Friday, April 24, 2009

Of ideologues and pragmatists

Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson

A few months after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, many one-time "Yes we can" cheerleaders are grumbling and casting skeptical glances at Washington. Indeed, I've been disappointed by some of our new president's decisions, but I also accept his maneuvering as an unfortunate political reality.

Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama realizes that the President of the United States should not operate as an ideologue. Of course, he (and some election year soon, she) could choose to embrace ideology over pragmatism but, in doing so, the Commander-in-Chief risks aligning himself with the sort of tyrannical autocracy that our leaders rhetorically (and routinely) condemn.

But political reality doesn't temper the poor reviews that Obama receives from many on the political left. Considering their critique of Obama's centrism, I recalled an earlier HH post. In "The Whiteness of the Whale," I wrote:
"Craig Nelson's recent biography of Thomas Paine serves as my subway reading these days, [and] I find the following observation relevant.
'Beginning with Franklin and Washington, every successful American leader would balance the pragmatic with the Utopian. Where Franklin the master politician would be almost entirely pragmatic, Paine would be too fervidly Utopian in ways that would not just damage him financially, but imperil him physically... Paine would...always be too ardent with his religion of the lights, a Savonarola of reason and liberty, and as inept a political operator as any fervid Christian saint...The success or failure of any leader in U.S. history can be judged through his or her successes or failures at reaching the pragmatic Utopian paradox that remains at the heart of the American experiment.'
Nelson's words ring true. 'The pragmatic Utopian paradox' is not uniquely American, but it is central to our American experience. For confirmation, we need look no further than the glut of contemporary, progressive American politicians striving to develop a decidedly centrist track record, even if they contradict themselves (and their conscience) in doing so. By contrast, it's easy to discard compromise and contradiction if you are a committed revolutionary or a monkish loner operating in an intellectual and philosophical vacuum."
Barack Obama qualifies as one of the "contemporary, progressive American politicians" I criticize in that excerpt. Yet, as I suggest in the same post, "outside the D.C. beltway, ideologues are a dime a dozen, but exceptionally gifted rhetoricians like Paine or King, Jr. emerge (and make [a legitimate political] impact) only rarely."

Yet even if the political impact of fringe ideology is negligible, those voices must be heard. Indeed, unpopular opinions are sometimes the most vital in a just democracy. There's a reason, after all, that liberals wring their hands when contemplating the censorship of bigoted hate speech. If you believe in the democratic fray, you're obligated to let all of society's individuals speak.

In a recent episode of the "The Thomas Jefferson Hour," historian and Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson read and responded to the following Paine quotation.
'He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.'
"This is how Paine would react to the Bush Administration for the past seven-and-a-half years. This is an answer to the Patriot Act, to the surveillances, to Guantanamo, to Abu Ghraib!"
Jenkinson's right. In fact, a great many of Paine's sentiments are as pertinent today as they were in the late 18th century, his abolitionist and proto-feminist writing especially so.

He may have made many political enemies in his day but, two hundred years after the turmoil of our nation's early ideological disputes, Thomas Paine's unwavering moralism aligns more closely with contemporary progressive attitudes than does Thomas Jefferson's political pragmatism. Compared to the public attitudes of the slave-owning and patriarchal Jefferson, Paine strikes the 21st century citizen as the more modern thinker and the more conscientious man.

Does it matter that Jefferson, in his private correspondence, agreed with Paine's abolitionist argument? From our vantage point (one of comfortable remove), no, it doesn't. What we consider, above all, is that Jefferson was a slave owner and that Paine was an outspoken abolitionist. 'Deeds, not creeds,' as the saying goes. But it's noteworthy that Paine was poor and unlanded, and therefore never in a position to own slaves. (Indeed, Paine was never in a position to give up slavery, power, or riches; essentially, his social standing cloistered him from temptation.) Nor was Paine a political figure; he could be strident because he didn't have to consider popular opinion or the practical effect of enacting reform.

Writing in his philosophical memoir An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God, Erik Reece succinctly describes the democratic ideal to which I subscribe.
"Like [Walt] Whitman, John Dewey thought of the ideal American democracy as an 'organism,' a whole that is reflected in each of its parts - that is to say, in each individual citizen. ...As cells work together within an organism, Dewey believed individuals worked together within a good society to achieve 'a unity of will.' ...And because democracy is a social idea, it is also ethical by its very nature. Ethics, after all, begins with the realization that one is a social being and therefore part of a larger whole. A man living alone on an island requires no ethic. An aristocracy or a dictatorship could be run by only a few of its members. But the democratic organism needs all of its cells. And those cells must act simultaneously in their own interest and in the interest of the larger organism."
But Dewey was a pragmatist. Surely he realized that the democratic organism's ability to fight off infection of the malignant variety is not nuanced; the democratic immune system, if you will, acts to extinguish all radical cells. In other words, this organism is just as likely to rise up against outspoken abolitionists as it is against outspoken racists. And, indeed, history stands as a testament to this action.

Thomas Paine found an American and French populace eager to absorb his revolutionary and populist manifestos Common Sense and Rights of Man, but he was eventually ruined by his rational dismissal of Christian doctrine, The Age of Reason. His New York Citizen obituary read, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Much harm? Paine's progressive opinions about slavery and feminism didn't win him sustained popularity.

Jefferson, too, was a lightening rod in his day, provoking as much disdain as he did praise (especially from the Federalists and, in particular, Alexander Hamilton). But Jefferson was a savvy political operator, a master of Nelson's pragmatic Utopian paradox. Although he shared many of Paine's opinions, Jefferson did not draft legislation addressing those issues or even, because of his deism, allow his private correspondence to be made publicly available in his lifetime. Our third president carefully considered what the demos were and weren't ready to accept. Paine, the ideologue, simply didn't care.

So what will it be? Should an independent, liberal leaning citizen like myself wish for a revolutionary president, a Paine-like Obama less concerned with centrist politics, an Obama driven by moral conviction? Can I believe that such a president's radical agenda won't be consumed by the fires of reaction?

For my part, I trust that Obama is striving to foment as much progress as he safely can in our flawed, anti-intellectual democracy. I express my few disappointments by signing petitions for ads calling on Obama to address some of what I see as missteps but, above all, I'm proud of our country for electing an intelligent, disciplined and thoughtful man to the nation's highest office...and I remain optimistic.

Image credits: Thomas Paine portrait ripped from American History Guide and Thomas Jefferson portrait ripped from The World Union of Deists


Peter Cowling said...

For my part, I trust that Obama is striving to foment as much progress as he safely can in our flawed, anti-intellectual democracy.Me too. Better still if there was a recognition that the current system is simply a bust with regards to:

> education
> health
> science

(In that order, as far as I can see.)

The process of decentralising everything centralised, and vice versa, and then swapping things back again (ad infinitum), really is a problem. These areas are not best served by what amount to compromised decisions.

Change when it comes will come from the private sector. Big technology companies like Microsoft and Google are into health. And I expect education and science to progress through technological change too.

How much of ourselves we want to entrust to a technology -> big business arrangement is the elephant in the room question, as far as I can see. My answer would be that there is no particular difference between government and businesses, provided that the appropriate legislation is in place.

Peter Cowling said...

The issues you raise with regards to pragmatism have never been better illustrated for me than on a TV comedy.

The BBC produced television shows Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were a triumphant mix of the deadly serious, and the farcical. There have been changes to the political system, both in the UK (where the show was based) and the US, but the issues that are covered remain, 99% of the time, true.

In a time when politicians call foul, and make the case that they really do do an important job, a similar warts-and-all expose is much required. I have been and seen, and politicians and civil servants do have a difficult time, but not in the ways that people commonly appreciate. The PR promulgated mainstream view of scientists and politicians does both sets a disservice.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Peter:Thanks for the input.

You wrote: The process of decentralising everything centralised, and vice versa, and then swapping things back again (ad infinitum), really is a problem.Yes, it's ridiculous (and even embarrassing) that partisan squabbling often buries sensible progress. I'm an advocate for more US political parties because I believe a broader field would push all groups closer to the actual center. In effect, more represented perspectives results in some degree of moderation.

I'm skeptical of equating government and business, however. Certainly, Gates and the Google guys are investing in social progress as well as their respective companies' financial future, but they're in an almost unique position and, more importantly, the CEOs' conscientiousness is more elevated than most. Even so, both Microsoft and Google sometimes run rough-shod over good ideas, and both have committed ecological missteps.

Donald Frazell said...

I tried to explain what is the essence of being American to those Brits at The Guardian, JJs art blog. I took as example my favorite novel, probably THE great American novel, and its not even about America.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan is the protype for the American male, a pragmatic idealist. One who searches for answers that work, ones that will bring us freedom and responsibility, yet always know this will never be. We do it anyway. What could possibly be more heroic?

This has been Obamas tack. He wont go for everything, but will push in that direction as hard as is practical, but not cut off his nose to spit his face. He wont do a Hillary, as she ruined healthcare with her obstinant perfectionism, what was truly Meism. True Americans dont want to tell others exactly how to do it, but allow us all to use our god given talents and personal work ethic to succeed.

It works, with some hiccups, like depressions from greedy bastards. Un Americans all, at least this pragmatic-idealist type. Wwe are of the middle, and the middle must hold, against the selfish idealogues of both wings.

Donald Frazell said...

Of course, hero's dont always live, or the good guys win. His portrait of a nation in despair shows the Republic broken, fractured by idealogues, spys rampant, arrogant bruts fighting for their own causes, themselves. The Right is not necessarily evil or certainly inhuman, no worse than the left.

A young lieutenant of the Falangists wears his cross with pride, his life ahead of him, a true believer, riding to perform his duty. Even as Jordan takes site on his heart, left behind to not slow his partisans, the story, and both of their lives, about to end.

That is Americas strength, to fight, to build, to die. Knowing one can never truly win. Yet never giving up.

And we know art is important, far too much so to be left in the hands of the idealogues and self absorbed, yet we do what we can. We do not force it down others throats, but attempt to convince them with good works. Trusting that god will show humanity the way, if not in our lifetime, someday. It is the American way. And we can only hope, God's. That life does matter, that we do have purpose. Whether we get to enjoy it or not.

Donald Frazell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hungry Hyaena said...

Donald:I think that the political success of all great social experiments hinges on holding the center from the extremes. This is true on a grand scale - the Sumerian and Mayan civilizations, for example - and on a smaller scale - the Roman Catholic Church.

Yet America, one of these social experiments, is also invested with the pilgrim's zeal. Belief in Manifest Destiny still shapes our attitudes. In imperial mode, that makes us a very dangerous, foolhardy lot but I maintain that we're the proverbial canary in the globalized world. If an oversized, diverse democracy can figure out how to navigate the 21st century, so, too, can the others.

Donald Frazell said...

But we are truly stoic individualists at heart. The Chaney's of the world are the European Machiavelli's, like Kissinger was his hero Metternich. Too smart for their own good, or more precisely, ours.

They go against the American male rugged individualist. We have the polar opposites of the Boston Tea party, a lesson ingrained in our hatred of government intrusion, and most of all greed and cheapness. A mob railing against intrusion on our personal rights, which are truly not natural, but manmade. Yet we believe with all our being in our individuality, we kill in small groups and alone, not en mass as Euros do, one religious or nationalist or political selfish dogma against another.

We also have the other pole of taking care of one another, being responsible to our brother man, to nature, and god. Not being told how to, we will never be socialists, but through volunteerism and donations. Far too few live these American virtues, most corrupt them for their own welfare, But they are always in us, taught from birth, as even the so called Founding Fathers did, with the urban Federalist and Jeffersonian rural ideals, which we do bend to pragmatism. We gotta eat.

And we do love our food, even if Spam and McDonalds. I prefer my garden myself, nothing more spirtual and calming than working the earth. We are spirtually tied to it, and are not the dreamers of looking at clouds, but the realists of running stream, forested mountain, and abundant farmland.

The American tale is of the rugged individualist like Gary cooper in movies to a more jaded Clint Eastwood, cowboy movies far more about a spiritual journey than the cowboy mentality other nations see in Reagan and Bush Imperialist doctrines. We have always claimed Latin America as our toy to play with however, life is full of contradictions, and this is where art comes in

True creative art rids us of contradiction, sees the whole, erases our preconceptions, make us feel directly, not with words or logic, but has its own highly developed intuitive truth. And for a moment feel life intensely, honestly, free of our personal burdens and prejudices.

If you havent read it, read For Whom the Bell Tolls, i just started rereading it while sitting at this group art exhibit I was showing at. It is the ultimate bonding of my three requirements of art. Mankind, Nature and God. The questions and feelings and conflicts go on throughout the book. The resolution in the acceptance of death, that this all means something, that we have faith, not in some afterlife, but here on earth our humanity has purpose, is never shown more starkly, or powerfully.

Obama is a principled realist, i told the hollywood liberal types I know they would be disappointed, though he has been a little more liberal than I thought. Not about energy, ecology, which are tied together, or dealing with the economy, He is doing what must be done. But though healthcare was our number one domestic issue, is it a deal breaker spending on it right now? Our economy is on a knifes edge, if we and the world loose confidence, its gonna be a long night. And more debt doesnt help. If it works, its great, as we need it badly. And times like these are when fundamental adjustments, not idealist revolution, are best made.

For Realist he will be when necessary. Bill Clinton was the ultimate realist. He had his ideals and goals to move in that direction, but he loved deal making. Problem was, the other side hated him so much, for being able to lie as well and frequently as they did. Thats what pissed them off. They thought they had a liberal punching bag, as lib's always think they are right and eveyone else just stupid. They turn on one another easily, this is gone over in Hemingways book. Bill always just laughed them off, they wanted Hillary instead, and put her dogmatic face onto Bills. She certainly has mellowed since then, but not that much.

We are at heart indivualists, but the country is filling up, we gotta take less and less personal space, or take care of the common ground, to find our spiritual meaning. It is no longer wide open to take and live off of. This is difficult for us, but man is nothing if not adaptable. Now if only our art started to do its job, and free us of tyranny, of all dogmas.

And for that.

art collegia delenda est

Josh Dooley said...

I'm glad that you mentioned the Tea Party, Donald.. Because of all of the tea-bagging that's been going on around our country, I recieved a fascinating lesson in history.
The original Boston Tea Party was held in protest of a tax CUT. Isn't that interesting? The tax was a tariff that was specific to tea traded by the East India Trade company which was going out of business. In order to save it, the King cut the tariff on tea to encourage the colonists to buy the tea. He thought everyone would be happy with this situation.
Unfortunately, what the king didn't realize was just how big the black market trade in tea was in the colonies at the time. By cutting the tariff, he undercut that trade (in what was, apparently, inferior tea). The Boston Tea Party was a group of angry colonists demanding the return of a protectionist tax that created an illegal unrelated business oportunity for them.
The phrase, "No taxation without representation," is true in the most literal sense, it would seem. No alteration of our tax system without representation might be more accurate..

Josh Dooley said...

Of course, much like the Caduceus, the Boston Tea Party has become unmoored from it's anchorage, and now symbolises something else altogether. This is the nature of things, I suppose. Symbols are valuable because we recognise them as objects with totemic signifigance. It is that independent power and meaning that gives the symbols their value, not the meaning that we attach to them. In fact, once a symbol is recognised as a powerful entity in its own right, it becomes vulnerable to this sort of manipulation --- and is used to give power to definition and meaning... instead of the opposite.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Your patriotism is positively American! That's intended as a compliment, at least assuming your optimism is tempered with a smidgen of Franklin's continental sensibility. ;)

I didn't realize that black market wheeling and dealing was the motivation for our nation's most celebrated act of defiance. That's fascinating. This version isn't what I was taught in elementary school, but it's far more interesting.

Donald Frazell said...

I appreciate Old Ben, especially his fondness for the ladies. Thats my kinda old guy.

And I never heard that either, but certainly would not surprise me. History, like art, is filled with over generalizations, quick tricks to make it easier to teach, not make students think. To qualify for degree, not understand why we are the way we are. The only reason I got into history as it was.

Peter Cowling said...


I was thinking of centralisation in they way it is employed by management consultants. The civil servant / consultant relationship see a need to do something, filled by those who can get paid both ways. A lot of government action today has little to do with political policy - which not a comment on the rights and wrongs of that situation, just a 'been and seen' view of how things are. That said, I very much agree with the political usage of central.

I'm skeptical of equating government and business, however.I do not think business should supplant government, but believe that there is a risk it has in some places, and that it may well do so more in the future. Government should take the lead in considering this situation and making sure that there is sufficient legislation in place.

Certainly, Gates and the Google guys are investing in social progress as well as their respective companies' financial future, but they're in an almost unique position and, more importantly, the CEOs' conscientiousness is more elevated than most. Even so, both Microsoft and Google sometimes run rough-shod over good ideas, and both have committed ecological missteps.Gates' Foundation and Gates the individual, I see as very much separate from Msoft. Same for Larry and Sergy. Both Google and Msoft are in it to win the commercial battle, and both are really no more than very big businesses. That can be a good thing, when it comes to _getting_things_done_, and could be a good things in areas like health. That said, it will only be a good things if the right controls are in place.

Peter Cowling said...


Your description of the American male best fits the Australian male. A good place, Australia: expect an answer when you ask a question. Best get yourself over to see Dion.

Donald Frazell said...

Nah, too much like hereSoCal, no reason to go see Roo's. Our state far more diverse than that entire continent, except for the coral and that tropical peninsula near New Guinea.

Dionysus needs to come over here. Aussies tend to be like us, with a more British tilt, we have far more cultures and influences. Of course, got ten time more people so goes without saying. Plus your ozone is burning up, sorry about that.

Hungry Hyaena said...

From Anonymous:

In what sense are you calling Jefferson Patriarchal? In his personal life, yes. But, politically no way. Lightening rod he was in that he believed the next generation of government/citizenry should never be saddled with laws passed by previous administrations, therefore, all laws consitutional or otherwise should expire every twenty years to be written anew. He was a lightening rod alright, for mayhem, and avarice. But that's the thing with ideologues..believing all nature is ultimately good and just. I'm not saying I have a hobbesian view of the world, just more in line with John Adams, the ever wary John Adams.

Recommendation: read "His Excellency" by Joseph Ellis. It lays bare Washington's struggle to reconcile his tried & true opinions formed out of the grit of experience as opposed to those born of theory and rhetoric espoused by non-soldiering statemen of his time - And if you can find it - Fawn Brody's "intimate portrait of Thomas Jefferson. It's 34 years old and may be out of print, but I am sure your local library will have a copy. Get it; you'll be glad you did.

And btw, My conservative sensibilities enjoys your blog for what it truly is: smart, well written, and thought provoking. Thanks!

Dani in Alaska and of all towns...WASILLA!!!

Hungry Hyaena said...

Well, indeed, Jefferson was not an admirer of Adams' politics, although the two men carried on an affectionate correspondence for years. They were close friends, even if often at political bulwarks.

You might fairly say that Adams was more of a pragmatist than Jefferson, but from the other side. Hamilton was Adams' ideologue and Paine was Jefferson's. With that in mind, I don't think it's fair to call Jefferson an ideologue. He was a left-leaning centrist, as Adams was a right-leaning centrist.

I'm happy to have someone with a conservative sensibility reading the blog. I don't align myself with either of the two major American parties, though my independent claims are compromised by a very liberal leaning and voting record. Still, that's all the more reason, I think, to have input from intelligent conservatives.

Thank you for reading and commenting.

Enjoy Alaska. I love that state's flora, fauna and landscape, though I've never had the pleasure of visiting Wasilla.

Donald Frazell said...

I am probably an in between realist. If you cant pay for it, dont do it. A ballanced budget is always first concern, after security issues, the whole reason governments exist. My son is an Annapolis grad after all. Even if he often does hate the Navy. Funny child. I just tell him we all hate our jobs from time to time, some more than others, though a racial divide does still exist as it does in all areas of life. Just because it isn't openly racist, doesn't mean we all are not prone to prejudice, pre-judging others on looks, or whatever. He was constantly being called by the only other black Ensigns name, even though they looked nothing alike, and he was the only Annapolis grad. Only about 5% of the officers come from the three major Academy's. To be a Lieutenant JG this month.

But what W did had nothing to do with center of either stripe. His father wsa the old school capitalist, who believe in nourishing the golden goose so it laid huge golden eggs, that these oligarches then took for themselves. W went and ate the whole damn goose. So there was nothing left.

Under Keynesian ecconomics which worked great for 70 years and kept recessions from beocming depressions, one takes in debt during the down time, to pay it off during economic growth, getting the national credit card debt down to as close to zero as possible, so we can use it the next downturn. And there will always be downturns, there is no new economic's just like there is no new art or new science, cold fusion isnt gonna happen in my lifetime anyway. A whole new fundamental revolution would have to happen, proving what we are doing wrong. Adn that is most unlikely. Certainly has not happened since the beginning of Modernism, when we came to see what we are made of, and what powers us, in a newly discovered way through technological advances.

We will have to decide what is and isnt important enough to finance through taxes by either cutting them so much it hurts, or taxing so much it slows the economy, we must probe our limits. Not ignore them, but learn and take responsbility to adjust to what works. New Age politics and economics is as relevant as its religion. And I know, my wife works at a "spiritual" center. Nut jobs, one we just discovered stalking her. Man doesnt change, we are the same as in the easliest recorded times, we simply have learned how to harness our libidos and desires better. Or have we? What is happenng now proves our self delusions, our weaknesses, our frailties. We are masters at self deception. And will always pay the price. In Art as in Business.

art collegia delenda est