We engage in political activity so that we may, as societies of men, deal with the world as it is. This is not a slight endeavor; the world as it is, experience teaches us, is not easy to deal with. Some men all of the time, and almost all men some of the time, try to escape from it, into dreams or fairy stories or myths, the subcreations that J.R.R. Tolkien has named Secondary Worlds; some men even try to carry these Secondary Worlds directly into the Primary World — the world as it is — and impose them on it. What many of the most vocal and disruptive of the political movements in the United States had in common during the second half of the 1960s was a radical failure to distinguish between these two worlds. People carried their Secondary Worlds directly into the Primary World, which is the proper care of politics, and tried to impose them on it. The politics of the United States became theater at its worst, psychodrama — and it has not yet recovered.
The Kennedys had an unusual impact on the social imagination of the American people during the years in which they acted — beyond the meaning of anything they did — and the force of that impact was to persuade the people either that the limits of politics could be transcended or that politics could transcend the limits of the commonplace world. The one place where these self-declared pragmatists did not feel at home, where they were not content to act, was in the world as it is. Even when, in their practice of conventional politics, which was also a part of their method, they had to bow to the world as it is, they still implied that it should, and that it could, be transcended. This was at the root not only of the politics of expectation but also of the politics of confrontation that this in turn spawned. Is this not the meaning of the graves, bitten with such panoply into the hillside of Arlington? Do they not celebrate a time when politics became an encounter of dreams?
One can hardly doubt that the American people are at last coming to terms with the limits of their power: not of their political power and their military strength alone, which would be a small lesson to learn, but of their capacity to master nature itself. The positivism of the American mind, marching with the puritanism of the American spirit in a fearful combination, has suffered a severe jolt. Its ability to control the actual world has itself been found to be out of control.
The weakness of this positivism is that it can too easily degenerate into what Abraham Kaplan calls a “vulgar pragmatism,” which he is at pains to dissociate from the philosophic pragmatism of Charles Peirce and William James and John Dewey, although he acknowledges that “there is something in pragmatism which lends itself to this vulgarization.” The characteristics that he attributes to vulgar pragmatism may be briefly summarized: the ideal of success, in which “competitive success is taken to be at once the sign and substance of worth”; the ideal of efficiency, in which “important values are left out of the accounting”; the ideal of scientism, in which “special instruments and techniques [are] taken to be the method itself”; and the ideal of quantification, in which “nothing is so real as a measurable quantity.” He continues to link this vulgar pragmatism with the emphasis on “toughness” and “tough-mindedness” in American society: “To be a man is to be successful, efficient, even ruthless.” The total effect, he concludes, is that morality is transformed into no more than morale.
It was all there in the Kennedy Administration, in the method of its politics and in its approach to any problem, until the decision to shoot for the moon, which was indeed a problem that vulgar pragmatism could solve, was translated into a metaphor. It is certainly true that, insofar as the Pentagon Papers, as they are a little spuriously called, contain any revelations of interest, it is of the thorough working from 1961 onward of the values and attitudes of vulgar pragmatism.
One returns to the graves, remarks the words on their walls and the tourists as they pass by, and remembers the brothers themselves as valiant; no one is going to deny that. But we cannot, in the conduct of our affairs, rely on valor alone, because there have been valorous men, in the whole of the history of man, in causes that have been mistaken and even evil. The cause to which the brothers and the men who served them set themselves was not evil, only mistaken; and the American people must make their own terms with the error. There is a place for the arousal of expectation in politics; without it, man would hardly have progressed. Politics is not only the art of the possible, which is too often a thoughtless commonplace in small minds, but neither is it the art of the impossible to which the American people were called in 1960 and were about to be called again in 1968. Politics can be made the art of the necessary. A people can be nourished to believe that there are necessary things to be done that they have overlooked, and that they have the necessary capacity to do them. It is expectation enough as it is.
From an essay published in the January 1973 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.