Column on Revisiting Obama’s Selective Pragmatism

Revisiting Obama’s Selective Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Some may remember that during the debate about federal government bailouts and stimuli the Obama regime made it very clear that no ideology will be allowed to sway the administration and that what is important is that the government stick to a pragmatic policy, meaning a policy of expediency, one concerned with what works not with what conforms to principles, such as the right to private property or limited governmental powers. As he is quoted to have said, "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them," Mr. Obama told Americans with what he regards as old-fashioned ideological beliefs, "that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…." That is indeed the calling card of the pragmatist–do whatever works! (In a recent movie by Woody Allen. Whatever Works, the protagonist follows this advice but it isn’t clear how well he comes off doing so!)

Ironically, pragmatism, the quintessentially unprincipled philosophical movement, was born in America, the one country in human history and around the globe most explicitly tied to certain basic principles of community life–e.g., the existence of unalienable, natural human rights, a tradition now widely mimicked (more or less, around the world, not least by many members of the United Nations). Such American thinkers as William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Willard Van Orman Quine, Richard Rorty and, right near the current White House, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, all professed to be pragmatists. Although their specific positions are not identical, what they share most of all is that they reject the idea of foundations to human thought and action. Anti-foundationalism is a prominent stance they all share, meaning that what people think and do cannot be given some kind of basic grounding in reality or thought or God or anything. Whatever works is all that can be produced in support of what one thinks, does, supports as law and public policy. No principled support for–or opposition to–what we think and do is possible to find, so we need to abandon the myth of foundationalism! Let’s just settle for what pans out in practice.

As many critics of this position have pointed out, it is a non-starter; it cannot be practiced at all since what works is always related to some objective or goal that one aims to achieve and if there are no principles on which to rest such goals, they remain simply a wish list of powerful, influential people, quite arbitrary in the last analysis; most importantly, pragmatism is the foe of a society that aims to establish and maintain justice among its citizens since principles of justice are plainly unknowable so far as pragmatism goes. It is also blatantly offensive–no basic reason can be given for opposition to torture or rape or murder? Give me a break!

In the recent dispute over the building of a Muslim mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, however, President Obama elected to try to take a principled, totally anti-pragmatic, stand when he said that everyone has a right to practice his or her religion, never mind whether it is done wisely or not. As the president said, the right to religious liberty "includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” He went on to say, "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

So, suddenly Mr. Obama is one of those old fashioned principled Americans, right? Forgive me if I am skeptical. Pragmatists do not change their colors so easily. Once a pragmatist, pretty much always a pragmatist, so that whether in matters of economic policy, torture, or the right to religious liberty no pragmatist would cite an alleged basic principle in support of what he or she supports. No, what would matter is whether the policy being promoted works.

Accordingly, Mr. Obama must believe that insisting on the rights of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City and not commenting on the wisdom or propriety of their doing so is indeed what works! But what does it work for?

Well, that is the 64 thousand dollar question. My suggestion is that it works to keep Mr. Obama’s image reasonably respectable by way of its ultimate obscurity. Nothing like rolling out one’s credentials as a sophist, an obfuscator of ideas, so as to make one seem erudite and cool.

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