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. This, despite the fact that so many willed themselves to believe that the benefits would clearly outweigh the costs. Principle is often pragmatism’s guardian. Particularly at times of crisis, when a polity succumbs to collective madness or delusion, it is only the obstinate ideologues who refuse to go along. Expediency may be a virtue in virtuous times, but it’s a vice in vicious ones.
There’s another problem with the fetishization of the pragmatic, which is the brute fact that, at some level, ideology is inescapable. Obama may have told Steve Kroft that he’s solely interested in “what works,” but what constitutes “working” is not self-evident and, indeed, is impossible to detach from some worldview and set of principles. Alan Greenspan, of all people, made this point deftly while testifying before Henry Waxman’s House Oversight Committee. Waxman asked Greenspan, “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?” To which Greenspan responded, “Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to–to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.”
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Tobin Harshaw in the NY Times, takes on the questions of political pragmatism vs ideology, surveying current blogosphere opinion on the subject in light of the coming Obama presidency. An interesting read, paralleling faintly some of my earlier thoughts on the nature of "usefulness" in the context of eugenics. Harshaw opens with a quote from Christopher Hayes in The Nation: