We tend to think of idealism as a good thing. Idealists want the best for the world and for humanity – or so we assume.Who could possibly object to idealism, then?
Yet idealism can be perverted. It can morph into zealotry and fanaticism. People can become so convinced of the correctness of their ideals that they feel able to justify almost any action aimed at fulfilling them.The first step is to convince oneself that it’s legitimate, indeed necessary, to impose one’s ideals on others, whether they want them or not, on the basis that it’s for their own good.
That leads to the proposition that the end justifies the means – in other words, that any action is permissible as long as something desirable is accomplished at the end of it all. Once that principle is accepted, almost anything becomes excusable.Left-wing political parties are particularly prone to idealistic zeal because they are often driven, at least initially, by visions of a perfect world. In their determination to impose that perfection, leftist regimes often end up filling prisons with contrary individuals who insist on exercising their own free will.
Right-wing autocrats, on the other hand, are usually motivated by nothing more than good old-fashioned greed and lust for power.It's possible that even Joseph Stalin started out as an idealist, with a vision of a better existence for the oppressed, starving Russian peasantry, yet millions died under his rule. The Soviet empire that he extended by force through Eastern Europe became synonymous with repression and tyranny. All this was justified by the grotesque fiction that he was liberating the proletariat.
Idealism can also produce hideous, unforeseen consequences. Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s was intended to transform the Chinese economy – an idealistic goal – but ended in catastrophe, with tens of millions dead because of grain shortages.Obviously these are extreme cases of idealism gone wrong, but we don’t have to look far for examples of how idealists can start out with admirable motives and end up as self-righteous zealots, blind to the rights of others.
I was reminded of this recently when I listened to a Radio New Zealand Spectrum documentary about the three peace activists who broke into the Waihopai spy base near Blenheim in 2010 and caused damage that the government said cost $1.2 million to repair – money that came out of taxpayers’ pockets.I’m not suggesting that the Waihopai Three were Stalins or Maos in the making. We must assume they were motivated by a sincere desire for peace. But they were so convinced of the rightness of their cause, so consumed by unshakeable moral conviction, that they considered themselves above the law. At this point, idealism becomes zealotry.
If enough New Zealanders were sufficiently concerned about the Waihopai base, they could have demanded that the government get rid of it. But it hasn’t happened, probably because New Zealanders rationalise that an electronic spying network operated by an alliance of democratic Western governments is more likely to thwart evil than to promote it.But the Waihopai Three and their narrow circle of supporters convinced themselves that they knew better than, and were morally superior to, their fellow citizens. Their self-righteousness trumped respect for democracy.
Incidentally, the Spectrum documentary (the sympathetic tone of which did nothing to dispel concern about the political leanings of some Radio New Zealand journalists) revealed the Waihopai zealots to be comically incompetent saboteurs.A crucial cellphone message was never received because one of the three didn’t know what a text message was. Then the saboteurs’ truck slid on a muddy track and ended up on its side in a vineyard – so they were lousy drivers as well – and someone got lost in the darkness on a bike.
They were comically paranoid, too, imagining themselves being shadowed at every turn by agents of the state. They thought they were being spied on when they saw a man in Picton wearing an earphone and appearing to speak into his sleeve – no doubt some entirely innocent citizen using a hands-free phone – and freaked out when they happened to read a letter to the editor of the Marlborough Express inquiring about black SUVs being driven around Blenheim.No doubt the three attributed the fact that they ultimately succeeded in their mission, despite all their blunders, as a sign that God approved. Zealots are rarely troubled by self-doubt.
The documentary concluded with a line about a magnificent rainbow that appeared as the saboteurs contemplated the results of their vandalism. Listeners were informed that this was “a sure sign that they were doing the right thing”. So it wasn’t only God who approved; the Radio New Zealand reporter did too.For my part, I’m more likely to ask God to protect us from those who think they know what’s best for us.
The same fundamental impulse that motivated the Waihopai Three – namely, the desire for a better world – also seems to be behind the promotion of a new test that will enable pregnant women to determine whether their baby has Down Syndrome.Unlike the established amniocentesis procedure, the new test is non-invasive. If it’s widely adopted, as the test’s backers hope, the almost inevitable outcome is that more women will choose to have an abortion.
Proponents of the test are doubtless driven by the conviction that they are doing the right thing. It’s that vision of the perfect society again; in this case, one where no one will have to suffer the inconvenience of bringing an imperfect human being into the world.But virtually everyone with first-hand experience of people with Down Syndrome says they enjoy life to the full and enrich the lives of those around them. Wellington’s Dominion Post recently published a charming photo of three young people with Down Syndrome – one a skier, another a swimmer and the third a dancer – joyfully celebrating after being presented with national achievement awards by governor-general Sir Jerry Mateparae.
If the pregnancy test now being promoted had existed 30 years ago, these three might not have survived the womb. Is this another case, and a particularly chilling one, of misguided idealism producing a grotesquely anti-human outcome?