“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Philip K. Dick
This blog exists to give a platform to the thoughts of Adam Quinn on American politics, foreign policy, and a few other things besides. I hope you find it interesting to read. Comments from any and all perspectives welcome. Well, almost all…
As the title implies, the overarching theme of the blog, if it has one, is that it seeks to take ‘realistic’ approach to whatever issues it comes to cover. That word has a specific academic meaning that will mean a lot to Internatonal Relations professionals like myself, but that isn’t worlds away from the common-language one, so all readers will get the idea. Being realistic doesn’t mean being cynical, or embracing the counsel of despair on every topic. It simply means starting from a position of scepticism about bold claims, from whatever place on the political spectrum they may emanate, about the extent to and speed with which the world, or more precisely the people in it, can be perfected.
Its starting point for analysis is that people tend towards acting self-interestedly, even if they have rationalised it as altruism. And that’s ok. It doesn’t make us evil; it just makes us human. We can still make the world better, so long as we remember that people will probably behave badly unless they are subject to some outside restraint and some public scrutiny. Allowing power to go unchecked by other power, or unsupervised by the public, rarely ends well. People aren’t inherently good or bad, but we are imperfect, and limited, and prominent among our limits is the fact we can never really see ourselves quite as others do, or weigh our own interests objectively alongside those of others.
Groups, societies and nations share this attribute, but in even more pronounced form. This means that the universal interests and values to which they appeal so often and devote themselves so enthusiastically are always in reality a reflection of the particular interests and values which their own specific history has forged. Governments usually operate in some degree of denial about this fact, but it is no less true for that. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a lot about this idea, and he was a very clever man.
A realist knows that our deepest political and moral disagreements can’t be solved by appeals to reason, even if being reasonable helps keep them within civilised bounds. In matters of politics and morality there is no possible world in which everyone wins and all are content. Ultimately, there is no avoiding the central truth that political life is a contest in which people struggle to see their preferences for themselves and the world prevail. The only way to win such a contest is by somehow acquiring the power to get one’s way, though that power may take many forms.
At its best, realism reminds us that the the road to hell really is often paved with the best of intentions. It is a voice advocating restraint in a world not short of loud voices convinced they have seen the direction of History. History has no direction, and even if it did, no human being could credibly claim insight into it. To think otherwise is vanity.
[The banner image for the blog is ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ by Pieter Bruegel]
Some quotations that capture the spirit of things here
“Nations (and, for that matter, all communites as distinguished from individuals) do not easily achieve any degree of self-transcendence, for they have only inchoate organs of self-criticism. That is why collective man always tends to be morally complacent, self-righteous and lacking in a sense of humor. This tendency is accentuated in our own day by the humorless idealism of our culture, with its simple moral distinctions between good and bad nations, the good nations being those which are devoted to ‘liberty’.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – James Madison
“While political philosophies claim the possession of truths valid everywhere at all times, men are receptive only to certain truths at particular times, according to the circumstances under which they live.” – Hans Morgenthau
“As a friend to mankind and liberty I rejoice in the efforts which you are making to establish it, while I fear much for the final success of the attempts. I dread the vehement character of your people, whom I fear you may find it more easy to bring on than to keep within proper bounds once you have put them in motion… I dread the interested refractoriness of your nobles, who cannot all be gratified and who may be unwilling to submit to the requisite sacrifices. And I dread the reveries of your philosophic politicians, who being mere speculatists may aim at more refinement than suits either with human nature or the composition of your nation.” – Alexander Hamilton, on the French Revolution