The Tyranny of the Ideal

By | December 1, 2011 | 0 Comments

Anderson Cooper: So what system do you want?
Michael Moore: Well, there’s no system right now that exists. We’re going to create that system.
News item, 2011

I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.
Barack Obama, 2007

We are not talking about ideals − deeply held values that guide us in life. We are talking about the ideal − the ideal spouse, the ideal candidate, the ideal nation. If we compare our spouse, our candidate, or our nation to these imaginary examples of perfection, we guarantee that we will be unhappy. And if we try to create paradise on earth, we risk creating hell on earth.
Some people claim to be looking for a spouse but never find one. Each person they date has some flaw. Everyone has flaws, but the person is not compared to others they dated or met at work. They are not compared to spouses of their friends. Instead, prospective spouses are compared to film stars. No one, no matter how beautiful or handsome, no matter how kind or fun-loving, can survive comparison to idealized, fictional characters − who have experts to make them up and style their hair, and writers to compose the clever words they say.
Worse still are people who are married and do something similar. They compare their wife not to real women, but to Playboy photos of women with nose jobs and boob jobs, and the defects photoshopped out. In reality, these women may have shrill voices and intolerable personalities. They compare their husband not to a man they actually know, but to media images of handsome, rich playboys. In reality, these men may be obnoxious egotists on the verge of bankruptcy. But who wants reality when we can have fantasy? And with electronic media, we can have fantasy 24/7.
If there is anything guaranteed to cause dissatisfaction in personal life, it is comparing parents, children, spouses, or friends not to actual people, but to fantasies that are impossible to equal. Unreasonable expectations make for unhappy people. This mode of thinking betrays a childish narcissism: I am spectacular, so I deserve a spectacular spouse, spectacular children, and a spectacular job.
The same principle holds in public life.
Many people, especially those on the left, compare America not to other nations, but to some imaginary ideal of a nation. Nations, like people, have flaws. A good way to evaluate both is to look at these flaws over time. There is racism and sexism in America. But even the harshest critic must admit that there is less racism and sexism now than in former generations. Yet many people refuse to compare America to what it was in the past. To them, it doesn’t matter that America is less racist and sexist that it used to be. It doesn’t matter that many other nations are more racist or sexist. No, to these people the only thing that matters is that America fails to attain their imaginary ideal of perfect harmony and fairness.
Of course, this “failure” justifies extremists in their extremism. If things need some improvement, moderate measures are called for. But if things are really awful, if the system is “broken,” then extreme measures are needed. So a politician need not specify what he intends to do. He need only call for “change.”
“Change” what? “Change” to what? But if a generation has gone to college and been taught by leftist professors that America is rotten through and through, few ask these obvious questions. If things are that bad, many people assume that almost any “change” would be for the better. How’s that working for you?
The problem, however, is that leftists assume that only leftist politicians will come to power on a promise of “change.” But who can guarantee that the “change” will be in the direction leftists want? Radicals of both Left and Right demand “change.” It is difficult to imagine a politician more critical of the status quo and more demanding of “change” than Hitler. Those who vote for “change” without specifying what they want changed − and what they want it changed to − deserve whatever the demagogue they elect chooses to dish out.
● If our health-care system has problems, we need to identify and solve those problems. But if our health-care system is “broken,” we need it to be radically transformed. We need nationalized health care. We do not compare our system to Canada and Britain, with their long waits and rationed care. We do not compare our system to France, where health-care workers cannot exceed a 35-hour week even in an emergency, and as a result thousands die. Instead, we compare our system to an ideal system, where everyone gets first-class care at coach-class rates. But we ignore the fact that America, with 4% of the world’s population, is responsible for over 60% of the Nobel Prizes in Medicine, and for the majority of new drugs and treatments. That doesn’t sound “broken” to me.
● If our pharmaceutical industry has problems, we need to identify and solve those problems. But if our pharmaceutical industry is “broken,” we need it to be radically transformed. We do not compare our industry to that of the Soviet Union, which in 74 years produced virtually no new drugs. We do not compare our industry to those of other nations, which produce only a fraction of the new drugs ours produces. Instead, we compare our industry to an ideal industry, which continues to turn out lifesaving new drugs despite a reduced or absent profit motive. We enjoy a tasty dinner of roast goose, never worrying about where we will get more golden eggs.
● If our economic system has problems, we need to identify and solve those problems. But if our economic system is “broken,” we need it to be radically transformed. We need to remove the profit motive, so people will be free to work hard all day out of pure altruism. That this is utterly impractical makes no difference. That the Soviet Union collapsed after 74 years makes no difference. That China abandoned communism and embraced state capitalism makes no difference. That socialist Europe is collapsing as we speak makes no difference. All those people didn’t do it right, but our self-anointed elite are convinced that they know how to do socialism right.
● If our government has problems, we need to identify and solve those problems. But if our government is “broken,” we need it to be radically transformed. We need to give it even more power to enforce “change.” We forget Washington’s warning that government, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. We ignore all the nations where centralized power led to tyranny. Instead, we compare our government to an ideal government, where vast power is wielded by saintly politicians who never misuse it.
Constant repetition that things are “broken” and that we must have “change” may sound good to the shallow, but to the thoughtful such words are demagogic, even frightening.
The more we chase the ideal with our heads in the air, the more likely we are to fall into a hole. In the last century, people chasing the ideal fell into some really deep ones − communism, fascism, and Nazism. Over 160 million human beings died because of these attempts to create a paradise on earth. Let us try to be worthy of paradise in the next world. In this world, let us seek reasonable, practical, gradual, safe improvements, and reject wild-eyed pursuit of “change” in a quest for some theoretical ideal.
In choosing a candidate, we should compare the candidates actually running for office to one another, not to some ideal candidate we imagine. None of the current candidates is the ideal conservative. Somewhere, sometime such a candidate might exist. But we are citizens of this country at this time.
Our duty is to choose the best candidate of those now running, according to our judgment of which one shares more of our values. Our duty is to select the candidate who has the best chance of defeating Barack Obama and reversing our current course toward even bigger government and even less freedom.
If we do less than our best because he is not our ideal candidate, we will share the blame for what happens.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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