In this complex and subtle world of ours, the path of reason usually isn’t one of the paths that is most clearly marked or heavily traversed, but is rather the one that weaves a barely discernible thread among those others, combining what to them are incompatible contradictions, and avoiding what to them are incontrovertible truths. One such path combines cynicism and idealism, dodging the idols strewn across the political ideological landscape, while embracing the elusive wisdom that whispers past them on momentary gusts of wind.
The title marriage of yin and yang, of thesis and antithesis, can be phrased in various ways: Realistic Idealism or Pragmatic Idealism, for instance. But the point remains the same: Being pragmatic, recognizing reality, acknowledging the aspects of human nature and nature in general that present sometimes immutable challenges, does not need to be in service to surrender, but can rather be in service to aspiration. The notion that we can’t do better stands in stark disregard of the fact that we occupy only the latest moment of a world history full of doing better, hardly pausing at all in the relentless march of progress. Not all of the progressions have been good ones, but, I would say, on average and overall, we’ve made more gains than losses, improved more than we’ve worsened, increased wealth and justice more than we’ve decreased them. Change is the one constant, and progress seems to be an enduring aspect of that constant.
So, despite human aggression, selfishness, violence, predation, exploitation, cruelty, and nastiness; and despite the limitations of nature and its bounty; we have more reason to believe in our ability to do better than to disbelieve in it. However, that ability is better realized to the extent that we are more precisely informed of, sharply focused on, and diligently grappling with the realities which comprise the challenge which faces us. To be effective, we must be pragmatic. To create what might be, we must fully and deeply understand what is. To be dedicated to ideals, we must be cynically aware of what stands between us and their realization.
It’s important, however, to combine useful cynicism with achievable idealism, rather than, as is more often the case, emotionally gratifying cynicism with impossible idealism. To a large extent, discerning between the two involves an understanding of what I call “The Variable Malleability of Reality.” Being cynical about a superficial aspect of reality, and idealistic about a more fundamental one, is backwards, because the superficial aspect isn’t a parameter which can’t be changed, whereas the fundamental aspect is. We should be cynical about the least malleable elements of our existence that form apparent obstacles to progress, and idealistic about the most malleable aggregations of the elements, that can be reshaped by reframing the dynamics by which they are generated.
One mistake is to be cynical in the identification of “bad guys” out there, and idealistic in the belief that if the “good guys” (including the speaker) prevail over them, then all is well. This is only true to the extent that there are those who are advocating bad ideas, and those who are advocating good ideas, the ideas rather than their carriers being the proper focus of judgment. So, the crowd on the left that is big on identifying “corporate fascism” as the root of all evil is caught on the treadmill of human folly, because it blames the human greed, which is not terribly curable, instead of the social institutions, which are. Neither corporations nor the humans which comprise them are the villain. They are merely part of an imperfect social institutional landscape which channels that greed in ways that are partially useful and partially predatory.
So, it makes sense to be cynical about human motivations, recognizing that some degree of local and ego bias is probably more or less inherent to human nature (I know that this is debated, and I’m open to good arguments, but the apparent absence of widespread and prevailing altruism in both natural and human history suggests that some degree of selfishness or local bias is simply one of the parameters with which we must contend). But it makes less sense to be cynical about particular aggregations of that underlying reality, such as a belief that frequent and large-scale warfare is inevitable, or that excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth and opportunity is a necessary motivator of human productivity, or that it’s necessary to allow deadly environmental contamination in order to facilitate the robust production of wealth. The latter are precipitous conclusions about how underlying realities have played out, rather than about how they inherently must play out.
The prevailing ideology on the far right today, The Tea Party, engages in this backwards combination of cynicism and idealism, considering particular aggregations of underlying realities are inescapable (poverty, gross inequality, widespread avoidable human suffering, social injustice), and therefore refraining from working with those underlying realities is ideal. “Liberty,” redefined as complete surrender to prevailing inequality, social injustice, and human suffering, becomes the highest ideal, while intentional institutionalized collective action, which is the intentional aggregation of human efforts for human benefit, is an affront to all that is good and holy (except when mobilized aggressively against others, such as “securing our borders” against the brown invasion of eager labor from the south, or the occasional indulgence in committing mass murder abroad to advance our own national interests).
We need, instead of enshrining bad results as inevitable and unconstrained individualistic caprice as ideal, need instead to recognize that human nature (generally something subtler than what we reduce it to) may be, at some level, immutable, but how we frame the context in which it aggregates into social institutional consequences is not.