One of the first English accents I remember hearing belonged to a man on Sunday evening television. It was 1970s New England, our TV was deeper than it was wide and there were only four channels. I’m not sure whether it was the enticing intro music or the close attention he seemed to earn from my parents but I remember liking him. It wasn’t Doctor Who or Benny Hill — the other two British voices in our living room. It was Alistair Cooke, in whose honour I’m speaking at Parliament this evening.
In the 1970s, when America was roiling over Vietnam and Watergate, and the Cold War still loomed over people’s daily lives, Cooke represented an ideal that Americans needed. His persona alone seemed to answer burning questions about who would win the Cold War and whether the Western canon should be taught.
With Cooke gently talking us through moments of great anxiety, we bridged some very troubled waters and saw progress previously thought unimaginable. He was an erudite man but much of his brilliance was in understanding the special role he played for Americans and performing it beautifully.
These days, we seem to long for our own Alistair Cooke. Our time of IS, Ebola, Putin land-grabs and economic inequality is cause for unease. And it seems to provide little comfort that other positive data on Africa, malaria and global poverty form an alternative narrative. We want an understanding of our response to the threats.
I think there is reassurance to be found. Not from a new Cooke, as such, but from someone possibly lurking in his bookcase. I’m referring to William James, an American of British-Irish descent, who popularised a philosophy called Pragmatism. I think it helps in understanding President Obama’s approach to foreign policy — one I believe is right for our times.
James was frustrated by two extremes he saw in the leading thinkers of his time. One you might think of as rigid idealism and the other as uncompromising realism. In James’s opinion, both failed to deal with the flow of how life is actually experienced.
Today, pragmatism is code for cynical, a shorthand for actions where the end justifies the means. The truth is that pragmatism means the opposite. It is not a lack of principle; it is inseparable from principle. Pragmatism takes an evidence-based, case-by-case view. It asks us to comprehend things by their impact — how they pay off in the world. It accepts change and makes room for democratic free will and progress.
When President Obama articulated America’s foreign policy at West Point this spring, he spoke from this same Anglo-American strain of thought. “Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty,” he said. “But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the aspirations of individual human beings matter.”
One wonders how Cooke might have regarded these times. These days he’d be competing with thousands of other voices. But I’m betting he would still resist the impulse to jump in a Tardis in pursuit of perfection or abandon hope and run around in circles Benny Hill-style. Instead, I suspect he would be talking us through these times pragmatically with great judgment, nuance, perspective and wit. Sundays aren’t the same without him.
The article was originally published in the London Evening Standard.