The End of Idealism

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I have a heaviness in my heart for my country. . . . America is suffering.

We all know this to be true, regardless of our political affiliations. We may have differing ideas of what the problem is and what the solution should be, but it is clear that things are not well.

We have not handled the Pandemic well:

Although the USA represents only 4% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. As of this writing, Canada, Europe, and Mexico have closed their borders to Americans, and other countries have restrictions on American visitors.

We are the Corona-Pariahs of the world.

Unlike many other countries, where people willingly don masks in a socially-conscientious effort to help protect other citizens, America bickers over individuals’ “rights” to not wear masks, claiming personal “freedom” to be more important than the well-being of their fellow man.

We are not managing the economy well:

The stock market may have recovered from the earlier setbacks of 2020, but the average person-on-the-street is struggling. Unemployment rates are over 10%, and many businesses have shut down. As the temporary safety net provided by the government is phased out, many people will be unable to pay their rent or mortgages, and the ripple effect will continue to negatively impact the economy.

The number of people who are homeless, hungry, and hopeless continues to climb, while the rich continue to get richer.

We are not leading the people well:

Racial inequality is erupting, again, in violence across the country, police departments are under attack for biased profiling and aggression, and far-right extremists are joining the fray with acts of vigilantism.

Meanwhile, we are quick to fill our jails and prisons– with only 4% of the world’s population, the US is home to 20% of the world’s incarcerated. Hate crimes are increasing. Intolerance is increasing.

Our society is looking more and more unstable.

And, backdrop to it all, our governing politicians spend their time bickering, finger-pointing, accusing, evading responsibility, and doing everything they can to not look the problem in the eye.

America is having growing pains, and instead of looking forward for new solutions, we talk of going back to some idealistic golden time when things were “great.”

If the sixties were the End of Innocence, then this current era must surely be the End of Idealism.

What is American Idealism? It is the belief in American Exceptionalism. It is the belief that America is a Beacon of Light that has achieved “a more perfect Union, (with) Justice . . . domestic Tranquility . . . common Defence . . . general Welfare, and . . . the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….” (from the preamble to the US Constitution).

We have always believed ourselves to be the one country that has “done it right” — the greatest democracy on the planet, the world leader in all things, including economic well-being, human dignity, innovation, and freedom.

This idealism was well expressed by Puritan John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, when he described the new country he was helping to build:

“We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

The same beautiful, idealistic phrase was used in speeches by JFK, Reagan, and Obama.

Kennedy stated, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a City upon a Hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”

Reagan spelled out his belief in this way: “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining City on a Hill.” Expanding further, he added, “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

And Obama: “I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill.”

Today, in a country drowning in divisiveness at home and perpetually at war abroad, those ideals seem to have gone up in smoke.

It feels very un-American to say that

we are NOT a shining city on a hill,

we are NOT the paragon of all democratic virtues,

we are NOT a role model for all to look up to.

And yet, it also feels very freeing. . . .

The end of idealism can mean the beginning of realism. Instead of pretending that we have lived by our own Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — we can acknowledge that we had good intentions, but things have gone awry.

The reality is that we have held on, for too long, to the 17th century belief in White Supremacy.

And White Supremacy walks hand-in-hand with Christian Supremacy.

The by-products of this long-standing tradition of White Christians being the Ideal Human, has been things like genocide of indigenous people, slavery and Jim Crow laws, mistreatment/subjugation of women, internment and incarceration of a variety of minorities, and hate and bias against all groups that don’t fit the mold, including people of color, people of alternate religions, and people of different sexual or gender orientations.

And the end results of these centuries of dehumanizing is the hate and anger and selfishness and violence and desperation of today’s society.

This is the legacy of a country that set ideals, but never rose to meet them.

The American ideals sound good, but the reality is something different.

Another word for touting ideals that are not real is called illusion. When people live in illusion, they have no hope of solving the issues at hand, because they refuse to recognize them. The disparity between our ideals and our reality creates a cognitive dissonance that makes some people long for a better time when things were great. But were they really great? Perhaps for a small segment of society, but underneath the veneer of greatness, were whole groups of people not reaping equal societal benefits due to their imperfect match with the Ideal Human mold.

It is time to look hard at the real America. It is time to open our eyes to our current reality, with all its imperfections. It does not mean we hate what is; it does not mean we give up on becoming better and reaching for those lofty goals; it simply means we acknowledge where we have fallen short, without feeling that it is unpatriotic to do so.

It means we see our situation with compassion, and we begin to design a better way forward. We hold ourselves, our fellow citizens, and our country gently but firmly accountable as we apply love and wisdom to the reparation of harm done.

It means we take time to grieve with those who have been injured, love those who are wounded, and create solutions that will help repair the damage of our actions.

It is only then, when we open our eyes and look with neutral awareness at the places where we, as a nation, have failed to live by our ideals, that we can hope to climb to that City on the Hill again, to be the shining light of harmony and peace, humming with commerce and creativity, with open doors and open hearts to all peoples of the world.

THAT is the America I imagine we can be.

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Cate Schultz

Cate Schultz

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Author, teacher, life coach, mystical weaver…shining light into all the dark corners…. Books: Silent Sky, 2013; Soul Primer, Building Blocks of the Soul, 2020