Moral versus pragmatic government *UPDATED*

My book club just read and discussed William F. Buckley’s Stained Glass: A Blackford Oakes Novel, which Buckley wrote in 1978, two years before the Reagan revolution.  The book is sort of a spy novel, but it’s more a rumination on a particular type of political conundrum:  When it comes to international politics, should American government do what is morally right, or should it focus its energies on minimizing perceived risks?

In Stained Glass, which is set in 1952 Germany, Buckley presents this conundrum by creating a German politician who wants to kick the Soviets out of the eastern part of Germany.  It is clearly the morally right thing to do, because we know that Communism was a great evil, but the Soviets have threatened to use their forces on the ground to attack Germany should the candidate win, raising the possibility of millions of war dead.  The question is whether America should do nothing, or if it should assassinate the candidate, despite his being an almost angelically good man.  You can read the book to see what choices got made.

It occurred to me that, in real 20th Century history, when Western nations have taken the pragmatic, realpolitik approach to totalitarianism, the consequences have been dire, whether that was ignoring Hitler’s menace, ignoring Stalin’s menace or meddling in Iran.  The one time an American took a moral stand — and that would be Reagan’s willingness simply to call out the Soviet Union as a genuinely evil force — the moral position prevailed.

I recognize that every politician is always concerned with doing whatever he can to protect his own citizens, and that this is most obviously done by preserving the peace.  I also understand that the possibility of war may seem like an impossibility.  In 1938, war-weary, Depression-crushed England seemed impossible to rally — and, anyway, the threat didn’t seem likely to touch English soil.  Likewise, after WWII, which Europe devastated, it was ridiculous to imagine mounting yet another full scale war.  It seems, though, that a short, sharp skirmish at the beginning, whether in words or deeds, can prevent a festering evil from developing in the first place.  The problem with festering evils, of course, is that even though they may not be deadly in the beginning, they are invariably deadly, and on a very large scale, in the end.

UPDATE:  Bill Whittle, who has become one of my favorite new media figures, explains why, thanks to our media, we are sometimes incapable of making moral choices.

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  • MacG

    “It seems, though, that a short, sharp skirmish at the beginning, whether in words or deeds, can prevent a festering evil from developing in the first place.  The problem with festering evils, of course, is that even though they may not be deadly in the beginning, they are invariably deadly, and on a very large scale, in the end.”
     
    I tend to agree.  They are the bloodied nose of the school bully.  Liberals will focus on the blood and expel the defender because we just can’t have that kind of behavior all the while missing the festering evil of the bully.  Invariably what happens then is the skirmish gets compared only to peace time “civility” and how horrible those stories are of the wounded survivors and how we must avoid such things in the future.  This is how the festering evil gets out of control. It’s like when the cruel and unusual punishment laws came about, punishments like draw and quartering were not unheard of among other truly tortuous penalties.  Even God recognized this with His limitations of eye for an eye.  However he did not say how I get to take it ;)  So things like hanging came to be relatively quick for the most part, occasionally gruesome, but far better than its predecessors.  Hanging then came into question because of  an overweight  Washington state inmate was too heavy for his head to stay on his body if he was hanged.  So we have lethal injection but now it seems we are not using the right combination of drugs so it is now cruel and unusual having lost sight of draw and quartering.  Personally I feel it is cruel and unusual to lock a free willed human in a cage for the rest of its life but that is another matter.
     
    When the worst thing in one’s life is to miss out on a latte because of traffic they will never see the necessity of the short skirmish because it is just so icky.

  • Tonestaple

    I hated that book.  I was still in a pretty darned Randian frame of mind and I was so unhappy with the decision that was made because I despised pragmatism and frequently still do.  I especially hate pragmatism when it is praised as a virtue.  It always seems to me that being pragmatic means being unprincipled and therefore not trustworthy.  It’s quite possible for a principled position to end up in the same place as a pragmatic one, obviously, but the path really, really, really matters.