The Ugly Side of Idealism

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, P.J. O’Rourke described the mass murder as “an act of idealism.” Not idealism as we colloquially use the term to refer to the ability to place other values over one’s immediate self-interest, but rather “the concept that mankind and society could and should be perfected.” That vision of a perfected society causes O’Rourke’s idealists to ignore the human costs of the coercion required to create their ideal society.

The 9/11 hijackers were driven by an older theological vision of a world-wide caliphate under the harmonious rule of Sharia. But most modern idealists derive their inspiration from the Enlightenment view that unfettered human knowledge is capable of determining, according to O’Rourke, “exactly what humans and their politics and their economics and even their home lives should look like.” Popular historian Paul Johnson, for instance, places the blame for most of the atrocities of the last two centuries on the doorstep of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for teaching that man is naturally good so, naturally, it’s good to force him to be so.

The utopian hope of societal perfection and the desirability of bringing that society into existence holds special allure for intellectuals, for who else is capable of articulating the utopian vision or possesses the requisite knowledge to bring it into existence. Not by coincidence was Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge sought to “restart civilization,” and in the process brought death to over two million Cambodians, a teacher of French literature and history, or Abimael Guzman, the leader of the brutal Shining Path guerillas in Peru, a college philosophy professor.

One of the unfortunate by-products of philosophical training is the ability to turn human beings into abstractions – part of an elaborate calculus of how many lives may be snuffed out in the process of perfecting mankind. A firmer grounding in reality may be the best protection against slaughter in the name of the future utopia. Paul Berman, in a lengthy article a decade ago on then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, described Fischer’s old friend from his radical days Joachim Klein. Klein was a member of the notorious Baader-Meihoff gang and an accomplice of arch-terrorist Carlos. But he broke with them when he found himself in an anti-Zionist training camp in an Arab country surrounded by European leftists on one side and European neo-Nazis on the other. What saved Klein was that he was a mechanic, not a philosopher. Otherwise he would surely have found a dialectical explanation of the apparent contradiction.

Utopianism becomes particularly dangerous when wedded to sociopathology. Part of the appeal of radical Islam to those in prison is that it provides an outlet for their own violent tendencies. Belief in purgative violence often goes hand-in-hand with radical visions for societal reformation. O’Rourke quotes German radical Karl Heinzen, who already wrote in 1849: “The greatest benefactor to mankind will be he who makes it possible for a few men to wipe out thousands . . . . Even if we have to blow up have a continent or spill a sea of blood, in order to finish off the barbarian party, we should have no scruples about doing it.”

Late nineteenth century Russia was rife with idealists of all stripes, both of left-wing and right-wing varieties, and not surprisingly it was in the novels of the great Russian novelists Dostoievsky and Turgenev that the psychopathology of the idealists received its fullest examination. The demonic Stavrogin at the center of Dostoievsky’s The Possessed (perhaps better translated as The Demons) exemplified the connection between idealism and a taste for nihilistic violence.

NOT ALL IDEALISTS of the type we are describing are attracted by a predilection for violence. The vision of a pristine, unsullied world that existed prior to the arrival of man, which animates much Green thinking, does not usually lead to violence (with a few notable exceptions). For many Greens, not a proclivity for violence, but what the late Oriana Fallaci labeled the Goodist impulse that is the primary motivation. Bret Stephens describes the Goodists as people “who put a higher premium on their moral intentions that the efficacy of their actions . . . . Above all, the Goodists are people who like to be seen to be good.”

What radical Greens do share with their more violent fellow idealists is an ability to discount the human consequences of their pursuit of a vision of Nature without Man. That’s a large part of what makes them so inept as politicians. The desire to retain Green support is presently creating a major headache for President Obama because their priorities so frequently bring them into conflict with the vast majority of citizens more concerned about jobs, cheap energy, weaning America from dependence on foreign oil than the purity of the Green agenda.

Under Pat Brown, father of current governor Jerry Brown, California created the most impressive water delivery system since the Roman Empire. The western side of the state’s Central Valley became one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas, as a result of vast networks of dams, pumping stations, and tapped water built in the 1960s. Today, over 200,000 acres of prime farmland have been idled, by a 2007 lawsuit seeking to largely close down that water network to protect the Delta smelt, a three-inch long, short-lived fish. A major segment of California’s agricultural industry, which exports $14 billion annually, is being slowly destroyed.

The Democratic mayor of Salinas, a Central Valley city, describes California as “intent on job destruction and continued hyper-regulation.” Last year, California ranked last in the country in new business creation, and Los Angeles and the Bay Area experienced rates of emigration comparable to Detroit’s, largely as a result of that hyper-regulation.

Green opposition to “fracking” a technique for extracting natural gas from deep wells, would deprive the United States of access to the world’s largest national gas reserves, and with it, hundreds of thousands of new jobs, hundreds of billions in revenues, and a large degree of energy independence.

Meanwhile, a leaked European Commission report shows that a heavy reliance on renewable energy sources – wind and solar – would lead to a doubling of electricity prices by 2050. Even if Green-minded European bureaucrats could foist such hikes on European citizens, giant countries like China, India, and Brazil will never follow suit, making the rush to renewable energy, not only costly but futile in terms of reducing global carbon emissions.

FAIRNESS ENTAILS MENTION that idealism that blinds religious adherents to the human consequences of their actions is not unique to Islam. It has infected pockets of Orthodox Judaism as well. Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, the late leader of the yeshiva world, used to say that the elevation of one mitzvah or one Torah value above all others inevitably leads to an utter distortion of the Torah and a loss of all balance. At the time, he was referring to the national religious movement’s emphasis on settlements and the mitzvah of settling the land.

But that is only one example. The anti-Zionism of certain elements within Neturei Karta, which has a basis in Torah sources, nevertheless has driven many of its adherents mad. What else could explain the use of microphones on Shabbos at anti-Israel demonstrations by those attired in the familiar Shabbos dress of Meah Shearim or their presence in Teheran at Holocaust-denial conferences sponsored by a regime openly pursuing nuclear weapons so that it can wipe every Jew in Israel off the face of the earth?

The demonstrations against the opening of the national religious girls Orot girls school in Ramat Beit Shemesh is another example. How could a grown man to shout the most vile names at seven-year-old girls or chase them down the street if a demented ideology had not rendered him oblivious to what he is doing?

What is so evident to me as an outsider to the zealot community is not, however, necessarily so to one dwelling within. That is why I was so heartened by a newspaper account sent just before the Yomim Noraim of how Rabbi Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim, a former editor of the Eidah Hachareidis newspaper and a resident of Beit Shemesh, publicly condemned the demonstrations against the school, apologized in print and sought forgiveness from Rabbi Dov Lipman, a leader of the defense of the Orot school, for previously written harsh words, and reached out to Rabbi Lipman for dialogue. Like Joachim Klein, the mechanic, he was able to step back in horror and see where ideology had lead.

First published in the Jerusalem Post and Yated Ne’eman, Sept. 29.

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4 comments to The Ugly Side of Idealism

  • Jacob Suslovich

    I have three comments. First:

    “Not idealism as we colloquially use the term to refer to the ability to place other values over one’s immediate self-interest, but rather “the concept that mankind and society could and should be perfected.”

    Does that mean that there is no point in trying to perfect mankind and society. Or only if the price of electricity won’t go up as a a result.

    Second:

    “Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, the late leader of the yeshiva world, used to say that the elevation of one mitzvah or one Torah value above all others inevitably leads to an utter distortion of the Torah and a loss of all balance.”

    Does that apply to sitting in Kollel at all cost?

    Third, and this is the main reason for my commenting, who is O’rourke ?

  • Baruch Gitlin

    I think this is an excellent post. I think Rav Shach was very right, both in general and specifically with respect to the emphasis on yishuv haaretz by many elements of the dati leumi world, particularly at that time. It’s only a shame there isn’t someone of Rav Shach’s stature to give this musar to the haredi world of today with respect to its unbalanced emphasis on tzinut and limud Torah. Derech agav, I used to think that an over-emphasis on limud Torah was impossible, since Torah study encompasses all of the mitzvot, but I believe that the scandals involving falsification of student records at yeshivas, and other such things, have proven me wrong.

  • Mr. Cohen

    I could be wrong about this, but according to my very small understanding it appears that in our times, tznius has become a reason (and/or excuse) to hate Jews who are less tznius.

    When I see super-tznius ladies who would never dream of showing a knee or elbow or collar bone viciously slander their fellow Jews, even Jews who never harmed them, it makes me wonder:

    Might we be better off with less emphasis on the external aspects of tznius and more emphasis on: Ahavat Yisrael, patience and judging others favorably?

  • DF

    You quote Rav Shach to the effect that elevating one mitzvah above all others eventually distorts distorts Torah and leads to a lack of balance. Yet today we hear the notion of “learning” taught and preached on literally a daily basis. So if the author is still reading this, I would like to know:: does Rav Shach’s rule apply to the mitzvah of learning Torah, too? Or is that for some reason an exception to the rule.