Erik Larson

Jan 18, 2009

The Tone in Washington

Two recent columns, from the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively, pretty much book-end the “Bush was evil, Bush was good” debate. On one end, Paul Krugman wants to charge Bush with war crimes . On the other, Charles Krauthammer asks us to acknowledge our debt to Bush .

Whether you’re liberal or conservative minded, have a look. It’s worth reading them back to back.

For my part, I always get a little uncomfortable when intelligent people reach such radically different conclusions from (one would assume) the same set of facts and observations. Feels a little nihilistic to me, like there's no real fact of the matter, only different and perhaps too firmly held opinions, determined by fundamentally different, and incompatible, ideologies. Yet, perhaps our problem is not so much our failure to find objective truths but rather the way that we find (or think we find) them, by constructing political ideologies — broad, sweeping systems that purport to explain the political world around us and to determine how we ought to think and act. Perhaps.

To be sure, a scepticism of _ideology_ is not new to America. It undergirds an intellectual movement — pragmatism— that emerged here in the 19th century with Constitutional scholars like Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr., as well as philosophers such as Charles Pierce, William James, Dewey and others. The emergence of American pragmatism in the 19th century is, like many intellectual movements, multifarious, but at least in part and perhaps centrally it can be seen as a response to the idealism that helped ignite a powder keg, the American Civil War. As Holmes, who fought bitterly in the Civil War as a young man and who nearly died there in battle, wondered: if all of our ideals led us to the carnage of the Civil War — if our politicians and intellectuals couldn't save us from nearly tearing the Union apart — of what moral and practical benefit were those ideals? His thought of course found its expression in monumental works like The Common Law. His contemporaries — James, Pierce, and Dewey — wrote the more theoretical underpinnings of political pragmatism and are still part of the philosophical canon (though perhaps, after World War II, less so).

President-Elect Obama may or may not be a pragmatist, in the grand tradition of Holmes and the great 19th century philosophers. He is fond of studying Lincoln, I hear (a good sign). At any rate, we will indeed need change in Washington. First on the list, I hope, will be a change in the often too partisan tone. I'm hopeful that Mr. Obama's eloquent words and to some early extent his first deeds as President-Elect signal just that.