In defense of idealism

“Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” –John Galsworthy

Galsworthy, you are wrong. You may have a Nobel prize in literature, and you may have written The Forsyte Saga, a milestone of morally complex fiction, but you are wrong. But take heart: your wrongness is about the be the subject of a Sam Chapman blog post, so I guess you can stop feeling like a fraud when you look at that Nobel, eh?

I encountered this wrong quote when I made the recent mistake of attempting to debate politics on Twitter–in fact, I’m going to go off on a tangent before I even get to the point of this rant: political debates on Twitter are awful. I go back to them every few months because of the cheap rush from posting a 140-character barb that will push someone’s buttons, but quit every time, soon after I realize that the format discourages any kind of nuance. There’s no room to empathize with your opponent, or see things from their perspective, so anybody who disagrees with you immediately becomes a rube or a lunatic–and the society-wide problem of the worst people being the loudest is amplified.

This is why I get so frustrated when I see those clickbait articles about one tweet that “brilliantly sums up” an issue. No, it doesn’t. By definition, if we’re still talking about an issue, it is impossible to sum up that quickly. I can think of breakfast orders one tweet would be incapable of summing up.

*deep breath* Anyway. The Galsworthy quote was lobbed at me because I suggested I might be casting my second vote in a row for Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president. I voted for her in 2012 because I was dissatisfied with President Obama’s half-hearted environmental policies, and his refusal to own up to the collateral damage caused by his drone strikes. Now, I might vote for her because I am not convinced Hillary Clinton will be able to turn her back on the special interests that have funded her career. Then, and now, I have been accused of throwing away my vote, of voting for the Republican, of being an idealist. I was, I am, not behaving pragmatically. I am not being rational.

Rational. Realistic. Pragmatic. Practical. It’s hard to imagine any of those words ever being insults. It’s almost irrational how good the word “rational” makes us feel. And yet, somehow, idealism, which should express the highest goals of humanity, has become an insult. What gives?

Now, complaining about the culture’s fixation on gloomy outlooks is nothing new for me, but this is the first time I’ve turned away from entertainment and toward politics. It feels natural, because this election, particularly on the Democratic side, has had such a strong idealism vs. pragmatism divide. Should I, a young person gravely concerned about the direction of the country, fall in line behind somebody I don’t believe can solve our problems–all to stop somebody hateful from gaining office? At what point did “the other guy is worse” become the foundation of democracy?

According to the Galsworthy quote, it is my privilege that allows me to claim I’m not obligated to vote for anyone but the candidate I think would be the best president. It is apparently likewise privilege that allows Bernie Sanders to fear Hillary Clinton will soften her progressive message to win swing states. Now, I’m not denying I have privilege–despite cutting it a little close with my bank account this month, my middle-class upbringing, whiteness, and maleness do allow me to be academically detached from some problems that are visceral to other members of the population. But even taking that into account, this is where the popular and insulting image of detached idealism comes crashing down.

Rosa Parks was idealistic to think she could challenge Jim Crow laws by sitting on a bus. Does that mean she was detached from the problem? Of course not–that would make her, well, not a black woman in the 1960s south, which there is photographic evidence she was.  Muhammad Ali was idealistic to think his refusal to accept the draft could end the Vietnam war, and while he didn’t manage that, his protests had enough of an impact to be talked about still at the time of his recent death. But Ali was a member of two abused populations–black, and from the generation sent to fight in a meaningless war staged by the pragmatic people. Once again, not exactly distant from the problem.

Recently, we have Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. I’m not comparing Murphy’s impact to that of Parks and Ali, but his motives–a man close to a problem who could not bear the wait-and-see dealmaking approach any more. He has repeatedly mentioned his shame at having to tell the parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims that no gun control measures have passed, four years after their children died. Now, it’s possible his filibuster arose from realpolitik, perhaps a long shot to become vice president under Clinton. But–well, at a certain point, one has to make a decision about how they’ll view humans. I choose to view Senator Murphy not as a grasping social climber, but as an idealist, who refused to let his country spend another four years tacitly condoning the murder of children.

Do you see how wrong you are yet, Galsworthy? Murphy could only have been closer to the problem if he himself had lost a loved one in Newtown. He had a front-row seat to senate gridlock, was probably no stranger to making compromises in back rooms, but decided he was done behaving the way he was supposed to.

Idealism does not represent a cushy distance from problems. It is the only solution to problems. People bandy about pragmatism as though it were anything other than idealism that built this country. While the poor, while prison inmates and detained immigrants, while campus rape survivors and marginalized minorities manage to dream of better lives, the practical politicians buoyed to the top by superPACs continue to bray that we all must wait our turn, dears. After all, change is hard. Reforms are scary. Want them faster? Maybe you should have tried being rich.

Pragmatism has its place, of course, but it’s a position of servitude. Plans come after ideals; this idea that you have to act practically before you have time to dream is back-asswards. If I want to vote for a Green Party candidate, I’m taking on the responsibility of figuring out how to make a third (and hopefully even a fourth, fifth, sixth) party viable in the United States. But I have that goal. I’m not going to throw up my hands and waste my vote on the thing that seems to keep me out of the fire right now.

Because I am affected. I’m going to inherit this country, and I don’t have the luxury of not believing we can be better. We are stuck with systems we cannot afford to leave in place.

I don’t believe it’s possible to run anything–a life, a country, a gods-damned bowling alley–without some kind of guiding vision. Groping forward a step at a time will only lead us in endless circles. So, everyone who might read this, I’m begging you: have a crazy idea. Imagine what this country you’ll inherit could look like. Plant some trees you’ll never sit under. Learn about the undercard races in your area, because that’s the level at which real political change is made. Keep putting the screws to Aaron Persky–if nothing else, that simpering prick of a Stanford alumni booster doesn’t deserve to have his career saved by a mass shooting.

Oh, and don’t debate on Twitter. It’s just messed up.


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