The nebulous pragmatism

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The nebulous pragmatism

 Lee Hyun-sang
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


In 1937, an improbable encounter between John Dewey — an icon of American pragmatism — and Leon Trotsky — a Ukrainian-Russian Marxist revolutionary — took place in Mexico after the Communist regime in Moscow led by Joseph Stalin delivered a death sentence to Trotsky in a default judgment. Earlier, Trotsky was forced to seek asylum in Mexico to avoid assassination attempts by Stalin, and after the delivery of a death sentence, Trotsky held a public hearing in Mexico City to refute Stalin’s arguments for the sentence after inviting Dewey as the chair of the so-called Dewey Commission — to be more precise, “The Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials.”

As expected, “Not guilty,” concluded the report of the 11-member commission after their inquiry. More interesting is the unexpected reliance of the “incarnation of ideology” on an unrivalled pragmatist philosopher after he was placed in a predicament. More impressive is Dewey’s portrayal of Trotsky as a “tragedy” as his God-given gifts were locked up in absolutism.

The tragedy of the Moon Jae-in administration has its root in its stubborn adherence to ideology without any God-given talent. It has kept making policy blunders — say, on the distribution, welfare, real estate and quarantine fronts since its proud launch in May 2017 — but hardly accepted responsibility. The administration always blamed its “good intention” for botched policies. Probably due to their repulsion of the liberal administration’s “ideology in excess,” ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and his rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) are both championing pragmatism. But the voters are not impressed. Why?

First of all, Lee’s sudden — and repeated — about-turns confuse voters, as seen in his backpedaling on basic income, a national land possession tax, capital gains tax on real estate sales, nuclear phase-out policy and evaluation on former President Chun Doo Hwan. Lee even apologized for Moon’s policy mistakes by making a deep bow to the people without a sincere reflection on them. The voters can hardly find sincerity in such acts by Lee. Doubts about his real economic view still linger. What do his volte-faces really mean? They are wondering if he is the same person as the one who said it’s wrong for banks to impose low interest rates on the rich and to levy high rates on the poor.

Compared to Lee, Yoon’s alleged pragmatism is just like a half-filled answer sheet. Despite his promise to “embrace the centrists and rational liberals,” he stopped short of presenting concrete policy ideas for the goal. He also mentioned a tax cut and eased regulations, but their substance is ambiguous. He has spoken like a neoliberal but his remarks suddenly sounded like a leftist last week. For instance, he expressed his support for the idea of including a representative of the labor in boards of directors starting with the public sector.

As the two candidates’ pragmatism does not show any signs of agony, voters turn away from it. A former middle-of-the-road lawmaker pointed out that Lee and Yoon seem to be afraid of self-reflection and self-innovation, respectively. An exemplary case of shifting the focus from ideology to pragmatism can be found in the twilight of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In a dramatic turnaround, President Roh decided to strike a free trade deal with the United States and dispatch Korean troops to Iraq at a U.S. request. A memo he wrote before the decision on the Korea-U.S. FTA shows his agony as chief decision-maker. “If we don’t accept an FTA with America, what will happen?” or “What benefit can our consumers get from the trade deal?” or “How to compensate for expected damages on farmers?” In a moment of anguish in the Blue House, he decided to “take a practical approach to the conundrum in a big trader’s perspective rather than a small one’s.” Whether you describe his era as a “disruption” or “dynamic one,” you cannot deny the sincerity of a leader.

Pragmatism itself cannot serve as ideology. The former conservative Lee Myung-bak administration was ridiculed as a “government without philosophy” or a “coalition of interest groups” after winning the election firmly based on the frame of “pragmatism against ideology.” Pragmatism cannot be an ideology, but it does not mean pragmatism does not need philosophy either. The philosophy that truth is not absolute is needed — and a sense of openness and humility. That’s why pragmatism is more difficult to carry out than ideology with articulate milestones. Again, pragmatism without pain is nothing but expediency and opportunism.

“There is no difference between Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol. It will be better to field a single candidate in the March 9 presidential election,” said Sim Sang-jung, presidential candidate of the left-leaning minority Justice Party. Her comment does not just sound like a joke. A dearth of differences only provokes the worst-ever negative campaigns in history. The two candidates cannot champion their flip-flops without logic and their ambiguity without substance as a type of pragmatism. Relativism also cannot be rebranded as pragmatism. Unfortunately, though, both Lee and Yoon are in the same boat.
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