The Principled Pragmatic Reader
Last week I got an email from reader Karen, who asked if I would be willing to share some book titles that might help her better know and understand my political philosophy of principled pragmatism. At first I had no idea what to tell her; there really is no such thing as a compendium for my political belief system. After all, political treatises are the stuff of which rigid dogma is born; I kind of feel like I’m making up my own principled pragmatism as I go along.
Then it hit me: if no such compendium existed, why didn’t I just make one up?
And so I thought I’d post a list of the ten books which, taken collectively, best represent the principled pragmatism I argue about so strenuously and continuously on this very site. These works are by no means typical of the texts usually cited in such lists. Collectively, though, they tell the story of my political leanings better than any treatise ever could. They are also highly enjoyable and accessible reads.
The Principled Pragmatic Reading List
If there is a principal underlying difference between principled pragmatism and more traditional political ideologies, that difference is doubt. Sooner or later, all ideological dogma forces its adherents to assume X is always the solution – or cause – to any problem; it becomes a matter of faith. For the principled pragmatist, however, doubt is an ever-present necessity. So what better way to explore our roots than a review of theological, philosophical and political doubt throughout history? If there’s a flaw in Hecht’s book it is that it covers a whole lot of ground in just five hundred pages. However, the tapestry she weaves of the evolution of doubt in our thinking is an enjoyable one, and those who wish to further explore areas she but touches upon can use this book as a springboard into the great works of others. From Hecht’s introduction:
“The earliest doubt on historical record was twenty-six thousand years ago, which makes doubt older than most faiths. Faith can be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing. Doubt has been just as vibrant in its prescription for a good life, and just as passionate for the truth. By many standards, it has had tremendous success. This is its story.”
Of course doubt is all very well and good, but sooner or later you need to have the confidence to take action. Without faith in ideology, where do you even begin to know which paths might lead to success, and which to failure? Sagan’s Demon Haunted World isn’t a bad place to start.
The book is meant to be a guide to separate science from psuedo-science, but the principles he details work surprisingly well in the lizard-brain world of political messaging. Sagan walks readers through the process of discerning valid and invalid arguments, with a special emphasis on the credulity-enhancing effects of personal bias. His “baloney detection kit,” a series of questions you can use to keep yourself from being fleeced by wolves at the ballot box, is a deservedly famous chapter. Again, while this quote from the book was geared toward pseudo-science, it is just as profound (if not more so) when applied to political ideology:
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
In the United States, the words “freedom” and “rights” riddle much of the language we use to argue public policy. It’s pretty common for those looking for your vote or donation to present freedoms and rights as a kind of concrete, non-malleable ideal from which we have strayed. In The Story of American Freedom, however, Froner shows that throughout our history the concepts of rights and freedoms have been both fluid and evolving. What’s more, the United States has never had a period where there was anything close to universally agreed upon definition of those terms, either academically or in the use of pubic policy. The battle over the concept of freedoms and rights is neither new nor nearing an end. It is embedded into our culture’s very DNA.
This makes The Story of American Freedom highly valuable to the principled pragmatic, because it takes those sacred words that party leaders use to enchant and ensnare us, and exposes them for what they really are. To quote Foner,
“Today, chroniclers of the past are frequently called upon to contribute to a sense of common national identity by devising a unifying account based on the ideal of freedom. Historians, however, in the words of one of the preeminent practitioners of the craft, Eric Hobsbawm, are the ‘professional rememberancers of what their fellow citizens wish to forget.’ Americans sometimes ‘forget’ that things we conclude fixed and timeless are in fact constantly changing and contested. The story of freedom is not a mythic saga with a predetermined beginning and conclusion, but an open-eneded history of accomplishment and failure, a record of people forever contending about the crucial ideas of their political culture. In this extended conversation over time, the meaning of freedom is as multifaceted, contentious, and ever-changing as America itself.”
The first of four novels I have chosen to include. While Melville certainly did not pen Moby Dick as an encomium to principled pragmatism, it works well enough as one on its own. The narrator-protagonist Ishmael isn’t simply the exiled orphan without a tribe of his own, he’s the only one that survives the self-destructive dogmatic mission of faith Ahab forces upon the Pequod crew.
As he watches the ineffable white whale snuff the life out his own crew in terrifying numbers, Ahab remains a man of his own peculiar faith. “[To] the last I grapple with thee;” he hisses, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Finally bringing doom upon himself as well as his charges, his belief in the righteousness of his cause never wavers:
“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
Has there ever been a passage in all of American literature that better captures the palpable hatred and anger that drives the undoubting ideologues to the destruction of themselves as well as others?
Truly a classic figure made modern, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell might well be literature’s finest principled pragmatic hero, if not its first.
In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is no longer the wicked and spineless toady depicted in A Man for All Seasons. Rather, it is Sir Thomas More with his unwavering morals who repels us. Far closer to the historical figure than the one presented in the classic Bolt play, Mantel’s More is as unwaveringly pious as legend paints – and it turns out this is not a good thing. His moral certainty and lack of doubt allow him to go about the business of torturing and killing innocents in the name of God and the church. Mantel’s Cromwell, on the other hand, looks at More – and the rest of the pious and upstanding Tudor court – and finds them wanting. But what makes Wolf Hall the perfect choice for this list isn’t just Cromwell’s ability to see the evil being done in the name of morality. It’s his ability to put reason and the good of the kingdom ahead of his own (plentiful) ambitions and deliver what is perhaps England’s first great example of good governance. While his betters’ council King Henry based on the lofty ideals of nobility (and their own profit), Cromwell is happy to pivot and reverse his arguments if they get the kingdom to a place that is successful and solvent.
The rest of the court cannot see past the dogmatic rules that run the Tudor court, but Cromwell always sees better and farther. He alone in the court understands the need to look outside the mores of the lords and ladies :
“And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marshes of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug in to unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.”
Liberals will need to get past the fact that O’Rourke is known for being an unabashed conservative, and those emeshed in the cable news generation will need to get past the fact that the names are largely dated. After all, Parliament of Whores was written shortly after the first Bush won his one and only presidential election. Still, there has not been a better depiction of the way modern American governments fail when being run as arms of political parties in the past fifty years. O’Rourke is merciless in his skewering of… well, basically everyone.
“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it…
Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history, mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.”
Surprisingly, the curmudgeonly book ends on unexpected bit of personal insight from O’Rourke. His beloved town wants to block a developer from building a golf course that will draw traffic and riff raff to his bucolic bit of New England. Despite being a property rights guy, O’Rourke finds himself on the side of the no-golf course crowd, and takes the time to pick through his own biases and find himself lacking. It’s a great and sober ending to a thoroughly entertaining read.
Most people know de Bernières from his book-group hit Corelli’s Mandolin, but Birds Without Wings
is the superior (if not more depressing) read.
Set in the early twentieth century, the book follows two threads. The first is the rise to power of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, and his role in starting, joining or perpetuating a series of overlapping wars (including what we now call WWI) from 1911 to 1922. As Atatürk’s rise to power unfolds, so too do the fates of the citizens of the small, fictional village of Eskibahçe. The villagers in Eskibahçe are far from perfect, and in fact are often quite barbaric. But despite moments of shame, the village continually rebounds and survives, as people from differing religions and ethnic groups find ways to coexist.
The actions of Atatürk soon overtake the village, of course, and before long the need for the adherence to religious and political dogma supersede the need for the townspeople to live in – well, if not harmony, at least a kind of fragile peace. By the end of the novel the village is decimated, the young are mostly dead, and the followers of each dogma separate entirely from the others, some by choice and some at gunpoint. As such, Birds Without Wings lacks an Ishmael or Cromwell and finds membership in this list merely as a cautionary tale. Principled pragmatism recognizes that civility is severely undervalued by ideologues and assumed to be stronger than it is by most everyone else. As de Bernières notes,
“Where does it all begin? History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards, and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the Palaeolithic age, when the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and there is therefore an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victims of one time become the victimisers a generation later, and newly liberated nations resort immediately to the means of their former oppressors. The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by any other.”
Like Moby Dick, Huck Finn works well as a principled pragmatic tale despite Twain’s intentions to tell his own, different story.
Just as much of an exile from his own tribe as Ishmael,as Huck travels with Jim he encounters one new tribe after another. At each stop, however, he ultimately finds each tribe’s demands of its members to be illogical (though Huck would never use that term), immoral and incomplete. He slips into each new locale, notes the good and the bad of the groups he encounters, and moves on in the hopes of finding something better. Though he does not govern like Cromwell or outlast the true believers like Ishmael, I have always sensed in Huck the competing tension of desiring to be a member of a tribe while continually choosing not be one. This powerful metaphor speaks to me; it is how my chosen pragmatism often makes me feel. Because of this, Huck gets an easy invitation to the list. Better than anyone else, he captures what it feels like to be reluctantly committed to no tribe at all.
And because everyone in the world has read the book at least once, I’ll refrain from quoting the book here.
A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is a great and more specifically targeted companion to Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. The purpose of this tiny, short book is to look at the way those in power (and the press, while parroting what they say) make use of peoples’ non-careful reading of numbers in news stories in order to make them draw false conclusions. (In addition, sometimes the same result is accomplished by reporters who do not understand the mathematics of what they are analyzing.) Paulos gives this example in his introduction:
“On a more prosaic level, claims were recently made that blacks in New York City vote along racial lines more than whites do. The evidence cited was that 95 percent of blacks voted for (black) mayor David Dinkins, whereas only 75 percent of whites voted for (white) candidate (and victor) Rudolph Giuliani. This assertion failed to take into account, however, the preference of most black voters for any Democratic candidate. Assuming t 80 percent of blacks usually vote for Democrats and that only 50 percent of whites usually vote for Republicans, one can argue that only 15 percent of blacks voted for Democrat Dinkins based on race and that 25 percent of whites voted for Republican Giuliani based on race. There are, as usual at the politico-mathematical frontier, countless other interpretations.”
Since these types of accidentally or purposefully fuzzy calculations are so often cited by political parties, this book is an invaluable tool to help you sift through what you read in political blogs every day.
People who love to hate on writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan, Mary Roach and Bill Bryson will despise The Lucifer Principle. Like those other authors, Bloom is a non-scientist who translates others’ findings and tries to find patterns to comment on. Unlike the other writers, however, Bloom’s book is incredibly unsettling.
The main thesis of the book states that those things we tend to think of as evil – murder, war, torture, genocide, rape, etc. – were at one time things that helped certain human tribes survive and eventually flourish. Today, however, technology has enabled us to commit these same acts of evil at an alarming rate. Bloom believes that the same nasty evolutionary quirks that allowed us to survive in the days before civilization now threaten to make us extinct at our own hands if we do not find a way to buck our genetic calling. He makes his case in a very Malcolm Gladwell fashion, which is to say he relies heavily on historical anecdotal evidence to back his claim.
You may or may not buy into his central theory, which I have to say doesn’t have optimistic things to say about muslim theocratic nation states. Even if you don’t, however, reading the book as a collection of disjointed anecdotes about what we humans do when convinced our religion or political viewpoint is The Truth is highly instructive – and frightening as s**t. Even if you do not buy into his theory as stated, it’s hard to look at his evidence and not come away thinking that we are hardwired to do some pretty awful and evil things when we are absolutely certain we are on the side of the righteous. If Huck Finn is the principled pragmatic’s touchy-feely Eat Pray Love, The Lucifer Principle is its scary-ass Scared Straight. In fact, in the spirit of wanting to keep this post light I’m not going to quote from Bloom’s book at all.
I really want to make this a full selection, but I’m still in the middle of reading it on the recommendation of a friend. I’m including it anyway because so far it is a fantastic principled pragmatic tome.
Cullen digs deep – way, way deep – into the famously horrific Colorado school shooting. What he finds is fascinating. Unless you’ve read the book (or have really, really creepy special interests) almost everything you know about the Columbine massacre is a fiction. Worse, it’s a fiction that some group of people created (often without realizing they were doing so) and perpetuated because it reinforced certain cultural and/or ideological signaling. The goth Trench Coat Mafia? Fiction. Bullied kids seeking revenge on the kids who had tormented them? Fiction. The courageous stand of evangelical icon Cassie Bernall? Fiction. In fact, almost everything I thought I knew about Columbine started out as a wild-ass theory proffered immediately after the shooting, and which eventually replaced reality in the public’s consciousness because some group had a vested interest (even if it was often a purely emotional interest) in the wild-ass theory being correct. Because the events at Columbine are so often cited as the justification to either craft or raise a call to arm to public policy changes, this story is especially astounding. I have yet to finish it, but so far Columbine is as good an argument for keeping political ideology at arms length when making public policy as I have come across in a long, long time.
So there are my ten. Or eleven. Or maybe ten and a half.
Any other suggestions?
 I am aware that what will strike many first and foremost about this list – and what will likewise be used as a cause for dismissal by some – is the relative accessibility of all of the chosen titles. This is not by accident. Indeed, I have three separate reasons for erring on the side of accessibility rather than the academically classic.
The first reason is that while my principled pragmatism honors expertise in its own right, it disdains that power which justifies itself on the basis of arcane texts. I am well aware that among all the contributors here at the League, I stand largely alone in this belief; I therefore expect a certain degree of pushback on this point. I firmly maintain, however, that while the ability to construct one’s own epistemology that references the works of thinkers who have come before is useful as an academic exercise, it is not relevant in the real and tangible word of public policy. Worse, it sets up a kind of gate-keeping system where only the few with sufficient academic credentials are trusted with power’s keys. Besides, I think it no coincidence that the end results of such labors usually end up reinforcing whatever position the debater had before he or she set out. In my experience, epistemological arguments are largely exercises of justification masquerading as “Truth” seeking. Digging deep into philosophical texts seems a right and proper path to take when coming to terms with theoretical liberalism or conservatism; it seems like so much pseudo-intellectualism when trying to define a practical, working definition of principled pragmatism.
The second reason I’m choosing more accessible texts over arcane ones is that there simply isn’t a classical political philosopher whose work really embodies my vision of principled pragmatism. When you think about it, this makes sense. Just as principled pragmatism is happy to take and leave spare parts of its choosing from any ideology it finds lying about, so too does it find both wisdom and folly in all of the great political thinkers.
For example: The “greatest-happiness” mechanism of utilitarianism is fraught with potential complications in a diverse, pluralistic society; nonetheless, there is much about John Stuart Mill’s works and life that I would happily lay claim to for my own political movement. (Indeed, his simultaneous intellectual disdain for moralists and moral distain for intellectuals opposed to abolition and suffrage makes him quite the kindred spirit.) Similar arguments could be made for Hume, Bentham and Spinoza, I suppose. But let’s face it, when you’re willing to take only the best parts of the different epistemological masters throughout history, you can happily claim parts of any and all as your own without having to get into bed with their nastier conclusions. Because of this I’m just as happy embracing the wisdom found in Augustine’s Confessions as Epicurus’s On Nature.
But it is this last reason that is the most important:
If a book isn’t so accessible and enjoyable that just about anyone might finish reading it cover to cover, what the hell use is it for me to recommend it?