I feel quite fortunate that I’ve retained a fair share of the positive idealism of youth. Many of my peers have had their idealism turn into cynicism. A few have supercharged their idealism into destructive forms.
At times, I feel nostalgic about the passionate idealism of youth. I was caught up in the environmental, “Flower Power”, and Peace movements of the mid-20th century. The tail-end of the Cold War period was a disruptive, violent time in the world. Kids like me were tired of the sabre-rattling, international squabbling between the West and the Communist powers. Many of us could see through the propaganda screens used by both sides. The thinking of the old wasn’t working. We wanted something more peaceful and inclusive. One of our slogans was, “Make love, not war.”
Better yet, my most idealistic period coincided with the Civil Rights era. Millions of us were on board to end racial discrimination, misogyny, and homophobia. The country needed our idealism and determination in order to get over the barriers of the old, traditional ways. That idealism has simmered down, but the Civil Rights era has not passed away. Today, we face the resurgence of extreme traditionalism, fascism, and theocracy. Again, we live in interesting times.
Political and religious extremism are traps for idealistic people. We can easily become swept away by the speeches and writings of ideologues. Extreme political and religious leaders are fully aware of the vulnerability of idealistic people. The danger lies when the ideologues believe their own delusions and their fans take the ideologues seriously.
It’s easy to submit to the temptations of disguised love of power and hatred of “the other”. The ideologues and their followers convince themselves that hubris and bigotry are ideals. We see this has happened throughout history. If we’re honest, we see this happening today. Humanity causes itself plenty of grief because we take our hallucinations too seriously. This is how we can become our own worst enemies.
It’s important to recognize when we’re merely engaging in wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is self-indulgence in its most benign form, and narcissistic exaltation in its worst form. These manifestations are ideology not idealism. Ideology is the garment that psychopaths wear in order to better market their thirst for power. Ideology’s close resemblance to idealism makes it easy for followers to “check the boxes” when they align themselves with the leader. The ideologue seems to hate the same things their followers hate.
“The enemy of idealism is zealotry.”–British politician, Neil Kinnock
To be idealistic is a positive attribute. Idealists are the polar opposites of ideologues. Idealists are dissatisfied with conventional paths to wealth and power. While ideologues harness exclusivity, idealists yearn for inclusivity. When the idealist becomes too attached to her or his vision, the transition from idealist to ideologue can happen. In other words, a little bit of idealism goes a long way. Too much idealism leads to ideology.
When engaged with ideology, the person surrenders her or his powers of discernment. Ideology provides lists of people to avoid and extreme prohibitions. Idealists possess the self-awareness and compassion that enables them to harmoniously live without the need to oppress others nor to enact harsh, punitive laws. Idealists understand the difference between licentiousness and liberty. Idealists honor liberty and justice for all, not just a select few.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes entertainer and activist, Steven Van Zandt. “A lot of the idealism of the Sixties was spot on–from the environmentalism… to the Civil Rights movement, the women’s rights movement, you name it.”