Saturday, December 13, 2008

Obama Is A Pragmatist?

Chris Hayes writes in The Nation about how Barack Obama is supposed to be a pragmatist.
In case you haven't heard, Barack Obama is a pragmatist. Everybody agrees on this. Joe Biden, accepting Obama's nod as VP at his unveiling event in Springfield, Illinois, called him a "clear-eyed pragmatist." Describing Obama's rise through Chicago politics, the New York Times stressed his "pragmatic politics," while the Washington Post's David Ignatius refers to "The Pragmatic Obama," and one of Obama's most trusted confidantes, Valerie Jarrett, told USA Today, soon after his election-day victory, "I'm not sure people understand how pragmatic he is. He's a pragmatist. He really wants to get things done."

Now, it so happens that we consider ourselves bigtime Pragmatists (yes, the upper-case P is on purpose) here on S9 Station. So, this Chris Hayes article is of interest around the dining space table. He grinds on and on for a while, and it's pretty tedious, but then it gets almost interesting.
This is not to say that there isn't something appealing and meaningful about Obama's self-professed pragmatism. Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it's also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.

[...more grinding about Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist idealists elided...]

Pragmatism as a school of thought was born of a similar impulse of reconciliation. Having witnessed, and in some cases experienced firsthand, the horror of violence and irreconcilable ideological conflict during the Civil War, William James, Charles Peirce and Oliver Wendell Holmes were moved to reject the metaphysical certainty in eternal truths that had so motivated the abolitionists, emphasizing instead epistemic humility, contingency and the acquisition of knowledge through practice--trial and error.

This tradition is a worthy inheritance for any president, particularly in times as manifestly uncertain as these. And if there's a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey, another onetime resident of Hyde Park and the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which Obama's daughters attend. Dewey developed the work of earlier pragmatists in a particularly fruitful and apposite manner. For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of "variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation."

Dewey's pragmatism was reformist, not radical. He sought to ameliorate the excesses of early industrial capitalism, not to topple it. Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat.

But Dewey understood that progress demands that the boat be rocked. And his contemporary Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood it as well. "The country needs," Roosevelt said in May 1932, "and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach."

That is pragmatism we can believe in. Our times demand no less.
Naturally, the very next place I turned was Google. Weirdly, I found the trail I was looking for at Freeperville.

It seems the some of the freepers are (or at least were) in a twist about a 2002 conference in Chicago called "Intellectuals: Who Needs Them?" sponsored by the University of Illinois at Chicago and some outfit called the Center for Public Intellectuals. The freepers noticed that Barack Obama appears in the conference schedule as sitting on a panel that also featured William Ayers, he of the infamous Weatherman. They also got tweaked up about another Weatherman alumnus named Bernadine Dohrn appearing at the same conference.

The freepers are, of course, gibbering idiots. They're incapable— maybe even congenitally incapable— of comprehending that panel members at conferences like this are often chosen precisely because they have controversial and opposite views from one another. What I noticed was the Pragmatist sitting on the same panel as Dohrn, playing the same role as Barack Obama was on the panel with Ayers.

It was none other than my favorite philosopher, Richard Rorty.

As you might imagine, I'm now really curious to know if a well-thumbed copy of Rorty's Achieving Our Country is sitting on a bookshelf in the Obama home library. I'd be willing to bet folding money on the proposition. Rorty's critique of the American left sounds almost precisely like Obama's campaign speeches.

Suffice to say, I think Hayes might be right to notice that Obama is probably a Pragmatist with an upper-case 'P', but I suspect he's missing the connection. It isn't Dewey, James and Pierce. Obama is almost certainly more familiar with Rorty than those old dead guys from the previous century, having "palled around with him" in person on at least one occasion.

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