“Cold-blooded Pragmatism” – Where Reality meets Idealism

Andrew Sullivan described President Obama deal on taxes as  “cold-blooded pragmatism,” and wondered “why is this still news?”  What the purists often miss is that in their attacks against the “pragmatists,” particularly the President, is that it’s not that we don’t have ideals, we have an appreciation of the difficulties inherent in getting things done.   Sometimes, the ideal just isn’t realistic or not entirely achievable at the present time when a number of factors are taken into consideration.

I realized that a long time ago, through bitter experience.  At one time, I was a founding member of a breed rescue group.  We were the people who went into shelters, and took dogs of a specific breed who were on “death row,” and helped find them forever homes.  The ideal was that every dog we rescued would be found an ideal home.  The reality was that some of them weren’t.  We had dogs who were too old and sick.  Dogs who were vicious, or had other serious behavioral problems.   Dogs with serious physical problems.  The ideal would have been to spend whatever it took financially to try to treat their medical issues and in time to work on their behavior problems, and if not, keep them in a safe environment until they passed away.  The reality was  they were euthanized.   We didn’t have the financial resources, or the large amount of time it would take to rehabilitate or nurse them.   Was it hard to make those decisions?  Yes, and it was never a one-person decision.  But given limited resources, you have to allocate them.  You consider the number of dogs you could save with those resources against what you’d be putting into one dog that was unlikely to ever be adopted if you went with ideal.  It was hard-headed pragmatism.   I will always remember the ones I had to “make the call” on, but we saved a lot more dogs too.

Another example is when I was in the military.  We were on a field exercise, and one of the tasks was a land navigation course.  This is where you’re given a topographic map, a compass, a set of coordinates for places you’re to go, and you’re expected to go to them in order.  It’s pretty straightforward if you know how to read a map and use a compass.  I was the first person in at the finishing point, and as various wet, bedraggled, and exhausted people straggled into it, they all had a question for me.  “How the hell did you get here without getting wet?”  You see, the last part of the course went through a swamp.    My answer?  “I used an old technique:  IFR.  That means I follow roads.”  What I’d done was to look at the map, realize there was this nice dirt road that circled the swamp, get on it, and walk around.  Yes, it was “longer” and yes, it definitely wasn’t the ideal straight line I should have followed.  But you know what?  I got there faster than the others, I stayed nice and dry, and I didn’t have to fight through a swamp to get there.

Experiences like that are why I wear the badge “pragmatic” proudly.   It’s why I support the President when he’s being a pragmatic.   I don’t want an idealist who’s going to hold strictly to the ideal and ignore reality.  I want a pragmatic,  who’s going to to accept that “perfect” isn’t always achievable at the moment, and get the best he can for the country.  Someone who recognizes the swamp in their path and decides to go around, even if it isn’t the “ideal” way.    That’s who we have in the Oval Office right now.  Someone who gets that, and works with the possible, not the ideal.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to ““Cold-blooded Pragmatism” – Where Reality meets Idealism

  1. Aquagranny911

    “How do I love thee, let me count the ways………”

    This diary really touched my heart because I have done animal rescue and fostering for many years. Always, the hardest thing for me was when we had to let go let one go in peace from this earth because no more could be done here.

    I have always held on to the fact that we saved so many more than we lost but we did lose and it always hurt. I think that if animal rescue does not make you a pragmatist than nothing will. The focus has to be on those you can heal and save. You have to let go with love those you can’t.

    This is pretty much all I can say here but you really made a great analogy, at least in my mind, that pragmatism is sometimes painful but is always part of working for the greater good.

    We cannot do EVERYTHING but we can still do SOMETHING and the DOING is what really matters.

    • Well said. 🙂 Rescue makes you a pragmatist in a hurry. We all go into it thinking we can save every animal, and the harsh reality is we can’t. Several of the members of my group were professional trainers – the sort of people whose dogs always have a string of obedience and performance titles attached to their names. So their opinion on the rehab potential of any dog we rescued, when it came to behavioral issues, carried a lot of weight. You simply don’t adopt out a dog that’s vicious, a chronic fear biter, or can’t be trusted around children or other animals. It’s just asking for problems. The same for major health problems – we had one, “Laddie,” who we (and the shelter) thought was 3 years old when we got him. A real sweetheart of a dog. He had a little limp, and needed to be neutered. When we got him to the vet, it turned out he was at least 9, the limp was because of a deteriorating false joint – at sometime in his youth he’d dislocated his hip – and he had metastatic testicular cancer. We had him put to sleep right there. Hard to do? Oh yes. While I was doing it, I’d estimate that 90% of the dogs we got ended up being adopted. It’s the 10% that stick with you, though.

      • Aquagranny911

        I so do know this. About nine years ago my daughter, newly married and just struggling to buy their first house, called me to say they had rescued a dog, so terrorized that they had to hand feed her bits of meat while she cowered under their bed. They had to lure her out and carry her out to do her business. This poor dog showed a lot of signs of a dog who could not be rescued. Her physical condition was terrible, she was starved, sad, beaten down and terrorized.

        The poor sweetie was not mean. She had just been so abused and neglected that she was terrified of humans. I told my daughter to do the best she could but not to blame herself if this dog could not be saved.

        They were patient, they recognized her limitations and worked around them. They were pragmatic, they accepted what they could do with her and what they could not do. She will always be a little quirky but we all know what scares her and we all just love her so much. No woman wears high heels or boots in their house and no adult touches this dog around the face or head. A very small price to pay for one of the sweetest dogs I have ever seen with children. She is really special to me. I call her my “granddog” She sleeps with me when ever I visit.

        Sorry, just a personal story about being pragmatic, doing the best you can and accepting, with grace, the outcome.

        • Great story. 🙂 One of my last dogs was a female who had never been adequately people-socialized as a puppy (I knew the background). It took me a long time to get her to accept being petted, or to be relatively comfortable around people. What helped was that the rest of my dogs were extroverted attention seekers – my joke was that anyone breaking into the house wasn’t going to be attacked, they’d be knocked down and licked to death in the stampede to greet them. She picked up the idea that it was a good thing from them. Not that she was ever a charge to the door “pet me!” dog.

  2. Aquagranny911

    I wish I could edit. That first sentence should read: “heart” not “hear” but I hope you will know what I meant.

  3. starkyluv

    Amen, Norbrook. Amen!

  4. Eric

    Hey, Norbrook! Great stories of animal rescue by you and Aquagranny! Could either of you determine when being pragmatic was seen as such a dirty word amgonst the ‘left’, especially the puritans? In our daily lives, we are in situations where it behooves us to be pragmatic., i.e. trying to beat a red light will often times lead to outcomes that are not pretty.

    • From what I remember and have seen, it really took off during the healthcare debates. It became a “negative” to the purists when it became obvious that things like single-payer and the “public option” weren’t on the table anymore. Not that they ever came up with coherent explanation of just what a public option meant, just that they demanded one.

      The pragmatists were disappointed, but looked at it, and along with knowing more than a little about history as well as being able to count heads, said “well, best we can do for now, let’s get it passed.” The purists wanted to kill it, and started using “pragmatic” as a dirty word.

      • Eric

        Thanks Norbrook! You have highlighted on the thing that chaps my behind regarding the frustrati: lack of historical memory/knowledge: they can selectively quote MLk, yet learn no real lessons from his life story.As for the outright distortion that single payer was ‘on the table’ I contend that it never was on the table. Bernie Sanders admitted at one time that he could only muster 5 votes in the Senate for it

    • Aquagranny911

      Hi Eric,

      I am a real ‘oldie’ and until recently I thought that being pragmatic was a good thing. I will tell you that I was a marcher for Civil Rights and for an end to wars but I always looked for the day to day things I could do in my own community to make things better for people.

      I think being a pragmatist is all about the DOING rather than just the talking, marching and chanting. It is about doing whatever we can, right here, right now to improve the lives of people in our own communities.

      On a national level, I want our leaders to think about all the people, to do their best for the most of us at any one time. This will never be perfect and some will lose in the short run but I do believe that all will eventually benefit.

      Our leaders should not sacrifice people for vain principle or politics. People first, do what you can where ever you stand. If you can’t get the whole pie, take the slice you are offered and work for more. This is pragmatism and it is all good as long as we keep on DOING. One by one, step by step, this is how the whole job gets done.

      • Eric

        That’s what I believe the president did with the tax cut deal: look out for all of us and get the best deal under the circumstances. Am I happy that millionaires and billionaires got the extention? No, but I certainly don’t want people without a job to suffer for the fantasyland politics of some House Dems and the frustrati, where left cliches such as ‘drawing lines in the sand’ don’t put food on the table.

      • I just got an e-mail from my congressman, and he’s coming out in support of hte compromise. Bill Owens, NY-23. This is the one that Kos came out against when he first ran, but hey, he’s one of the few Democrats in a predominantly R district that got re-elected. He’s a (gasp!) pragmatist.

  5. Thanks for this cogent explanation of why pragmatic progressivism makes sense. In short, the purists are consistently allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, that approach does not get us anywhere.

  6. Dorothy Rissman

    Norbrook, you won my heart. Your ability to write with understand and passion bring me here, but your tender and large heart makes me come back. Great article.

  7. I do believe I have enjoyed that same map exercise. Except my detour was around a field of cowshit and briars at Ft. Hood, Texas.