Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sympathy for Idealists

Pragmatic realism is back.

People and positions that used to be called ‘ruthless’ and ‘amoral’ are taking on a newfound romantic sheen.

In politics guys like James Baker and even Henry Kissinger are looking a lot better to a whole lot of people. Hard core idealists like Christopher Hitchens have trashed Kissinger for years as an amoral monster, but all of the sudden they've gotten a whole lot quieter. Cold blooded pragmatists who pursue more morally limited and less ideological goals are rock stars right now.

No surprise in all that as far as I’m concerned. We talk about a business cycle, but I think an idealism/realism cycle is just as real. What goes around comes around.

Seems to be in the nature of things that idealists start out as a well meaning bunch, usually in reaction to some real injustice or evil. And often in reaction to the percieved cynicism of realists.

Then they get hardened into an ideological stance meant to combat that injustice or evil. Then as time goes by they get arrogant and lose their sense of perspective and balance. Actually, sometimes they start out arrogant and without a sense of balance, but I’m trying to be nice to idealists today :^)

Sometimes they actually attain political or military power. That’s when the real fun begins. Eventually, they often embark on efforts and are willing to use methods that do as much damage or more than the original evil or injustice they are trying to combat. Those efforts and methods normally betray the principles of their idealism.

And, of course, idealists themselves are never as good as their best ideas or ideology. Early on those shortcomings have to be hidden from fellow idealists, though as the ideological crusade goes on you get a lot more ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ blind eyes cast on the wayward. When organized idealism gets far enough along, verbal adherence to the ideals becomes the main thing. Actually accomplishing constructive goals becomes secondary. Retaining power and position end up as the main thing.

You see this kind of thing all the time in non-profit agencies, which tend to be more idealistic. Lack of accomplishment and a lack of accountability are often accepted as long as the organization and its members verbally promote the ideals. In Christian circles this is often euphemistically referred to as “being a prophetic presence.” What that often means is that the organization accomplishes little and doesn’t hold its members accountable but sees itself as a sort of abstract ‘witness’ to the wider Church which doesn’t adhere to the values of the supposedly progressive non-profit.

What can make idealism so dangerous though, especially in its organized forms, is the intensity and power of the whole thing and the eventual willingness in many cases to use almost any means—including violence and intrusive coercion—to pursue its goals.

Ran across this quote by Leon Wieseltier: “More people have died at the hands of idealists than at the hands of realists.”

Yeah, pretty much.

And the worst and most dangerous kind of organized idealism is organized religious idealism. If I can add my own thought to Wieseltier’s, more people have been oppressed and died at the hands of religious idealists than at the hands of all other kinds of idealists and realists combined.

Once a form of organized idealism goes bad and begins to implode, stark realism starts to look a whole lot more attractive. I think that’s part of what’s going on culturally right now here in the US. Neo-conservative thought—which in my mind is the epitome of well intentioned but violent and destructive idealism—and the Religious Right--a pretty text book example of self-righteous and dangerous religious idealism—have been usefully exposed and have created a kind of ‘pragmatic realism’ backlash. And of course, the spectre of current Islamic fundamentalism--an even more virulent form of religious idealism--drives a lot of people into the arms of the realists.

Hey, I said I was going to be nice to idealists today. I’m finally getting around to it :^)

In spite of all the dangers of idealism I mentioned above, we’ve gotta have it.

Cold blooded pragmatism--as attractive as it can be after you’ve been hit upside the head with the downside of organized idealism—turns out in the end to be little more than the straightforward protection of self-interest and often the status quo.

Important progressive change rarely springs out of pragmatic realism. Idealists are rightly motivated by how screwed up things are. And things are screwed up,that's for certain.

But to get it right, progressives of any stripe have gotta have moral and intellectual idealism tempered by powerful checks and balances.


• Checks and balances that can set progressive idealism free to be constructive rather than destructive


Anonymous jon said...

I'm confused about contrasting Baker and Kissinger with all the bad things you said about idealists. Baker is sketchy enough with the Iran-Contra stuff, but Kissinger...look at what he did in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Chile, Argentina, Bangladesh, and Cyprus. And hasn't he been advising the president that we should not leave Iraq until the insurgency has been completely defeated?

6:49 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I try to be a careful idealist and I don't support folks like Baker or Kissinger.

I think bad idealism is more dangerous than bad realism.

The contrast was meant to show how bad idealism can make even guys like Kissinger seem positive.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Thank you - that makes a lot of sense. Although I don't like the term "careful idealist", because it sounds like tempering the idealism even if it doesn't, I can't think of a better term. So I'll just continue to say that I'm an idealist, and pray (while taking the steps of logic and good counsel) that I don't become a bad one.

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idealism/realism dichotomy came up a little in recent years especially in Republican circles with regard to the possibility of Iraq getting a Jefferson democracy up and running in short order. Conservative Christian(?) radio talk show host here in L.A. Frank Pastore alleged on his show that Democrats here inherently "hopeless" even racist people in this regard while Republicans were "hopeful."
His idea being, apparently, that since Democrats were dubious of Iraq's ability/willingness to embrace an American-style democracy, these Democrats had no hope in the Iraqis and believed that Iraqis were incapable of our system. The republicans believed they could and thereby demonstrated both their hope and their lack of racism.
As per your post, it does indeed seem that idealism when not coupled with a healthy realism can yield deadly results.

10:16 AM  

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