It’s Time For Idealism Again

“The inevitability of cynicism often looks like the twentieth-century legacy, but one goal of philosophy is to enlarge our ideas of what is possible.” — Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists

Now that our long national nightmare is over we can take up a new opportunity for idealism. In the rather confined circles that I spend my working days and nights in, there was relief rather than ecstasy at President Obama’s re-election. In other parts of the country—and, no doubt, in our fair city—they were dancing in the streets, provided they weren’t splashing through water up to their knees or slogging through sand and mud in the aftermath of Sandy. 


Immediately after a battle is as good a time as any to ask oneself, was it worth it? And while I watched the fight from the middle distance, I was fascinated enough by the posturing and the propaganda from both ends of the political spectrum to ask myself some questions: Does it make a difference (the “it” being the right to vote)? Is there still a place for hope in these post-apocalyptic days? What, if anything, does a progressive Christian faith have to offer a society that is fed up with fundamentalists of all stripes? 


[Full disclosure: I do not vote, since my citizenship is Canadian and my card is green, but having lived in this country most of my life I travel on parallel paths.]


It does make a difference, for a number of reasons, whether the citizens vote or not. The usual reason is that every vote counts, a truism which cannot be denied in states like Florida for example. But surely casting a vote, as commonplace as the action itself might be, has some kind of moral validation to it? If we act on our best judgment we make that which we might only tentatively hold dear all the more real. 


As Susan Neiman points out in her enthralling argument for a reasoned idealism (Moral Clarity, 2008), “. . . . the American revolution was nothing short of miraculous. ‘We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ was, metaphysically speaking, an astounding move. . . . In 1776 a band of colonials had the audacity to declare the idea self-evident—and thereby began to make it come true.” 


Even aside from the obvious reasons, the act of voting, like the efficacy of prayer, has less to do with tracing the cause to the effect as it does with changing our attitudes toward “we the people.” Maybe the American people aren’t quite as passive and imbecilic as they are made out to be if they can resist the millions of dollars pumped into the media-political pipeline by Citizens United, Sheldon Adelson, and the Koch brothers. 


These people certainly have the right to spend their money as they wish—after all, the Supreme Court likened that spending to a form of free speech—but it’s still somewhat reassuring to see that this time around such blatant manipulating of a Constitutional right came up way short of the goals. And that would still be the case had the Democrats done the same.


Is there hope for those on the left of the political spectrum? If this election served as a wakeup call to the Democratic Party and those affiliated with it, then an unintended consequence of good has glimmered into light. Against the odds, the President has been re-elected, despite a dragging economy, a dragged-out war, and some liberal measures that might not have flown four years ago. Despite four years of ideological gun-slinging progress has been made in human rights, restoring the infrastructure, and setting new directions. 


This election blew the gaskets of some on the right to a degree I’ve not seen before. Donald Trump, Ted Nugent, Victoria Jackson and others were apoplectic over the election results. This would almost be funny if it were not for their malignant disavowal of democratic principles. Apparently—if Donald Trump had his way—there would be lynch mobs marching with pitchforks up Pennsylvania Avenue as we speak. Isn’t it time the media fired Donald Trump?


Nevertheless, free elections were held, no one was machine-gunned in the waiting lines, millions of people of good will and conviction—Democrats and Republicans alike—made their wishes known and moved the country fractionally ahead by the sheer virtue of acting on their convictions. This is no small thing in today’s world and we should be grateful for it. Immanuel Kant said, “If we depreciate the value of human virtues we do harm, because if we deny good intentions to the man who lives aright, where is the difference between him and the evil-doer?” 


So how can idealism be taken seriously again? Susan Neiman, a philosopher who is also an expert on Kant, looks to him: “Kant says you do it by talking about heroes: those who risk their lives rather than resign themselves to injustice.” 


The form of religion expressed in a twisted and malevolent way by those on the right is seen for what it is by its fruits. By contrast, as a knee-jerk reaction, those on the left who reject religion do so by allowing their understanding of it to be defined by the distorters of it. There is no reason why religion cannot have a voice in the political realm if those who speak for it point us away from the naked grab for power and if they hold out for something better in the world. This is transcendence and Neiman says that the urge for transcendence expresses two drives. “One is to criticize the present in the name of the future, to keep longing alive for ideas the world has yet to see. The other is to prove our freedom, and dignity, by having a hand in bringing those ideals about through some form of human creativity.” 


The criticism that we fall short of our ideals is no thunderbolt of truth—our sins are ever before us. But neither is it an excuse not to try. As Kant reminds us in his Lectures on Ethics: “The remedy against such dejection and inertia is to be found in our being able to hope that our weakness and infirmity will be supplemented by the help of God if we but do the utmost that the consciousness of our capacity tells us we are able to do.” 


It would be a change for the better if those who invoked God did so from the humility of hope rather than the hubris of hypocrisy.



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