The Real Ideal

A few days ago I was at one of the little philosophical discussion groups I periodically attend, and the topic naturally turned to the political situation. I was tired from the long drive and in a not that great mood (even for me). Rudely, I kept checking my phone for the latest news, though at least I had a decent excuse–the five huge primaries were just starting to report their results, and I could not afford to miss a single percentage-point worth of new voting info. The 2016 campaign has re-ignited the political junkie in me, in a way that I haven’t felt since I was in undergrad.

One subject in the discussion eventually did come up and draw me away from my obnoxious poll-checking, though, and that was idealists. I don’t remember the exact question, but it was something like, “how do you know when to fight for your ideals or just be realistic?” We mulled this for a while, going back and forth on the different possible ideals we might hold, when I heard something astounding.

“I have come to be a big fan of coffee, so my idealism is to just enjoy a really good cup of coffee”, said one. “My idealism is to be happy and comfortable, and to enjoy pleasurable things”, said another. “My idealism is to not have any specific principles, but to handle things just as they come,” said still another.

Here, feeling rankled and a little goaded, I as usual said too much:

“I have to say I really don’t think those are examples of idealism at all, but almost the opposite of idealism. Idealism isn’t about cozying up to whatever is comfortable or expedient. It isn’t about enjoying a nice expensive drink when you feel like it, or just getting along with people, or finding a great pair of sneakers.

“I don’t have anything against enjoying pleasant things or friendly behavior, but that’s really the point: no one does. Everyone likes creature comforts and feeling accepted, but that has little to do with ideals–it just has to do with the fact that pleasure is, well, pleasurable. At the same time, there are all sorts of ways of pursuing pleasure for its own sake that can become completely cynical and exploitative.

“If you do insist on saying that a fondness for creature comfort is ‘idealistic’, you may be technically right, but only in the same way that you could say, ‘X is the best female physician in this entire building’, when X is the only such person in the building. It’s valid, but only in the most trivial way–and as such it becomes a kind of backhanded compliment.

“So it is with your attempt to make comfort and pleasure into an ideal. It may not lead to an outright contradiction, but ultimately you are saying nothing as though it were something, and kidding yourself in the process. Maybe this is the difference between ideals and idols–idols are clung to out of self-deception or insecurity, where ideals by their nature call for change.

“It’s not that ideals can’t be twisted or evil: many terrible dictators and fanatics could be called idealists of some kind, for they were bent on imposing an uncompromising vision upon millions regardless of the misery it caused, or whether it achieved the wonders promised. (Maybe in the end these, too, were more idol than ideal.)

“But being idealistic definitely isn’t about being comfortable or even happy; it is basically indifferent to these things. Instead it is about the power of imagining what the world ought to be, checking it against the reality you see, and then being willing to say and do something about it if they clash too badly. It is about what in life we hold worthy of striving and sacrificing for.

“For example, truly idealistic people are often not very well-liked or comfortable at all. Sometimes they even suffer terribly–for in striving after an ideal, one often must expose oneself to ridicule, risk insulting people, or endure great struggle and even punishment from an uncomprehending status quo.

“It’s possible for a whole society to share a set of ideals, and even consider them largely achieved. Yet if you look at the great social and political movements, or the great scientific advances, they didn’t happen because people said, ‘well, things are just fine the way they are; my house is comfy and I get along okay with my neighbors’. They happened because certain people saw awful injustices to be righted, or incredible gaps in understanding, and could not help imagining a better–more ideal–state of things. They were willing to take steps to make that imagining a reality.

“Sometimes it is said that to be overly idealistic is to be impractical. But idealism is not really the enemy of pragmatism; indeed pragmatism requires idealism, since without it, it would have nothing to direct it.

“The best pragmatist is an idealist who is willing to consider that the incremental or partial attainment of her ideal could be a lot better than nothing, if hardly the end of the journey. The worst pragmatist is the one who uses her pragmatism as an excuse to surrender when her ideal has not been even partly attained–and then trumpets it as a victory for idealism. Which one sounds more like the ‘idealism’ of comfort and pleasure?”

My comments were greeted with pursed lips and looks of contempt, and the subject was soon changed. Maybe I had overplayed the struggle/suffering aspect of things. But I left the meeting feeling I’d been granted a glimpse of one of the core weaknesses of our post-industrial mentality: the increasing conflation of consumerism/hedonism with idealism.

To me this seems like nihilism itself, thinly disguised. If the only way we affirm things like will and principles and judgment is by our attainment of something that requires none of these things–such as material gratification or comfort–then we may as well be denying the existence of those things in any meaningful sense. We affirm only that part of ourselves that wants to eat and be comfortable, and dismiss that part which strives or imagines.

It seems to me this attitude, shared by surprisingly many in the room as well as across the world, could only be a product of culture and education–for all the people espousing it had been young, millennials basically.

But what kind of upbringing is it that could instill in the youth, typically the most idealistic, impetuous and imaginative part of society, the idea that simply being comfortable and not making waves or standing up for anything could possibly be considered idealistic? It’s like something out of Orwell: being brought up in a materialist-consumerist way of life seems not just to make people inherently un-idealistic in their outlook, but to rob them of the ability to conceptualize idealism.

My own relationship with idealism is complicated, strained. I tend to worry that being idealistic all too easily implies stubbornness and closed-mindedness. What good is rigidity of opinion, after all, if our ideal is progress and change?

Yet the others in the room that day reacted as though by talking of ideas as things worth struggling, sacrificing, or being unpopular for, I had preached fire and brimstone, or something similarly gruesome and archaic.

No doubt such words as “struggle” and “sacrifice” can become noxious, like verbal whips used to flagellate people into guilt and austerity rather than enjoying their lives harmoniously. But without at least understanding their importance, I believe there will inevitably be a terrible emptiness in the people’s souls–there’s another archaic fire-and-brimstone word–and a kind of rudderlessness tailor-made for exploitation by the powerful. Indeed, that is precisely what consumerism encourages: the emptier you feel, the more things you buy to fill the void; and the more rudderless you are, the more readily you can be steered by advertising and fashion.

The results of the primaries of the night put a final gloss on my ruminations. The political maps in state after state seemed like a gigantic snapshot showing the forces of idealism, pragmatism and opportunism in open combat. Yet the lines become blurrier the more you look. Is Trump an idealist? Many seem to think so, and applaud him for saying Unpleasant Truths That Must Be Spoken in the face of scorn by the party elites and the politically correct. Yet look another way, and you see the con-man, the habitual liar, the sleazy plutocrat slouching towards power by any means.

There is Cruz, determined even from his high school days to embody the purest form of conservatism conceivable, and he’s certainly earned the unpopularity to prove it from his more flexible Senate colleagues.

On the Democratic side, Sanders too plays the idealist, with his booming denunciations of income disparity and his declaration that truth can be unpleasant, but we have to face it if we want to move forward. He talks vaguely of a political revolution that–let’s face it–as a savvy longtime politician, is probably the last thing he’s really about. Even so, he has brought to the foreground issues and views that have been quietly neglected, and it is in this role as a clarion for economic justice that Sanders has been most purely idealistic.

Clinton, meanwhile, frames herself as a true idealist tempered with a wise pragmatism, a passionate progressive who “gets things done”–all while shifting positions on issue after issue and basking in the attention and dollars of the 0.1%.

In the end, Hillary swept all five states that night, probably sealing the nomination, and Trump got all but Ohio. A victory for idealism, or the phony consumerist idealism of our times? I think the latter.

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