales for our decisions that, over time, may obscure the original reasoning process. In any case this process, if left to its own devices, tends to be very individualized.

As we become more and more socially interactive we often begin to communicate with others about this experience, though primarily about the guidelines themselves as products of this process, rather than the elaborate path of the development process itself. Some of these interchanges come for essentially evangelistic reasons, in an attempt to "share our wealth" and/or enhance our image. Some are bred out of the inevitable clashes that we experience with other sets of guidelines bred from different values and experiences.

It is here that we encounter a complication involving the major disconnect we experience when we try to express our thoughts via words or other forms of communication. Inevitably the messages that emerge are vastly abbreviated versions, and sometimes mere shadows, of the original thoughts. By the time they are absorbed and processed by another person they are effectively very different from their original form, sometimes to the extent of being in diametric opposition to the original.

In some respects it is remarkable that we do as well as we do, though it may be that our similarities to each other so outweigh our differences as to largely overcome the difficulties in our somewhat crude attempts to communicate our ideas.

In any case, however, some of us, upon occasion, decide to organize these guidelines into some sense of coherence. Thus ideologies are born.

The form ideology takes when adopted and applied is very closely related to the needs of the individual who is adopting it. For these purposes I'll focus on two popular manifestations.

Those of us who dislike ambiguity want a relative few clear, uncomplicated dictums that can be easily applied to our experience of life. They value structured, relatively stable and often codified principles. These tend to present options that are delineated in terms of black and white, either/or, good or evil. They provide quick exits from ambiguity to a more comfortable state.

Other have considerably less discomfort with ambiguity, and therefore do not need to emerge quite as quickly to a more comfortable state. They value the process of examining shades of grey and complexities of choice. This makes it possible for them to rely on relatively fundamental values that often involve determinations of relative values such as cost-effectiveness or relative worth. Their values may be more dynamic, as experience exposes new perspectives and subtleties.

Any ideology can be distorted into an essentially hostile form in which it is often used to justify aggression against the "non-conforming heathen." This aggression is not based on the ideology itself but on individuals' needs to identify someone upon whom they can vent an anger that has more to do with their personal history than any of the issues under discussion. They are easily identified via their strident, over-the-top, sometimes vituperative expression. It appears that we have significant numbers of them on both the left and the right who are attacking one another so vigorously that they are totally unaware of how similar they are. But I digress.

It appears to me that President-elect Obama exhibits a compilation of all of the best elements that we have discussed here. He is not an inflexible ideologue, but he has a strong value base. He appears to be clear-eyed, with a broad peripheral vision, and penetrating comprehension, without any crippling hidden agendas. He is confident enough to be open to, and respectful of, opposing viewpoints. He is thoughtful and deliberate when he can be, but decisive when he has to be. This enables him to be flexible enough to be pragmatic in the best sense of the term, in the implementation of the product of his decision-making. And he is articulate enough to take advantage of the respect and the understanding he has earned by listening and to fashion an agenda and message that will speak to the needs of the major part of his audience.

David E. Brown

Wellesley Island, NY

Dec 14 2008 - 7:35pm

Web Letter

Chris Hayes is to be congratulated for suggesting that the philosophical tradition of pragmatism is a worthy inheritance for any president. Obama is in fact much closer to this tradition than his piece suggests. (There is biographical support for this claim--Obama's mother did her PhD dissertation under the guidance of John Dewey's granddaughter--as well as support in Obama's writings.) His philosophical pragmatism is one of the best "keys" that we have for understanding how he will govern.

There is a basic confusion in our political discourse regarding principles and values. The conviction that values must be seen in light of principles has been one of the assumptions behind the culture wars, primarily supported by the religious right. There has been a supposition, which Hayes appears to affirm, that in order to be a viable moral and political actor one must be guided by unyielding principles, which would prevent pragmatic Machiavellian temptations from completely dominating political decisions. But this is a false choice. One can be committed to certain values without being committed to them as principled values. For example, there are those who will tell you that there is a principle of life that guides us in questions regarding abortion and euthanasia. Under this principle, you must be opposed to both. But a principle of this sort might actually distort one's ability to make careful appraisals regarding these moral issues. As a matter of fact, in practice most of us have values that complicate seeing the world in terms of principles (or rigid ideologies). But we have been sold the "Principle Bill of Goods," namely, you can't be moral without them.

The bottom line is that Obama doesn't just have an aesthetic distaste for the culture wars; they violate his pragmatic philosophical sensibilities, which are deeply entwined with his political ones. Although he might not put it in exactly these terms, he is seeking a way out of the principles box. This is precisely what philosophical pragmatism has sought to accomplish. If Obama succeeds, political conversation in America will shift.

This is a longer discussion than a letter allows. I will post more detailed comments on this topic on UP@NIGHT.

Mitchell Aboulafia

Bronx, NY

Dec 14 2008 - 3:47pm

Web Letter

Pragmatism, capitulation and antithesis... "Lincoln was also pragmatic about the institution he helped end." But that's only part of the story.

Neither Stephen A. Douglas nor Lincoln professed a love for slavery. Their positions not to end slavery were both pragmatic. Lincoln's choice had a moral basis. The choice for Douglas was based on self-interest.

Greg Sullivan

San Diego, CA

Dec 14 2008 - 2:45pm

Web Letter

How pragmatic!

What is it, again, that The Nation stands for? Pragmatism? Oh, OK... I might as well subscribe to a "bipartisan" magazine then... the journal of the new pragmatists--is that about right? I mean, left? I mean, center?

To pretend as if "liberals" and conservatives are equally responsible for the Democratic neoliberal party we see before us today is just plain stupid.

Sure, neocons have "solutions" too! We just tried them all! And if PE Obama intends to continue them--I will never vote for a Democrat again.

Kyle Christensen

Dayton, OH

Dec 14 2008 - 3:04am

Web Letter

Obama's professed pragmatism probably owes more to Richard Rorty than those nineteenth-century philosophers Chris Hayes mentions. Achieving Our Country is almost a blueprint for Obama's campaign speeches. My view is that there is no bad thing here, but then I'm all the way over here on the other side of the country from Washington, DC, so my viewpoint may seem a little skewed to the editors of The Nation.

james woodyatt

San Francisco, CA

Dec 14 2008 - 1:44am

Web Letter

The disappointments of the progressives, based on their interpretations of early candidate Obama's comforting generalities, are one thing. His failure to keep his word on matters not of ideology but principle are another. The most flagrant example of this was his vote for the revised FISA, a vote he several times clearly stated he would not cast. FISA, old or revised, allows for the wire-tapping and other invasions of privacy on much weaker evidence than has been the constitutional standard before a special judge in secret procedings.

Obama's excuse for changing his mind was had he not supported the then-current bill and it failed, a far worse one would have been passed. You may call this pragmatism, but I call it an excuse for lying, pragmatically speaking, to his early supporters. Look where the decision came from: his adviser on his vote was John Brennan. This is not a philosopher devoted to John Dewey. This is a lawyer who supports torture and rendition! Obama voted for the new FISA for the same reason that Hillary Clinton voted for the ceding of war powers in 2002: to win the White House. Is such unprincipled "pragmatism" acceptable?

Remember, Obama's vote included immunity for the telecom spies in the industry and in the federal government! This effectively decriminalized the behavior for the future. "Don't worry," it says to future executives and bureaucrats, "you will not be held accountable under the law." How does such a precedent get corrected? Is President Obama going to correct it? How can he?

No, Mr. Hayes, pragmatism is not the issue. It is unprincipled behavior. When the two become identified, as they seem to be in your analysis and in our politics, then anything is possible. We are no longer under the rule of law.

Alvin D. Hofer

Saint Petersburg, FL

Dec 13 2008 - 8:49pm

Web Letter

Excellent article, powerful in its restraint, as the cliché goes.

In essence, today's prevailing concept of pragmatism evokes the image of pants with a zippered seat. One does not have to drop them, thus saving one's face.

Frank Costner

Monterey Park, CA

Dec 13 2008 - 1:43am

Web Letter

Hayes's eloquent writing on the icky matter of Obama's newly displayed and sudden "pragmatism"--a "pragmatism" that only emerged after the election--is much more than this new Obama deserves.

"Pragmatism" as it has now been deployed against mass media is a foil intended to deflect all the criticism coming from the progressive world that Obama now deserves, for having already backed away from promises and peopled his administration with the same old Washington, DC, mindset and corruption. "Pragmatism" as it has been deployed in mass media is simply a rhetorical framing of the criticism Obama now faces that creates a straw man for progressives to expend ourselves jousting against. Suddenly, after having brought this man to power, we are to justify our worldview against a definition of "pragmatism" that implicitly embraces rightist politics.

Hayes points to David Brooks gushing in the New York Times, and I've seen Karl Rove and the Wall Street Journal editorial writers gushing in the Journal. William Kristol is gushing about Obama. This should be all any of us need to know, that our worst enemies are gushing about the man we just brought to power, and who has promptly informed us that we are not "pragmatic" because we are not rightist.

Seymour Friendly

Seattle, WA

Dec 12 2008 - 9:39pm

Web Letter

I am often bothered by the description of "pragmatism" as "non-ideological," as though one must sacrifice one's ideology to be practical. To me, pragmatism can be used to accomplish ideological ends, and these ends can clearly be "progressive" in every sense of the word.

Wikipedia definition of "pragmatism" as, "Concern for the practical--taking human action and its consequences as the basic measure of truth, value, etc."

An illustrative example of Barack Obama's "progressive pragmatism" is his healthcare plan. A "pure" progressive may say that single-payer is the only progressive position one can maintain, and that unless one is pushing for a single-payer healthcare system, then one is "less" than progressive. But upon closer examination of Obama's plan, it is calculated to eventually lead to a single-payer system by making private for-profit HMO care less profitable, leaving the government as the only payer when HMOs' expenses rise as they are forced to cover all pre-existing conditions.

Another example is Obama's recent appointment of Steve Chu as Energy Secretary. There is no doubt that Chu "gets it" when it comes to the perils of climate change and the need to move quickly to alternative sources of energy that don't add to the carbon emissions problem. But as the head of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, Chu got $500,000,000 in support from BP--an oil company--to fund research into making alternative energy viable. I'm sure BP may be doing this for purely business reasons, as they want to stay viable as an energy company even in alternative energy. But a "pure" progressive would not want anything to do with an oil company, viewing them as the "enemy" of the environment.

For too long we have allowed our progressive ideal to be defined in non-practical confrontational terms, leaving most of us on the sidelines, angry, frustrated, and powerless. I love Dennis Kucinich, but he obviously comes to mind when I think of someone who typifies this non-practical approach to progressive politics.

Obama has had a chance to observe the lack of effectiveness of the non-practical confrontational approach and has sought to change how we think about how to move forward on the issues of the day so that our progressive ideals have a real chance of succeeding. This requires seeking out broad non-ideological coalitions around issues that we progressives care about. Such approach is uncomfortable for many who are used to the "us vs. them" politics, but the only way we are going to make real progress on a wide range of progressive issues is if we learn to work with others who may disagree vehemently with us on other issues, but who agree with us on particular progressive goals and ideals, even if their agreement is for different reasons than our own.

Metteyya Brahmana

Santa Cruz, CA

Dec 12 2008 - 3:56pm

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