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Why We Hate Us by Dick Meyer

Kurt Keefner argues that Americans have had enough of Dick Meyer’s Pragmatic medicine.

Dick Meyer is a journalist. At first glance he seems to have written a journalist’s book. It is full of cranky complaints about loud people on their mobile phones and the polarizing influence of politicians and pundits on American society. He describes many other detestable features of modern life. My favorite example is a line of cosmetics called ‘S.L.U.T.’ His diagnosis of how America got to be so obnoxious is the sort of pop sociology you would expect from a journalist – apparently the problem is a combination of modern technologies such as the inter net, and a dearth of new values to replace the old ones overthrown in the 60s. This book really looks like it’s on the intellectual level of a newspaper editorial. But as you read further it turns out that Meyer has a philosophical agenda.

In his youth Meyer studied with Isaiah Berlin. From Berlin he derives a philosophy of pluralism and Pragmatism. He approvingly quotes Berlin on the fundamental problem of society:

“One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals – justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or the emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution.” (p.242)

Berlin uses the term ‘final solution’ to denote anyone who believes in a True system of ideas – thus associating all such people with the evil of the Nazis’ ‘final solution to the Jewish problem’.

For Meyer, as for Berlin, pluralism is the contrary claim, that instead of one big, final goal, society has many small, local goals. Meyer further links pluralism to Pragmatism (as opposed to pragmatism, meaning a hard practicality). Pragmatism is the school of philosophical thought which says that truth is not abstract and ‘out there’: rather, ‘truth’ is the label we apply to the claims that best help us work out our problems. Pluralism and Pragmatism are not quite the same thing, but they are commonly joined.

There are two extremes either side of Pragmatism/pluralism. The first extreme we could call absolutism. This is any claim that there is one absolute truth. Examples of absolutists include Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, communists and fascists. According to Meyer, these people turn every disagreement into a crisis with only black or white alternatives and no possibility of compromise. If you disagree with an absolutist, he will probably think you are being willfully blind. Absolutists know that they know what’s best for other people, and are not shy about imposing it on them by force.

On Meyer’s view, absolutists are just fanatics who make everything worse for everyone. Meyer condemns the usual list of twentieth-century dictators and ayatollahs, but he doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to find a counter-example, a humane absolutist. For that I would nominate the nineteenth-century abolitionists, the anti-slavery agitators. Today the abolitionists are routinely looked upon as the good guys in antebellum American history – but immediately before and after the Civil War they were widely looked upon as fanatics who had brought on a needless conflict – a view quite similar to Meyer’s view of more recent absolutist ‘hedgehogs’, who, according to Meyer, polarize debate, refuse to compromise, castigate their opponents, etc. (‘Hedgehog’ is Berlin’s term for people who know one big thing, as opposed to the ‘fox’, who knows many little things.)

The second extreme is subjectivism. (These are my labels, not Meyer’s. Meyer has an unfortunate tendency toward cute coinages, such as ‘OmniMedia’ and ‘thinkyness’.) Subjectivists are fixated on ‘me, me, me’. It’s all about their own private opinions and feelings. Some subjectivists believe it is alright to have their own private religion – an idea Meyer dubs ‘Sheilaism’, after a woman who had one. Subjectivists tend toward moral relativism – the notion that there can be no authoritative account of what’s good or bad.

Pragmatism is not subjectivism according to Meyer, because Pragmatism is grounded in the necessity of action rather than mere contemplation. Meyer’s claim is that America is tormented by its absolutists and subjectivists. Like William James before him, Meyer offers up Pragmatism as a ‘third force’ – an alternative to these fruitless poles of debate.

Meyer also doesn’t offer a lot of examples of Pragmatists/pluralists, which is strange because there are a few extremely obvious examples among American presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt. Be that as it may, Meyer does offer us a fictional example, Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch is an epitome of reasonableness and non-reactivity, who heroically defends a black man against a false charge of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. Meyer approvingly quotes Atticus telling his young daughter that to know a man you have to walk around in his skin for awhile. This seems to capture the down-to-earth humaneness of Pragmatism, although it seems equally compatible with Atticus being a Christian gentleman, or just a thoughtful person. However, Atticus also displays one of the weaknesses of Pragmatism: he cannot deal with evil. When he humiliates the father of the ‘victim’ in court, the man (who is absolute trash) holds a grudge. Atticus underestimates the depth of his ire, and is caught unprepared by the man’s attack on his children.

We need not confine ourselves to fiction for examples of the foolish weakness of Pragmatism. A real-life example is provided by the way the 1920s German center-left parties dealt with the National Socialists. Their constant plea to not go to extremes sounds much like Meyer’s Pragmatic invective against those who would ‘polarize’ debates. The moderate German parties took their own decency for granted in others, and so never developed an effective opposition to the Nazis at the level of ideological fundamentals – just as Meyer evidently doesn’t want to have to come up with a systematic approach to life. Furthermore, the more moderate parties in the Weimar Republic shared many principles with the Nazi Party: sacrifice to society, obedience to authority, and other ideas. The Nazis merely took these ideas to their logical conclusion. The response Germany needed was not some sort of humanistic moderation, on the model of Isaiah Berlin, but a radical, extreme, rooted defense of reason and liberty a la John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Why We Hate Us is that the Pragmatist/pluralist philosophy that its author believes will help America with its problems has been the dominant philosophy here for about a century. The three big philosophers of Pragmatism – Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey – were American. Most of the great presidents of the twentieth century – both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson – were Pragmatists. People routinely describe America as a pluralistic society. Moderate liberalism (in the American usage of the term, meaning the soft left), with its emphasis on adding new layers of government to solve problems created by old layers of government, is basically Pragmatism. Meyer thinks we need more Pragmatism, when it is Pragmatism which has gotten us into the mess we’re now in. We built our half-free, half-totalitarian financial system up piece by piece, each piece seeming right at the time, but with never a look at the fundamentals of either the political or economic philosophy behind our actions. One result is the current economic crisis.

The decline of civility can also largely be laid at the foot of pluralism, which loudly proclaims “Your manners are not my manners – do not try to impose your manners on me!” Even the polarizing tendencies of the media and some politicians can be explained as a rebellion against a Pragmatism which pretends to be neutral but really is liberal, thus inflaming both conservatives and hard-leftists, who feel shut out of the debate.

Dick Meyer wants more Pragmatism for America. If he were a better journalist, he would see that America already has too much of that philosophy.

© Kurt Keefner 2009

Kurt Keefner is a writer living near Washington, DC. He’s working on a book about mind/body wholism. Contact him at kurt_keefner@yahoo.com.

Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium by Dick Meyer, Crown, 2008, 288 pages, $24.95, ISBN:978-0307406620.

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