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.

Author Q&A with Robert Morrow

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Seattle sunset

Q: Ringing True is both the title of the book and the name of the religion in the book. Was it your hope that the religion might take off and develop a following?

A: Not at all. It’s been interesting that some of the early readers have responded positively to what is called “The Numbers,” the name of the religion’s text. One reader remarked about its essential humanity being something people everywhere could agree on. It’s very validating, but if you read “The Numbers”, the religion isn’t about gaining followers. It’s about encouraging people to accept responsibility without having to follow anyone or anything. Ringing True is essentially an empowering religion, so my intention is to spread empowerment and encourage people to figure things out for themselves.

Q: Even though the religion is described as a “world religion,” most of the institutions and norms that are satirized in the book are American. Ringing True seems to be a very American novel.

A: Yes and no. America is so globally influential it’s hard to have a discussion about many parts of the world without also describing their relationship to America. For good and ill, our power and culture are omnipresent. One of the characters comes back from South America and says, “We are everywhere.” One thing you always hear from natives in other countries is how loud Americans are – and we are, in terms of both volume and in presence. The primary object of the satire is the American media, which is certainly loud enough to be heard around the globe. But, I also take on American corporations, religious zealots, Hollywood and other “American icons” that have a stunningly powerful influence the world over.

Q: You introduce a bisexual character into the mix. What was behind that?

A: The simple answer is that I lived in San Francisco for years and learned that loving relationships can come in many forms. Confronting the things that are uncomfortable is part of what gives satire its power. Many Americans are still uncomfortable with non-traditional relationships and, frankly, they need to get over it. Why worry about the ways adults can love each other when we have millions of them killing each other? That’s an example of seriously skewed priorities. 

Q: A lot of the book deals with fame. What was your purpose behind this theme?

A: Fame has to be the most overrated value in the world. With reality television, competition shows and programming like Jerry Springer, it’s stunning how many people are willing to humiliate themselves to have their faces on the TV screen. And as far as the truly famous are concerned, I think fame can have the debilitating effect of separating a person from the talent that made him or her famous in the first place. Fame is primarily based on the myth of the power of an individual – sort of a superhero characteristic. This is why actors get all the attention despite the fact that film is an incredibly collaborative enterprise.  No actor is going to be remembered for a great performance if the sound is mangled, the lighting wrong, the direction shabby, the make-up applied incorrectly. I think my basic message is similar to that of the religion in the book: let’s stop elevating and worshipping others and realize that we all have something valuable to contribute to each other and to our world.

Q: You certainly take capitalism to task in many ways – lay-offs, waste, politics, jobs without meaning. How would you fix it?

A: Well, you certainly won’t find the answer in more government regulation because all that does is drive the corruption underground and empower the rule-makers. Having been an executive, I can say that too many of my former executive colleagues lack a sense of responsibility to others – one of the three key responsibilities in the book’s religion. They can say they’re responsible to the shareholders, but that’s often a convenient mask for their own self-interests. You can’t legislate all irresponsible behavior out of existence; it is more of an issue of moral teaching and character. Maybe we should send a copy of Ringing True to all the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies – or just a copy of “The Numbers”.