by Eli Day
In politics, the prevailing winds favor change that doesn’t stray far from the comfort of current arrangements. In a system that rewards compromise, change often occurs at an agonizingly practical pace.
Against those odds, the moral course is always the one that shortens the stride of human misery. Pragmatism—the art of achieving the possible—has its place. In my own life, that includes humanizing our nation’s prisons while working to reconstruct society on such a basis that incarceration becomes altogether obsolete. But I recoil whenever I hear otherwise smart people speak of pragmatism not as a tactic, but a principal to evangelize. Believing it to be gospel doesn’t make it so.
History agrees. When the politics of pragmatism become the politics of inaction, the agents of sabotage have won the day. Pragmatism is Lincoln's use of executive power to end slavery in the secessionist south, but it's also Rutherford B. Hayes monstrously employing that same power to grant southern "home rule" not long after, paving the way for another century of white supremacist terrorism. If pragmatism is the work of the mature citizen it's also the scalpel of the unprincipled surgeon. “Think practically” may be the plea of choice for the guardians of the status quo, but as an argument it’s the weakest shit I’ve ever encountered.
The reason is painfully obvious: opponents never protest that bold visions won’t work, but rather that on someone’s authority—whose I’m unsure of—they won’t be allowed. But here’s a truth so elementary I’m embarrassed to utter it: unless you’re convinced that the history of humankind ends tomorrow, the fact that something is unlikely to occur today is utterly irrelevant. Many have prophesied the apocalypse only to find that they weren’t imbued with the power of God.
Perhaps it’s fear that convinces us otherwise. Change often mocks the old wisdom of America: that our institutions are unshakably righteous—to be modified perhaps, but never wholly transformed. This is the fear of a reckoning that we can’t quite bear, of a swollen nostalgia deflating under the weight of its own mythology.
But historical illiteracy won’t do. Mindlessly promoting cautious political conduct ignores that this country’s ongoing struggle to civilize itself begins with an oppressed class exploding the bounds of possibility. This is the legacy of our second, scarcely understood, revolution. For those that worship at the altar of pragmatism, the Civil War is an inconvenient passage. Eminent historian Dr. David Blight riffs on the weight of the war:
“By 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”
Was there anything less practical in 1860 than the uncompensated liquidation of $3.5 billion dollars held in human chattel? Spoiler: hell no. The closest proposals at the time were calling for gradual emancipation with compensation for former slaveholders.
Lincoln articulated his own allegiance to pragmatism:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
We’d rightfully interpret this as cooperation with evil today. The only moral path was the impossible one, the one of unflinching idealism advanced by those who had the greatest claim to cynicism.
It was the unbowed humanity of the enslaved that thrust the barbarity of human bondage onto the national stage. Staggering optimism forced a narrow conflict over slavery’s westward expansion into history’s bloodiest and noblest war over its very existence. If pragmatism is your religion these are the nonbelievers you must confront. They didn’t merely abandon pragmatism, they pulverized it.
Again and again. Frederick Douglass's act of plunder is the height of impracticality: “I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.” Douglass commits the undeniably moral crime of absconding with himself because being practical meant making peace with villainy. On what authority could one lecture Douglass on the virtues of patience?
Our long praise of pragmatic thinkers is stained by our meager respect for the rebels who were never practical enough to accept what was coming for them. Visionaries who saw through “well that just isn’t practical” as the evidence of thoughtlessness working hard to disguise itself as wisdom. That people have an interest in the disguise is unsurprising. But as James Baldwin once quipped, “One wishes they would say so more often.”