16 October 2010

Some Ideas That Could Be the End of Us All

I'm always uneasy when I hear educated and rational people - among them such luminaries as Dennis Prager, or Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama - describe the United States as primarily an idea, or an ideal, which ideally it is the job of each and every American to embody and live up to. And what's supposed to happen to those who don't, I wonder?

I'm reminded of those 20th-century movements whose partisans came to regard their own particular country as not just a flesh-and-blood people, or a physical territory, but as also, or even above all, as an idea. I'm thinking in particular of those German Nazis, and Chinese Communists, for whom it was not enough to be born German, or born Chinese; it was also a choice that had to be made. And made correctly. These were par excellence the sort of fellows for whom the degree of your Nazism was the measure of how authentically German you were, and the degree of your Communism the measure of how authentically Chinese. And while no doubt this is a development that can happen far more crudely and savagely in other countries than in America, I emphatically do not believe it is something that can't happen here.

I've got nothing against ideas, so long as they know their place. A good idea is always modest and quietly attentive in the presence of anything really real. And especially in the presence of that particular reality it seeks to approach, and love, and serve. Or even of the reality it seeks to change. In that respect it's not unlike the handmaid of the Biblical Psalmist, whose eyes are ever-attentive upon the every slightest mood or expression or gesture of her mistress. Even if her intent is to reform the woman who owns her, she understands that no amount of reciprocal contempt, of "badness" on her part, is ever going to make a bad mistress better. She knows that, in the realm of real human affairs, impatience, cruelty and disdain are only overcome by their Opposite. Only in physical nature, or in the more ethereal realm of human ideas, does fire ever actually fight fire.

Above all, a good idea never imagines it can do anything like justice to the complexity of even the simplest concrete, real, living thing (and only its Maker knows what wealth or poverty of life - or love - may residually subsist even in a lump of coal). Justice is a quantity no good idea ever presumes to be on intimate terms with - any more than a good plot-synopsis pretends to do justice to the human intricacies of a novel, or the most detailed map to the human geography of the smallest country. And just as no good honest handmaid would ever presume to play proxy or "stand in" for her mistress, so the good honest idea is always keenly aware of its inferiority to the indescribable thing it is laboring to put into abstract words. Indeed, I doubt if at its best the whole labor of abstraction has ever been other than hit-and-miss; after all, even our boldest, brightest, most hell-for-leather ideas occasionally miscarry. And even when they've largely "succeeded" at their labors, just think of the sometimes hideous monstrosities, as well as improvements, to which they've been known to give birth.

Take, for instance, the idea of capitalism. Take it, for once, not as the omniscient explanation of everything that goes right in a society, and the omnicompetent solution to everything that goes wrong. Take it, rather, as a decent, sensible, fruitful way of doing business, as opposed to merely thinking or preaching or obsessing about it. Or take it as a way of getting business done, and for the time being out of the way - as opposed to pretending that business alone is able to do everything in a society that needs to be done, all the time. Even in churches - or families. At its best, capitalism is always busy making its own distinctive and invaluable contribution to what I call the truly Good Society - in other words, to that blessedly real, tangible time and place (we've all known them) in which human creatures have so many more important things to think about than the sacredness - or the omniscience - of capitalism. At its worst, on the other hand, capitalism sees nothing either distinctive or invaluable in anyone's contribution but its own: it simply equates itself to the Good Society, leaving no remainder to the equation - as if profitable enterprise were the one active and constant ingredient in a medicine to which all else that had gone into it was mere replaceable filler.

Except, of course, that in real human affairs ideas don't do anything of themselves; they have no life at all apart from our wisdom or our foolishness. In real human affairs it is human beings who try to make capitalism into something more ideal than real; it is human beings who do the actual equating of capitalism with everything that makes a society not just maintainable but worth maintaining. My point is that in themselves good ideas are no different from any other good tool: they are morally neutral. Ultimately even the best ideas are only as good as the people who use them, or as bad as the people who idolize them. And no good idea is so flawlessly designed, so revolutionary and state-of-the-art, that it cannot have criminal or other destructive consequences when placed in the wrong hands. Which I think may be another way of saying that ideas don't kill or oppress; their worshipers do.

No comments:

Post a Comment