The Other I

January 23, 2014

What’s wrong with Utopia?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:33 pm

As far back as my teenage years, my friends and university colleagues have inevitably been politically left-wing.  And I have almost as inevitably been slightly to their right.  I usually agreed that something was wrong that we needed to try to put right.  But what I have found myself saying more and more often is that the solutions are not nearly as obvious as those on either the right or the left seem to think.

Actually, I can’t stand them, but I think the Tea Party isn’t totally wrong when they say that giving people hand outs keeps them from feeling responsible for going out and finding a paying job.  I live in Britain now, but even when I lived in the US, I personally knew people who bragged about lying and getting free hand-outs from the system.  There are people who say the same thing about the far more generous system over here.

On the other hand, not everybody who is hungry or living on the street or struggling to make ends meet are in that situation because they are too lazy to work, or because they think the system owes them a living.  People do lose their jobs and they can’t get another one — even cleaning toilets or making the beds in hotels.  People do get sick and the medical costs are beyond what anyone but the wealthiest can afford.  In other words, there is a place for a safety net in a society that is not inhabited solely by uncaring egocentric self-absorbed know-it-alls.

I was reminded again that this issue of hand-outs and government supported programs has two sides by an article in The Daily Mail, which is by and large admittedly a rag.  One reads it for titillating gossip – like the fact that the First Lady in France has just trashed her husband’s office after finding out that he’s been having an affair with an actress.  But the article yesterday was written by a woman, a doctor and avowed socialist who serves the poor and needy here in Britain, and who sees both sides of the coin.  Do read it if you are convinced that either the left- or right-wingers have all the answers.

As I see it, no system is without potential abuse.  To make matters even more complicated, what looks like abuse to one person may look like real need to someone else.  I rather admire Britain for deciding after World War II that there was something terribly wrong with asking people to sacrifice for their country, even to fight and die, but refusing to provide medical help when they or their children needed it if they couldn’t pay for it.  I rather admire a country that will not force families, including children, to live on the street if they can’t pay the rent.  And at the same time I rather like the American can-do attitude of independence and responsibility with which so many immigrants have come to the States and which has made our country so prosperous.

What the British system risks is that some people will think the system owes them a living.  What the American system risks is a failure to appreciate that sometimes people need a helping hand simply to get food on the table.

But the one system I fear is Utopia.  As Thomas Merton said in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

The terrible thing about our time is precisely the ease with which theories can be put into practice.  The more perfect, the more idealistic the theories, the more dreadful are their realization. We are at last beginning to rediscover what perhaps men knew better in very ancient times, in primitive times before utopias were thought of: that liberty is bound up with imperfection, and that limitations, imperfections, errors are not only unavoidable but also salutary.  The best is not the ideal.  Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everyone as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good.  The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.



  1. Difficult to sort out, isn’it?

    In the realm of imperfection, a Sanskrit saying takes a straight and simple view ‘Bahujana hithaya bahujana sukhaya’ meaning interest, happiness, well-being of many over few.


    Comment by tskraghu — January 23, 2014 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

    • Oh Raghu, I read your posts! I have a great regard for what I know of Sanskrit, but I am certain that you do not really think this Sanskrit saying is as straight and simple as it sounds. Wise it may be. But *not*simple. It’s easy if we are talking about a small minority (perhaps the infamous 2%?) whose interest and well-being so far outweighs the well-being of millions of starving, homeless, and sick. But even then, who decides what kind of system is going to be put in place in the “interest” of the many? What if I don’t agree with my government about my interests? What if, for instance, I disagree with my government’s laws about God and what rules we should all obey? Or about what women should or should not be able to do (like drive a car, or walk outside with my face uncovered)?

      And possibly most importantly, should the well-being of the many take precedence over justice and concern for a few unfortunate ones?

      I suspect I am taking your words out of context, especially since you have also said “difficult to sort out.” You’ve touched a nerve, I fear, because there are Western philosophers who have said essentially the same thing, and I have long felt that it has sometimes been used as a justification for abusing and ignoring minorities. Something I have no doubt you do not sanction. So I will stop my energetic response here and now!


      Comment by Terry Sissons — January 23, 2014 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

  2. Yes, the term ‘tyranny of majority’ comes to mind, though the concept of majority itself is often a distortion in the electoral process of today. .

    If we disagree with our government, we can change the government with due processes. What happens if we disagree with the country? Emigrate? Should there be a free land for us to settle down? Free of what?

    May be I’m going too far off course. Coming back to our present structures:

    Disregarding the traps of all the ‘ism’s’ that have come to be,basically true decision making has become difficult given the soceital dynamics at play. More so when the impact is not immediate. Not recognizing this, it is funny that we sound and act so sure-footed about our decisions. Sheer incompetency and fiercely held dogmas add to our ‘wisdom’. And decisions cannot be forever.

    While leadership in politics, economics and religion is strong, thought leadership in modern socities is a ‘weak force’. Religion traditionally filled the vacuum to an extent and continues to even this day, but gets distracted by other trappings.

    But I think we’re coming around though sluggishly – now we talk about human rights, foetus rights, animal rights…Country boundaries are dissolving – example: European Union. Your own society is a great success in accomodating diverse views without coming to blows.
    Your constitution possibly does a better job of enshrining those values than many others and more importantly in its execution.

    While you are specific in what you say, I know I’ve rambled far off the context. Apologies. Incidentally I’m no expert on any of the above fields of expertise – these are some thoughts of a layman.

    The Sanskrit saying is more suited to resolving extreme situations and not the conflicts that arise in the normal course.


    Comment by tskraghu — January 24, 2014 @ 1:27 am | Reply

    • Thank you for sharing you view from where you are. As I thought – we are very much on the same page.

      I have, indeed, always thought that the US constitution provides one of the more effective ways of protecting individual rights within the context of a democracy. But no system is inviolable and I look with great apprehension at the uncompromising attitudes which seem to be paralyzing our government right now. On my good days, I hope that it will bring us up short and that rather than destroying ourselves we will find deeper ways of cooperating and respecting our differences – which after all, is the strength of our human species everywhere.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — January 24, 2014 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

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