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Rant: Idealism and “Settling”

I catch a certain amount of shit for my longstanding conviction that idealism is a Bad Thing. (I just got another nasty email on the subject, hence my very bad mood this evening.) The reason is simple: Idealism consists of demanding the impossible—and the human response when the impossible predictably fails to appear is to throw various kinds of temper tantrums, from looking like an idiot to making other people miserable up to and including imprisoning and killing those who fail to conform to your personal idealisms. I've read of this happening back into history as far as the eye can see, and it boggles me that in the 21st century we still idealize idealism.

An issue or two ago, The Atlantic ran a wonderful article that sheds some light on the issue. In “Go Ahead, Marry Him!” NYC overachiever Lori Gottlieb finally endorses what some women dismissively call “settling;” that is, marrying a man who is something less than precisely what they demand, which is usually rich, brilliant, gentle, pliant, egalitarian, and unerringly able to incite sexual passion every weekend for the rest of their lives. As Lori tellingly puts it:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

Well, duhh. The downside to perpetually holding out for someone better is the possibility of spending your entire life alone, cursing all men because they refuse to conform to your fantasies. This sort of mental illness is not limited to women. I knew a guy in college (of average looks, smarts, and ambition) who flatly refused to date any woman who did not “look like a Playboy centerfold.” (Those were his precise words.) He finally and recently married, in his early 50s, and his spouse is bright, funny, and warm. However, I doubt she was ever Playboy material, even in her 20s. Figuring it out late is better than figuring it out never. But had he figured it out early, he might have had a lot more fun and been a lot less lonely for a lot more years.

Life is about settling. All of life, all the time. Life's circumstances are graphed on a complicated set of curves, and we can either calculate the minima and make the best of it, or we can rage against the shape of reality, and make things even worse while blaming those who do not share our idealisms. Churches and political tribes are aces at this. Conservative religions (Christianity being only one, but the one we know best in the West) have a peculiar obession with sexual idealism. Roman Catholicism condemns both abortion and preventive birth control, because these do not conform to a complicated and ancient sort of moral idealism that in essence demands that people be sexless beings except when they're married and willing to conceive a child. Endorsing birth control would reduce the number of abortions, but that would be settling for less than the ideal. And so hundreds of millions of people defy Church teachings or even leave the Church entirely, and the abortion rate remains appalling. In refusing to settle for the achievable, the RCC has held out for the impossible and reaped catastrophe.

Idealism's prints are all over the political realm. We could end gun violence by eliminating guns, so the ideal goes. But by only eliminating some guns, we make gun violence worse. Crisp gun laws that define legal use and training people in their legal use would not end gun violence, but it would probably minimize gun violence. I'll settle for that. Idealists will not. Idealists tell us that if we would all just take public transportation, live in the nasty little coffins that some call New York studio apartments, and give up air conditioning, we would have neither global warming nor an energy crisis. Whether or not the math actually makes sense, you have to say, Well, good luck with that.

Marxist idealism, of course, has been the greatest murder-generator in all of human history. To pragmatists this is common knowledge; to Marxist idealists it's a heresy that they can never accept. There's not a lot of benefit in belaboring the point. The two sides are not even talking.

My objection to idealism cooks down to this: Idealism refuses to consider embracing lesser evils and thereby generates greater evils. We can argue about the identity of the lesser evils. We can argue about whether the lesser evils are in fact evils at all. (Many are not.) We can argue about whether embracing a lesser evil will in fact minimize a greater evil. (This is not always the case.) But idealism refuses to engage in the debate. That would be settling. And there's no point in settling for less than the ideal, right?

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