02 March 2006

"Idealism is realism"

"...When you receive the childlike on my account, it's the same as receiving me. "But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don't have to make it worse—and it's doomsday to you if you do."—Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 18:5-7 (The Message)

The complicated relationship between idealism and realism is at the heart of community life and politics. The Bible is, among many other things, an amazing compilation of the highest, most inspiring ideals ("Love your enemies"—or, as in the present example, "It's the same as receiving me") and utter realism ("The poor you will always have among you" and "Hard times are inevitable").

Some years ago, I heard Gordon Hirabayashi speak at Canadian Yearly Meeting—a lecture later published by Argenta Friends Press as Good Times, Bad Times: Idealism Is Realism. In his lecture, he described how his ideals—in fact, even his patriotism—sustained him when, as a university student in Washington state, he refused to cooperate with the forced internal exile and internment of Japanese-Americans. His theme, "Sometimes idealism is realism," has stayed with me ever since.

His words came back to me while I was reading Harold Pinter's Nobel lecture, which excoriates the USA in no uncertain terms for the global poison of our low-intensity warfare on behalf of national political and economic advantage. I do not take this lecture as a dispassionate and accurate description of American ideals and intentions, but it is a fascinating glimpse into how the cumulative effects of our ideals and intentions appear to an intelligent overseas observer who shares many of our claimed values. It is a sorry sight.

Pinter cites the example of US policy toward Nicaragua:

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

It was those words that stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of Gordon Hirabayashi. It is accurate to report that, truly, "In war, innocent people always suffer." We cross a demonic line when we participate in that truth, when it becomes a way of justifying policies, of cancelling out our idealism or that of the constituency on whose behalf we supposedly work, of cutting the feedback loop that reflects on how many cracked eggs are too many for this democratic omelette.

Most Americans would not recognize their country as Harold Pinter describes it in his Nobel lecture. Our critical faculties do not detect the hypnotic rhetoric he cites: "Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable."

The Gordon-like response would not be to strip the words "the American people" of all their power, but in fact to restore the genuine idealism to them that most of us, even deep in our complacent fog, vaguely assume they still have. It is the critical faculty of realism that needs to be applied to our very ideals: are they in fact really still at work?

Without reflection on the real edge of our ideals (formed, after all, as a challenge to tyranny and elitism), without examination, without evidence from outside the system, we float along on a secondhand sentimental aroma of ideals, not the ideals themselves. When we really believe in freedom and democracy, we scrutinize and resist every compromise and shortcut, from not-quite-torture (that inevitably slides into plain torture), to funding Contra terrorists and their worldwide equivalents (some of whom are now fighting us!), to telephone-tapping, to sabotage of checks and balances, to dirty electoral tricks. We ring a very loud alarm every time due process is denied anywhere in our sphere of influence; when we deny it in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, we can expect to see our client tyrants eagerly deny it as well, whether or not Condoleeza Rice shakes her mild finger at them.

We critics of the American system bear a major responsibility as well. Cynicism is to realism what sentimentality is to idealism—a damnably deceptive counterfeit for the real task, which is putting our loving and critical brains to work to see and tell the truth. We will never communicate persuasively with those riding the hypnotic "the American people" cushion if we do not in fact connect with them as the American people, doing the hard work of identifying points of agreement (usually, our ideals!) and encouraging a conversation on what has happened to those ideals.

Harold Pinter's lecture included this script for a speech by President Bush:

God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.

Maybe we should give presidential speechwriting a try, but instead of Pinter's analysis, let's start writing the speeches we'd like Bush to give. For example:

I was elected on a pledge to restore the honor of the White House. Today I have decided that, to keep that pledge, we must go beyond personal probity and look at morality in public policy. A great nation does not spy on its citizens; does not torture its suspects; does not bully other nations; and above, all, does not increase the misery of the poor. A great nation does not lie about its enemies or insult them, but looks them in the eye and and challenges them to compare values with us in the court of world opinion. From now on, every action of my administration will be examined against these guidelines. I ask you, my fellow citizens, to help me defend our nation's ideals against every temptation or excuse to weaken them.

During the Cold War, we Americans patriotically compared ourselves favorably with the Soviet Union, and most of us probably rejoiced as the Soviet experiment came to an end. Those of us who relate cynically to patriotism and its power to evoke national ideals (as I sometimes do) might reflect on the spiritual desert which is reality for many post-Soviet Russians. Soviet patriotism was a complex mix of genuine ideals, showing the Judeo-Christian roots of Marxism (sorry, Marx!) and manipulative mythology, but what has replaced it? The following poignant letter came to me after I gave a lecture in Elektrostal on the future of the American family.

"Before" we were afraid of something, we respected and loved our political leader. Johan, I remember my class and I were singing songs about Lenin or Stalin or the Party at the age of 8 with tears in our eyes and with such patriotism. We were taught at schools to love our country, to be a friend!, to respect old people, to love nature, how to be healthy, to help others. You know I'm honoured that I managed to catch the time and I was a Pioneer!!!!! It was a real event to me when at the age of 11 I realized that I was a Pioneer! Yes, we lived in the time of collectivism when an initiative and individualism were not praised very much, and each one of us shoudn't be better than everybody. I admit that.

… But coming back to the point, about the family, I'd like to point out that "before" parents cared more for their children, cared more about their education in any sense, cared more about what their children would be in future. At schools or kindergartens there wasn't such a disorder as now. Of course now teachers go on teaching but HOW? What can give a teacher who earns even little than it's possible to live for?! There are enthusiastic teachers, but there are too little of them. Teachers are also people who want to live but not exist…

In Russia we were taught since we started to study at school that "School is our second home" "School is our second Mother", "School is our second Family" and it is really so. … "Before" it was really better! I remember my class on our way to school dropping in our teacher's house. At 7: 30 am we were standing near her house calling her loudly....She looked out of the window, still sleepy, a bit angry at us (as somebody still slept) and answering: "I'm coming. Be silent!" And together 20 children and our teacher went to school (we were at the age of 8 then). So much we loved her for being not simply a teacher for us, but our second mother, our friend, our family.

I wish we could have more such teachers at school!!!!!!

And after school we came back home.....where again we felt that we were a family, being together with our parents. Our parents a bit tired after work, but happy being with their children discussed some family problems with us, helped us with our homework that had been given to us at school or in the evening we could go to visit some of our family friends or simply go together for a walk. And with all this we trusted each other!

What can we see now?

Now schools are quite different from what they used to be....teachers' eyes are NOT sparkling with the desire to teach as they wanted it "before". No desire to teach - no desire to learn, no interest in children's eyes - this leads to the loss of control over the children, to their bad behaviour as they are more interested in their own affairs than in learning smth ….

A child comes back home - what can he see? Irritated (sometimes drunk) parents who are tired after work not because they worked much (though maybe they really did ) but because of those little money that they get for their work. SO much wonderful things we can see now, so much advertisement on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines: buy this! buy that! Go for a beautiful trip to Anatolia, to Greece, to Europe....doesn't matter kind of advertisement what makes these parents much more depressed...they can't afford it either for themselves or for their children. They think about with what they will pay for the apartment, what they will buy for dinner tomorrow, the New Year is coming - they need to buy some presents for their children. Children became more demanding - they don't want chocolate or a toy, even little ones want a computer or a CD player or even MP3 player now. Parents can't afford it! Children are depressed...they can't, simply don't want understand why their parents can't buy them this or that thing.

… To sum it up I can say that in Russia now adults think mostly about where and how much they can earn. Children are on the second place as well as the family. … And plus this freedom which is given to everybody now..creats nothing good but corruption...Drugs, alcohol, cigaretts are in those streets where children spend most of their time. No one [is] afraid of anything now....if "before" we were afraid of being ashamed, of being laughed at by our friends at school, for example, of being punished by school and parents or anybody else, then now we have no fear at all....and that is bad... I am not for frightening people...but what I'm trying to say is that "before" we had some discipline which is absent now in our society...."everyone for himself" can be met more and more often in our society...

But I am sure that each one of us wants to be loved, respected, trusted and cared for. Pity is that for that no one wants to do at least something.

Bob Ramsey has "tagged me," and it is my patriotic duty to give my fourfold response:

Four Jobs I've Had:

- Dishwasher - Library security guard - Bookseller (3x) - Meetinghouse warden 
Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over
- Brother Sun, Sister Moon - O Brother, Where Art Thou? - Apocalypse Now - Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Four Books I Have Read Over and Over (Does not include books you've read to your children when they were small). - Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom - Conversations on Prayer, Anthony Bloom - The Icon and the Axe, James Billington - (the truth is, I very rarely read a book more than once)
Four Places I've Lived - Oslo, Norway - Stuttgart, Germany - Ottawa, Canada - Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Four Places I've Vacationed - Cave Creek, Arizona, USA - Puerto Peñasco, Mexico - Raymond, Maine, USA - Cedar, Michigan, USA
Four TV Shows I Love - The Daily Show - Homicide: Life on the Street - Firefly - Battlestar Galactica
Four Favorite Dishes - Chicken and Rice - Chicken quesadillas - Chicken biriyani - Blini
Four Websites I Visit Daily - Andrew Sullivan - Christianity Today - Christian Peacemaker Teams - Washington Post
Four Places I'd Rather Be Right Now - Elektrostal, Russia - Oslo, Norway - Barcelona, Spain - Upstairs in my kitchen (Bob's addition)
Four Things That Make Me Warmly Happy - Kindness - Watching our loud Siamese foster-cat go outside - Seeing a new Tom Tomorrow cartoon - Luke coming home for spring break
Four People I'm Tagging with This - Nancy's Apology - Scott's Forum - Robin's Canst - Harley Reynolds
Memo to myself: Is Bob telling me to lighten up?

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