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Idealism: The Soul of America

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The subject of "realism" in politics is fascinating, because for one thing the mere mention of "realism" often causes people to sell out their ideals, usually for absolutely nothing. In such a case, "realism" is in fact a fraud and a rip-off in which one hands over one's most precious ideals, whatever those may be, and exchanges them for precisely nothing. In some cases, these ideals come straight out of the Constitution or Declaration of Independence and get this ignominious treatment by the forces of so-called "realism." If you're concerned that following my critique of realism means that you'll somehow lose touch with the practical aspects, fear not: There surely is an important place in politics for balanced and nuanced assessments of a pragmatic and utilitarian nature. But, when one's most important ideals are involved, like the ideals a country's Constitution is based on, or around which one organizes one's most important life concepts and life values, then other more important considerations come into play with sacred ideals invoked. I wrote the original version of this essay around Thanksgiving 2006 as a way to be thankful for the ideals of the men and women who founded this country, even as I was only able to sit up in my hospital bed for the first time in days. Asked once if I wished to see a chaplain, I realized then that at the most desperate moments we are in ever more need of checking in with our most profound ideals, and using them as our guides. When it comes to our country, the ideals of the Founders were so bold and visionary that we are still working on some of them, like Thomas Paine's ideal of no disenfranchisement of the right to vote, ever, or for any reason, except for trying to take away the vote of others. Even if we never fully accomplish our ideals, they are nevertheless critically important because they are the guide-stars that orient our lives, and without them we would truly get lost and might well simply stay lost. In fact, we use ideals constantly, whether we acknowledge it or not. Thus, in the area of our most precious freedoms, we should be on guard for the unintended effects of "realism" which may cause us to trash our ethical guide-stars, at moments when they are most needed: at any important moment in our personal lives or the life of our country. Far from being "unrealistic" the ideals of freedom, liberty, equality, opportunity, compassion and human rights are indeed the soul of America. America is well known as the first country founded solely on ideas. Indeed, "America has never forgotten -" and will never forget -" the nobler things that brought her into being and that light her path." -- Bernard Mannes Baruch (1870-1965) This notion is broadly shared by all Americans of all parties: at least they feel obliged to invoke it when they want to accomplish something or obtain agreement. For example, recently, speaking at an Ohio State University commencement ceremony, President George W. Bush reminded graduating seniors that "idealism is needed in America." "Politics is largely a matter of heart" said R.A. Butler in the mid-20th century. "Speaking decades earlier, Walter Lippmann defined ideals for us: "Ideals are an imaginative understanding of that which is desirable within that which is possible." Given America's focus on imaginative possibilities, it is little wonder that Americans of all parties are known for an optimistic view of the future; Ideals require a future-focus because they are realized in the future, and allowing them space to operate is motivated by the hope that the ideal will be realized to some significant extent. Because America is distinguished as the first country in the history of the world ever founded upon a cause or an ideal, great Americans celebrate their own ideals, and American ideals as well. President Woodrow Wilson said "Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. " America is the only idealist nation in the world." Americans are often called by their leaders to aggressively achieve American ideals: Indeed, "the American," as President John F. Kennedy said, "builds best when called upon to build greatly." Americans started by building a great Declaration of Independence and Constitution that were intended, as Founder Henry Clay put it, "for endless perpetual posterity." Ideals can indeed work forever because they guide us or remind us even when not yet fully achieved. This legal heritage of individual rights was not only considered a gift to perpetuity, it was consciously intended as a gift to the entire world. "A single good government becomes .. a blessing to the whole earth" said Thomas Jefferson. Ben Franklin himself observed it was not unusual but rather a "common observation here that our cause is the cause of mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in securing our own." Thomas Paine, the author of "Common Sense" and the most important American of that Revolutionary era according to both his friend Thomas Jefferson and nemesis John Adams, wrote confidently to the Colonists that the point of their work was to change the world: "We have it in our power to begin the world anew." The ethical view of the Founders clearly extended to the entire world and for all time, all of which was a fit subject for moral or political consideration. Considering the highest of political moralities, President George H.W. Bush (Sr.) wrote: "I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who we are. But we're the people who sundered a nation rather than allow a sin called slavery, and we're the people who rose from the ghettos and the deserts." Bush Sr. also wrote: " America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation, and gentler the face of the world." American ideals have always been geared towards the creation of a progressively more just society that increasingly serves We the People. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller said during the 1970s: " America is not just a power, it is a promise. It is not enough for our country to be extraordinary in might, it must be exemplary in meaning. Our honor and our role in the world finally depend on the living proof that we are a just society." President Woodrow Wilson: "Our greatness is built upon our freedom, it is moral, not material. We have a great ardor for gain, but we have a deep passion for the rights of man." Concerning the rights of man or humanity, the Founders could think of their purpose in no other way. President John Adams asked incredulously: "If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind, whom should we serve?" Absolutism, whether it is absolutism of power or absolutism of claims to truth, is defeated entirely by the uniquely American concept of inalienable individual rights, set forth in our Declaration of Independence. Through these inalienable rights, the individual becomes a center of power, not just the government. The government exists to guarantee rights, not to simply grant them. America was not a selfish project, it was an intervention in world history designed not only for freedom, but to rid the New World of European class system and aristocracy and the dangers of absolutism in all of its forms. The prohibitions in the Bill of Rights against the government taking sides via censorship, in favor of the freedom of the press, and the prohibition against government endorsements of ultimate religious truth via the separation of church and state, all were profoundly influenced by this non-absolutist perspective gained from the fight against absolute monarchical power: no one has a lock or a monopoly on truth; it is always better to keep the marketplace of ideas wide open, together with the various doors of religious worship. The linkages of rights and American values form a circle that reinforces over time and pushes America forward with continually reinforced idealism, as follows: 1. First, governments are founded, wrote Thomas Jefferson, for the purpose of protecting (not granting) Individual Rights. 2. Protecting Individual Rights unleashes the energies and potentials of every Citizen, maximizing them. 3. The resulting supremacy of Individual Human Rights, as FDR observed, is the very definition of Freedom. 4. From the unleashed energies of Freedom of the citizens springs an inherent Idealism 5. Out of Idealism springs both a Future focus and the proverbial American Optimism 6. Out of a Future focus and American Optimism springs the inevitability of Change, usually for the better, which is Progress 7. With Progress, we are asked in each generation to enlarge the sphere of Individual Rights beyond that enjoyed by prior generations, to make our children better off than we were. (repeat from Step 1, above). Based on this cycle of idealism and rights, I submit that the true celebration and the future of this country is going to be wherever folks are arguing for DEMOCRACY and for FREEDOM and for a meaningful active conception of "WE THE PEOPLE." We should not (1) Dismiss the idealism of America, nor should we (2) Doubt the idealism of America, either. Although our ideals may never be realized fully, they are nevertheless always acting as our guide-stars. Indeed, without ideals to reckon by, both individuals and nations get lost. If any President of the United States wants to accomplish something in our country, for better or for worse, he will invoke this power of American idealism, as George W. Bush did once again in his Second Inaugural Address: "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." And Bush's opponent wrestled with his fate in idealistic terms: "No matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out." Albert Gore, (b. 1948) So, Yes, I'm an Idealist, a believer in the power of American Ideals. The true architect of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, said " My country is the world, my religion is to do good." Like Thomas Paine, I try to be a "do-gooder" at times. These ideals are not to be mocked. These ideals are for me, like President Woodrow Wilson, "how I know that I'm an American." Regarding those who just can't handle idealists and do-gooders, I quote the immortal Mr. T. from the A-Team: "Pity the Fool." It's great to be in touch with these powerful ideals that founded this country and continue to change the world. Nevertheless, we're still hoping the naysayers can make it to the big American Party, because the more we are together in that place the more there is still a power and a magic there that makes us remember where we came from, where we're going, and what direction to take to get our country back on its best and most promising track, the track that can make it that shining city of a hill. This magic idealism is and was on behalf of all humanity, and for all time. It's a power for human rights, which maximizes Freedom, which in turn spawns Possibilities, which leads to Faith in the Future, that in turn breeds new Optimism, fuels the processes of Change, pushes us toward historic Progress, and finally, knowing no bounds, continually expanding the sphere of human rights, all of this finds itself ultimately tightly connected to the single force in the American soul that alone has the power to begin the world anew: Idealism.
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Paul Lehto practiced law in Washington State for 12 years in business law and consumer fraud, including most recently several years in election law, and is now a clean elections advocate. His forthcoming book is tentatively titled DEFENDING (more...)
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