Utopian idealism is out of style. It’s been out of style for a few decades now, at least.
When we discuss politics or ethics, we try to avoid sounding hopeful or idealistic at the risk of sounding naive. If we have a utopian idea we’re likely to keep quiet about it, because this is never a winning position in a debate. It’s too easy to scoff at hope.
Even when utopian idealism is a winning position, as during Barack Obama’s “hope”-filled 2008 presidential campaign, it’s usually a costly one. Obama’s implicit vision of hope and change emanating from Washington DC has earned him enduring ridicule. (Sarah Palin opened her speeches in 2009 with the question “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?”, and I know one environmentalist Obama-hater who only refers to the President as the “Pope of Hope”.) It’s much easier to be cynical about the fate of humanity than to be caught dreaming about the practical possibility of a better world.
But here’s the funny thing: nobody wants to admit to being a utopian, yet most of us are.
It sneaks out in hidden ways. I was talking to a Tea Party/conservative friend at my job. This person claims to wish for smaller government in the United States of America, but also wants the federal government to pass a constitutional amendment banning abortion. I asked him, “how is banning abortion smaller government? Don’t you know that people will plan illegal abortions, and that the government will not be able to prosecute abortions without invasive investigations into the private lives of citizens?”
My friend is an excellent software developer, and I respect his intelligence even though I don’t often agree with his politics. The one thing we’ve been able to agree on is that we both consider ourselves libertarians, and for this reason I pressed him for an explanation of his paradoxical stance on abortion, and wouldn’t stop pestering him. Finally he said this: “it will be difficult at first to prosecute abortions, but then the gradual increase in sexual morals will lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies, so over time the problem of abortion will be mostly solved.”
“So”, I said, “you actually think a constitutional ban on abortion will cure our society of sexual immorality?”
“I don’t know if it will or not,” he said. “but it will be a step in the right direction.”
My friend, I was shocked to realize, is a closet utopian. What struck me at this moment is not that I’d gotten my frequent debate opponent to speak falsely, but that he’d revealed a deep and difficult truth. He thinks society is sick, and can be cured. He wants the USA federal government to initiate this cure by passing a prohibitive law.
Many conservatives are closet utopians, though they’d never admit it to Mark Levin. I needled my Tea Party friend about this for a few days (I also asked him “do you even have sexual morals?”, which was a serious question, and which he only answered with a grunt).
But I have to admit that he got back at me this week (as I mentioned, he’s a pretty smart guy, and doesn’t miss a chance). I was expressing my support for stronger gun control laws following last week’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. “Gun control laws, huh,” he said. “How the hell do you expect the government to enforce that? You think gun control laws will be easier to enforce than abortion laws?”
I had to pause to try to think of an answer, and in fact I never thought of one. I do support gun control laws in the USA very strongly, but I suppose I have to admit that I don’t think the government would be able to enforce the law effectively. So why do I feel so strongly that stronger gun control laws would be a good idea?
It’s because I’m a closet utopian. I think society is sick and needs to be cured. I think an effective gun control program would eventually lead to a decrease in gun violence, and to an enduringly more peaceful and cooperative society.
“Some libertarian you are,” my friend mocked. “Some hippie. You actually think you can cure society by enabling ‘The Man’ to control your freedom.”
I think we all need to accept and come to terms with the fact that we are sometimes closet utopians. Pondering this, it occurred to me that I’ve never read the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More. Maybe the text in which originated the word will shed some light, so I’ll be including this book in my holiday reading.