Freddy Hall and The Best Intentions--"Hold Love, Keep It In Your Hands" (mp3)
When our country was young, in fact, before it even began, its thinkers and dreamers envisioned what we as a nation collectively, as citizens individually, could become. Even beyond Declarations and statements of Religious Freedom and Constitutions and the like, the rhetoric of those who were not necessarily our official national architects spoke to our best outcomes, our best selves.
By the time Emerson and Thoreau came along some 40 years after the Constitution, they already knew what they didn't like about what America was becoming--examples include the movement away from agrarianism (which also bothered Jefferson), what they saw as the failures of representative democracy, our attempt to fashion ourselves as a European-style state, the "immoral" uses of our taxes.
But the interesting thing is that when you read their writings, even with the criticisms, implied or otherwise, their tone and their message is overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. When Emerson and Thoreau tell us what we are supposed to be--civilly-disobedient and non-conforming, there isn't a sense of mockery or a feeling that we can't get there. Because they are visionaries, they write very much from an "I'll show you the way" kind of perspective. Of course most of us can't get there--that's why it's idealism-- but like Browning's comment that "a man's reach must exceed his grasp/ Else what's a heaven for," both men, however learned they might be, speak on a populist level that suggests that the man (or woman) who steps up to that kind of self-actualization could be any one of us, not necessarily, even not likely, one of our political leaders.
Today's "idealists," and I use the term guardedly, are the great pessimists. Rather than tell us what we can become, they show us why what we tried didn't work, why who we voted for is bad or worse, why every accomplishment has cynical underpinings, why when we take the measure of a man, no man measures up. Nothing is good enough, everything is flawed, and things can only get worse. At least when compared to the ideal.
They thrive on hindsight. They feast on failure. They love to take the empty promises of a campaign season and spout those as disappointing doctrine. They ignore political realities, like if you're going to get a bill through, you're going to have to give something to the senator from Iowa that he can take back home. They expect that if you are President, that you can tell the Joint Chiefs of Staff what to do without any pushback or compromise. "No retreat, baby, no surrender" sounds great in a Springsteen song, but it's hard to live out in Washington, DC., not if you want to move on to a new issue that requires a different set of allies tomorrow.
If you wonder who these people, these Pessimistic Idealists are, you can find them trolling on the Internet, not writing news articles or opinion pieces, but adding the comments that follow those posts. They have snarky names and competing idealisms and they recognize the snarky names of their adversaries and live to do online battle. The chat rooms of old have been replaced by pithy discussion strands that mimic much of the "Either/Or" mentality of the talking heads on news and sports television. I'm right, you're wrong, and God help any poor soul who tries to get in a word between us.
Today's idealists get their wireless erections, their cyber-orgasms from being so right, so crushingly confrontationally right, that they know they have achieved victory when others with similar ideals start piling on as well. They can easily ignore the fact that other ideals sit uneasily beside their own, getting equal time, because those values are simply jet fuel for their fire.
These people are the reason why you now see in the "Comments" section of many websites, cautions about the increasing vitriol and the need for a civil discourse. They are why you, if you choose not to join the fray, can flag comments as inappropriate. Because so many are inappropriate, if not by the literal guidelines of language or discrimination, then by their basic hatred of discussing opposing ideas.
People who were trying out comments on the Internet a few years ago have either abandoned that idea or have sharpened their words to a razor-like edge and sit, waiting.
That is what the Internet has become. That is what Idealism has become, not human potential but inflexible personal party platforms.
None of this may be surprising, but it is certainly disheartening. Much as I write in hopes of getting comments on this blog, out in the greater Internet world, I am almost afraid to read the comments that follow any political story, or even any story that focuses on an event in which the government is involved. I know that I will end up a naive idiot for feeling good about anything, from the Penn State punishment to Obamacare. And, by the way, many of these idealists know no particular party or loyalty. They exist to slice and dice.
To be fair, there's no telling what Jefferson and Madison, Emerson or Thoreau would think of this country whose ethos they helped to create. Perhaps they would have given up hope, too. I also must admit that I am not immune to the condition I have described. I have been angered enough by comments to want to respond, often only saved by a need to register on a website in order to leave a comment. I've done it on this website, convinced of my absolute rightness on some issue that mattered little once I went to bed and got up the next day.
The only difference I can cling to, if it counts for anything, is that I am rarely pessimistic about what is or what will be. I see a way out, a chance that people will act right and make moral decisions on every level. Until the second that someone actually flicks the switch on the garbage disposal, I'll go with hope and change any day. But they don't call that idealism these days. They call that naivete.