Monday, December 14, 2009

A new president embraces an old American ideal: pragmatism


Perhaps you felt a twinge of contradiction listening to America’s young new president accepting the Nobel Peace Prize just days after ordering an additional 30,000 troops to fight and kill in Afghanistan.
I didn’t.
He gave a remarkably straightforward speech for a guy known for soaring rhetoric and precise, surgical argument. There was a reason for that: Barack Obama took the lectern in Oslo to articulate the fundamental premise of American philosophy, an organizing concept that formerly helped shape everything from school boards to foreign policy: Pragmatism.
You understand, I’m sure, that this is now true only on occasion. Too much  of our national debate (from school boards to foreign policy) has been hijacked by ideology, by the kind of people who believe the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago and therefore all school children should be taught about that. They are the people whose questions about the president’s birth place (as the comedian Bill Maher noted) are like those who ask after sundown, “Where did the sun go??”
But it is helpful to remind yourself, as I do regularly, those people didn’t win the election; Barack Obama and a multitude of fairly reasonable people at all levels of government did. Though the whackos get a disproportionate share of the headlines and make for the best punch lines, the birthers and their buddies actually represent a fragmented and (at the moment) diminishing slice of American life.
I’m not saying Americans invented the idea of pragmatism in its classic, dictionary definition: reasonable, practical, not theoretical. But it was here that the notion took root as a philosophical movement, a unified way of looking at life and reality that favored reason and evidence over passion and faith. For more than a century now, it’s been the foundation of a national philosophy that guided debate and decisions here.
Arising largely from intellectual despair after the carnage of the U.S. Civil War left more than 600,000 countrymen dead. (“Whatever guided us into that war has got to be wrong ...”) a small group of Boston intellectuals began exploring the notion of a reality-based, Darwinian inspired philosophy to explain and deal with the world. Early disciples included the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Now think about Barack Obama standing at the Nobel ceremony to accept a peace prize while he spoke of “just wars” and talked unapoligeticly about his reasons for sending troops to Afghanistan even though he knows they will both kill and die.
While I personally disagree with his decision about expanding the war in Afghanistan, I celebrate his return to pragmatic decision-making. Generals and cabinet officers regularly presented President George W. Bush with Bible verses on the cover of military reports, things like “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”
That was no accident. They knew GWB was making decisions based on hearing an inner voice from God — more or less the opposite of classic American pragmatism. In contrast, Obama spoke in Oslo of efforts “to bend history in the direction of justice” rather than endorsing the Bush-era crusade to smite the wicked.
Read Obama’s remarks anew, in light of the pragmatism I’ve discussed above, and you may find that you can join me in applauding his approach, even if disagreeing with his decision.
“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,” he said in accepting the prize.
“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
It was perhaps the most classic statement of American pragmatism made in this new century, and as such a beacon to those who wish to build a world based on reason and not on ideology.


Originally written as "The Star Tangled Banner," a column in The Badger newspaper in Leader, Saskatchewan. Photo: official White House photo.