The Tyranny of the Ideal

By | February 1, 2018 | 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 report

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

Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.
Karl Popper

How would you like to grow up with parents who compared you not to other kids in your class, but to ideal kids ‒ who got straight A’s, were varsity athletes, were president of the student council, played in the band, were active in the math club, and volunteered in a homeless shelter in their nonexistent free time? Nothing you could do, including getting into an elite university, could possibly come up to these extravagant expectations.

Or how would you like to be a conservative who was compared not to other conservatives who had a chance to be elected, but to some imaginary, ideal conservative who did not exist?

We have George Will, who was employed as a token conservative in the days (now long gone) when the Los Angeles Times struck a glancing blow at objectivity. I still remember a column of his during the 1992 election, in which Will recounted with geometrical precision all the things wrong with George H. W. Bush. So instead we got Bill Clinton.

We have The Weekly Standard, which I subscribed to from its first issue. But I let my subscription lapse, because it remained anti-Trump after the nomination, and even after the election. In effect, it campaigned ‒ and is still campaigning ‒ for Hillary. To a lesser degree, this also holds for National Review. Why do I need them, when I have the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and most of the papers in between ‒ not to mention ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and NPR?

No, Bush 1 wasn’t the ideal conservative. Neither was Bush 2, nor McCain, nor Romney, nor Trump. In the pursuit of the ideal, the possible was rejected. And that’s just unacceptable.

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?

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 bureaucrats 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 futile quest for some theoretical ideal.

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