Ideologues, Realists, Idealists, and Killjoys

Malcolm X
Malcolm X laughed often and much. He had, by all accounts, a delightful sense of humor.

Idealism always ruins us for the real. For instance, the idea of the perfect, uniformly green, dandelion-free lawn has given rise to a mania for monoculture that’s made many a suburban homeowner miserable. Think of all the children and pets who’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals since the 1950s because of our idiotic lawn ideal. But think, too, of all the great good and social justice wrought by the egalitarian ideal of the 1960s. So idealism’s not all bad (far from it), and much that’s real can and should change; but to change, it must first be seen as problematic. We must be ruined for the real before we can be sold on the new deal. And being ruined, in practice, too often means being made miserable.

Ideologues put on colored glasses of some sort that force the world to appear the way they want it to appear (e.g., rose-colored glasses to make everything seem lovely, dark sunglasses to make everything seem bleak, etc.). Realists accept the world as it happens to be at the moment, and refuse to acknowledge any alternatives. Only idealists have the moral courage to deal with the world as it is and strive for the better world of their dreams. They are more existentially torn than realists and ideologues. But they’re also more honest, more humane, and more sane.

“Hang on to one of your most precious parts of youth, laughter—don’t lose it as many of you seem to have done, you need it.”—Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971)

Ideologues may hate other ideologues. But they don’t fear them. Because, on some level, they always get them. They do, however, fear the non-ideological. Because they don’t get them. They can’t place the non-ideological person in a neat and tidy category. And this freaks them out. Big time. Because, you see, like children of a certain age, ideologues desperately crave the comfort of predictable structure and clearly defined limits. They have a very low tolerance for ambiguity. This is precisely why they so often nervously claim that we’re all just as ideological as they are, whether we realize it or not—and that anyone who says otherwise is either stupid, lying, or in denial. You might be tempted to point out how absurdly circular this argument is, but I’d caution you against doing so.

People who live by heuristics and interdicts—people like your grandparents—are sometimes mistaken for ideologues. As such, it’s important to note the key difference between these two human types. People who live by heuristics and interdicts do so for the sake of convenience, the way I might follow the directions to your party that my friend Jean-Louis scrawled onto a napkin at Else’s. If that map brings me to the edge of a cliff, I’m not going to jump off the cliff. People who live by heuristics and interdicts never mistake a map of the world for the world. Alas, the same cannot be said of ideologues. They jump off the cliff every time. Wise generals know when it’s time to fall back and give ground. But the ideologue never misses an opportunity to rush in and defend a weak position.

“I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal . . . for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.”—Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1931)

You can’t see the blood when you’re looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. And we need to see the blood. So I’d never advocate rose-colored glasses. That being said, the opposite extreme seems equally unwise. For instance, I’ve met people on the far left (progressives like Chris Hedges) and the far right (fundamentalists like David Wilkerson) who seem to believe that there’s something inherently wrong with being in a good mood, who seem to think that smiling is a sign of moral depravity.

Look, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good reasons to be pissed off. But being perpetually pissed off does not, in and of itself, make you a good person. Likewise, being in a good mood does not, in and of itself, make you a bad person. It’s what we do that matters, at the end of the day, not how serious or sullen or cynical we are. Regardless, this puritanical approach to activism is decidedly unwise for purely pragmatic reasons, as it invariably leads to burnout, depression, and despair.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or sinful about enjoying life, appreciating beauty, and feeling joy. Besides, how can you save a world you don’t really love? And why would anyone else want to embrace your worldview when it seems to be making you so miserable?

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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