Pragmatism and evil

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Chris Hayes offers up a must-read analysis of the Obama apparatchiks, the media stenographers, and acolytes of perceived wisdom who claim pragmatism has won out over ideology:

...through a kind of collective category error, they have alighted on a far more general moral to the story: ideology, in any form, is dangerous. "Obama's victory does not signal a shift in ideology in this country," wrote Roger Simon in Politico. "It signals that the American public has grown weary of ideologies." No less an ideologue than Pat Buchanan has come to this same understanding: "If there is a one root cause to the Bush failures," he wrote, "it has been his fatal embrace of ideology."

If "pragmatic" is the highest praise one can offer in DC these days, "ideological" is perhaps the sharpest slur. And it is by this twisted logic that the crimes of the Bush cabinet are laid at the feet of the blogosphere, that the sins of Paul Wolfowitz end up draped upon the slender shoulders of Dennis Kucinich.

...in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, "pragmatists" of all stripes--Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner--lined up to offer tips and strategies on how best to implement a practical and effective torture regime; but ideologues said no torture, no exceptions. Same goes for the Iraq War, which many "pragmatic" lawmakers--Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter--voted for and which ideologues across the political spectrum, from Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders, opposed. Of course, by any reckoning, the war didn't work. That is, it failed to be a practical, nonideological improvement to the nation's security.

It's funny how that works. I can remember in 2003 when the anti-war nutty left was mobilizing against the war, and people like Wolfowitz were seen as the adults. And yet the lesson isn't that Wolfowitz was a nut--but that the left is still nuts. People for get that there is pragmatic, if ultimately flawed, case for torture. Anyway, the piece gradually picks up steam when Hayes puts pragmatism in historical perspective and looks at Obama in relation to his hero:

Both senses of the word also course through the life of Obama's hero, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was, most historians agree, deeply pragmatic in the first sense. As the cable news networks have reminded us ad nauseam, Lincoln brought political foes and countering viewpoints into his cabinet, creating a "team of rivals" that many see as a blueprint for Obama. (When Kroft asked Obama if this was the case, he replied that Lincoln was "a very wise man.") Lincoln was also pragmatic about the institution he helped end: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it," he wrote to newspaper editor Horace Greeley in August 1862, "and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

This is a kind of pragmatism that to our modern ears comes close to colluding with evil, and it shows how even the most "pragmatic" decisions are embedded in a hierarchy of values: in this case the integrity of the nation over the human rights of millions of its residents. But as Louis Menand argued in his book The Metaphysical Club, the sentiment expressed in Lincoln's letter to Greeley was widely shared: "For many white Americans after 1865, the abolitionists were the century's villains.... They had driven a wedge into white America, and they did it because they had become infatuated with an idea. They marched the nation to the brink of self-destruction in the name of an abstraction."

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.

The true idealogue was Frederick Douglass--mostly because he really had no other choice, if he wanted to live free. Pragmatism doesn't allow you to physically resist slavery as Douglass did. Pragmatism doesn't tell you to flee North. It's principle--and what is ideology, but a core of unmoving principles--that made Douglass an abolitionist. It's principle that told Douglass he had the right to love whoever he wanted. Meanwhile pragmatism gave us one the most cowardly and shameful acts in this country's history--the retreat out of the South, which left blacks at the mercy of a thugocracy.

As Hayes, reminds us, we should be skeptical of those who make a fetish of pragmatism. The scariest thing, to me, about Barack Obama's cabinet is that many of the people who are saluting him, the ones celebrating his "pragmatism" and alleged rejection of the nutty left, are the same people who were dead wrong about the greatest foreign policy question of our era. That's just a feeling, But it's the reason why I get so vexed over reporters parroting the talking points of any administration. Our job is to think, to question--not to babble on about the latest cute handle Obama has awarded to his cabinet.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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