j j

topia, n. 1. the ideal made real (derived from utopia)ff
2. worldview based on universal compassion

Time for an Idealism Outburst
by Joel Federman

"We're protesting for peace in general, in every possible sense, in every possible meaning." --Martina Cambi, 27, of Florence, Italy, at the European Social Forum demonstration, quoted in the New York Times, November 10, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, November 10, 2002--Everyone to the left of John Ashcroft is in a funk in the aftermath of the election. But, before you get in line at your local Canadian consulate looking for exit visas, consider that there may be some good that comes out of last Tuesday's Republican rout.

Yes, the bad news is real. All those who have said there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans--or between Labor and Likud in Israel--will now have to eat their words, and taste the bitterness (along with the rest of us). There is, as we will now unfortunately see, a difference--and the difference between bad and worse, as the expression goes, is often more potent than the one between good and better.

There is no opposition party in power in any part of the government to assert the essential checks and balances that James Madison so brilliantly designed into our political system. This vacuum of opposition comes at a time when the United States is experiencing several crises of serious proportions at once--from coping with international terrorism to recession. At some level, they are all one problem. Transnational terrorism (state and non-state), ecosystem degradation, and economic decline are all aspects of a single phenomenon: the increasing globalization of our political, economic and cultural lives.

The globalization crisis requires a global response--both in terms of ideas and in terms of participants. For our country, we need new leadership that asserts America's best ideals: a decent respect for the opinions of humankind, promotion of international law and norms of human rights, and a genuine commitment to peace, which ultimately has to mean some form of general global arms control and disarmament.

Where will this leadership, this opposition, come from? With the entire national government controlled by one party, effective opposition must come from outside the government, from the citizens themselves. The election just passed means that the locus of social change, the source of opposition, shifts from the government to the streets--to the universities, union halls, churches, temples and synagogues, as well as the Internet. For those who felt they missed the 60s, were too young, have nostalgia or longing for a time when everything matters, when action is necessary, when our deepest values count, when new anthems are sung, your wistful days are over. The election is like a political daylight savings time change, moving the dawn of people politics forward by one hour.

A Theory of Social Change

I have a theory about the way societies change. According to this theory, historical periods can be characterized by the degree of prevailing optimism or pessimism about the human potential, both individual and collective. The waxing and waning of such attitudes over time can be likened to the swinging of the pendulum from right to left, or even the economic cycles of growth and recession. The degree of collective social optimism or pessimism ebbs and flows over time, and is an essential defining characteristic of the ethos, or zeitgeist, of any given historical period.

For example, I would identify the Enlightenment that spurred the American and French revolutions, the Transcendentalist period of the late 1800s (Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson), and the 1960s-early 70s as three periods where some social movement or mood represented exuberant optimism about the human potential. In turn, these collective "moods" help create fundamental political change, such as the institution of human rights, the establishment of democracy, or the abolition of slavery. (I write much more in detail about this subject here)

An important characteristic of these periods of great optimism is a high degree of creative energy at the intersection of the area of culture and politics. It is seen in the arts of the period as well as in more typically political forms of expression. This creative energy is released by attitudes of limitlessness and openness regarding the human potential involved in such moments. A sense of optimism and openness about the human potential sparks the imagination to generate possibilities in many areas of human endeavor. The vision of such possibilities, in turn, inspires people to take action on them, attempting to turn those visions into realities. The entire process just described is what I call an "idealism outburst," a peak moment of collective energy and optimism and creativity.

There is no way to accurately predict when each phase of expansive optimism about the human social potential will arrive. As Thoreau wrote of this question, "(s)uch is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn." However, I believe that the next idealism outburst is about to arrive. I sense it in the growing movement of global scope around the topic of social justice and globalization, and in the fledgling cries of a new peace movement.

Only a great collective outburst of vision and creativity and ideals is adequate to the task of addressing the crises we face. Sometimes, inspiration comes of itself; sometimes, it is required. This time, it is required. It will happen because it has to happen.

P.S. The Democrats will be the eventual beneficiaries of all this as soon as someone comes along who can articulate in mainstream terms portions of the visions of a better world put forth in the idealism outburst. Past examples of this include Franklin Delano Roosevelt borrowing ideas for the New Deal from Norman Thomas and the Christian Socialists, and John and Bobby Kennedy aligning themselves with the civil rights movement. The impending selection of Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House Minority Leader is a good omen that Democrats will begin drawing their inspiration from their truly liberal grass roots again.

© 2004, 2005 Joel Federman

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