November 19, 2008

We can't rely on Magic

A defense of pragmatism in the modern world.

Between my mother’s illness and eventual death and the Vietnam War, my idealism was pretty much gone by the time I left high school. Over the years some of it has returned, but with it has come a healthy sense of pragmatism. I know the world I would like, and I am painfully aware of the world that I have. Most days I muddle along in the company of Simon and Lindblom. I know that to get to the world I want I have to start in the world I have and change it bit by bit. Every once in a while a crisis occurs that allows us to make more singular change, but that even those changes have their roots in history. And the people who live through such changes certainly carry the experiences from before the change with them.

Hence I am a pragmatic idealist. I carry with me always a vision of a world that is better than the one I was born and live in. I strive to expand my view of what is possible. I also am keenly aware that what is possible includes very real tradeoffs across politics, economics, environment and culture. I take victories where I can, rarely concede defeat, and fight to a draw most days.

When she was younger, my daughter asked me if I believed in magic. My response, as pragmatic as ever, was that I was certain that if you didn’t believe in it then it didn’t exist. Since that time, I have become increasingly open to the possibility of magic on the scale of little kids and their spirits. But I don’t think we should be betting on it to address climate change or poverty in Africa. Those challenges require that we confront the brutal facts, formulate big hairy audacious goals, and take the steps we can in those contexts. We must keep our eye on the ball, but always with an eye to keeping our options open just in case...