The Destructive Power of Idealism

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The Tea Party is hardly original in American history. Over the decades, we’ve had all sorts of idealistic individuals and groups enter the fray like invading armies full of loyal soldiers ready to do battle with the enemy, armed with their ideas.

Ideals have a value in stating a vision or purpose, but when they’re taken too seriously, they become rigid criteria used to measure the loyalty of one’s followers, creating a deathly conformity in the movement. I would expect this to eventually happen to the Tea Party just as it happened in Communist Russia, although hopefully without the violence of Stalin’s purges.

Another problem with ideals is that they raise false hopes. Obama is sort of an amateur at this; he had more of a slogan than a set of ideals and let the American electorate fill in the many blanks. The worst example is Woodrow Wilson with his ridiculously naive Fourteen Points, the same principles he repeatedly violated during the Versailles Peace Conference. “Open covenants openly arrived at” is one of the silliest suggestions ever made by a leader, but as Wilson was a fairly devious sort, I don’t think he really meant it—he liked the sound of grand words. The evil of the statement lies in the hope that it bred in millions for fair dealing between nations, currently an impossibility even today, given our competitive nation-state system.

The most basic problem with ideals are that they are abstractions that never hold up when faced with real human problems and the complexity of our interactions with each other. People than use ideals to judge the actions and the worth of others, which in turn corrupts the ideal, dousing the original light it held at creation.

From Ulysses: I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy. I do, too. I would much rather reason together with others and come up with something workable for real human beings.

“What good are ideas unless you make use of them?” asked JFK.

I wish I could believe that someone in Congress was reading this, but that would be naive idealism on my part.

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