The lovely and difficult luxury of pure idealism

The ever-insightful Hank Green posted a fantastic video about Parks and Rec today, which stirred up some thoughts I’ve had recently. Check it out:

Now, I think Hank’s point about loving each other despite our political differences is really beautiful and it is absolutely part of what made Parks and Rec such a special show.

(Incidentally, I watch Parks and Rec and The West Wing any time I’m sad about America’s political process…so you can imagine how many times I’ve been through both series at this point in the election season.)

Moreover, I think his point about the show’s careful compartmentalism is accurate and important. One reason Ron and Leslie can be such close friends is their political beliefs are so neatly cut off from the national discourse.

I do think, however, that that level of compartmentalism, even if were not part of the machinations of a television show, is a luxury. Leslie and Ron can maintain their distinct ideals, because their disparate beliefs rarely lead to a genuine conflict of interest. And the show is, of course, a comedy so I think we can rightly ask what is at stake when their beliefs are challenged?

Not very much.

I’m not saying Leslie and Ron never risk anything or that their conflicts never have meaningful consequences. I am, rather, thinking about the nature of pure idealism–literally the investment in ideas–versus the political realities of different viewpoints in the American system.

This meditation is in part informed by a problem I have with a segment of Bernie Sanders supporters, who have recently threatened to vote for Donald Trump if Sanders is not the Democrat nominee. There have been a host of very good articles about how short-sighted and absurd their temper tantrum is, so I won’t rehash that criticism here. I do wonder, though, what is at stake in their idealism.

I wonder the same thing about people whose beliefs leads them not to engage in the political process, because it means more to them not to have to compromise in their thinking than deal with the fallout of poor representation in the political sphere.

I am an idealist, as should be more than evident in this blog, and I have always been an idealist, a very left-leaning idealist who believes we should do our utmost to establish equality in our society, preserve our natural resources, and protect the human rights of our citizens and the citizens of the world. I am not a capitalist, although I live in a mostly capitalist system, and indeed I am not even really a Democrat.

My idealism is a luxury. It comes, in part, from being white and raised by educated, upper-middle class parents and not having to worry about other necessities. It comes from having the opportunity to attend not one but two liberal arts programs. It comes from having the time and energy to engage with ideas and ideals.

But even though I could pursue my idealism to the same end as these Bernie-or-bust advocates or nonvoters, I never have and I hope I never will (if I do, somebody slap me). I always vote in the general election; moreover, I always vote for candidates I think have a reasonable chance of 1) getting elected and 2) making a difference. I engage with my elected representatives, even when they already agree with me and even when there is not a chance in hell they will. I believe in compromise and I believe in doing the best we can whenever we can.

Because there are political realities I have to consider that have to do with more than my idealism. They are part, in fact, of being a woman. Because it’s more than my beliefs or my feelings at stake when people talk about defunding Planned Parenthood or redefining what rape is. It’s my body. It’s my life.

And that is exponentially true for people of color, for religious minorities, for the LGBTQ spectrum, for people with disabilities, low-income families…the list goes on. There are very tangible things at stake for those people in the political process. It is about more than an idea or an obscure right for them. It’s about their bodies and their children’s bodies. It’s about their lives.

(Arguably, there is plenty of at stake for all of us when it comes to climate change, but the temporal aspect certainly undermines that for people–we are very short-sighted creatures.)

So it’s not that I think divisiveness is the answer, because it obviously isn’t. And I truly value my friends who have different beliefs and political positions. (Trust me–I’m used to it. Most of the people I know are to the right of me.) But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that while for some of us, political discussion is more a meeting of minds, for many people it’s much more than that. That idealism is a beautiful thing that can inspire and move us to greatness, but it’s also an incredible luxury. To not abuse it, I think we have to acknowledge that.

PS. Anyone can be an idealist, by the way, whatever oppression or disadvantages they face. I really just wanted to address a particular brand of idealism  which is unyielding to the concerns and needs of others, i.e., the possible real-life versions of Leslie and Ron’s idealism.


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