There is a saying, particularly popular among conservatives, that “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.” I am a liberal, but cannot challenge the alleged truth of this saying since I have never (thankfully) been mugged. Over six decades of experience, however, I have had plenty of opportunity to wonder about an important question that this saying raises for everyone, regardless of political or social commitments—What happens when ideology runs headlong into real life?
I got to thinking about this question anew while reading Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard over the past few days. It was actually a reread, since I used her novella in an ethics class a few years ago and am in the process of deciding what texts to use in the ethics classes I’ll be teaching in the fall. Published a year or so after 9/11, Moral Hazard is set in the turbulent Wall Street of the middle and late nineties. The main character, Cath, is a freelance writer with well-defined and consistent liberal positions on moral and political issues. She is in her mid-forties and has been happily married to Bailey, a man fifteen years her senior, for a decade. But Bailey becomes more and more forgetful and absent-minded; a series of medical tests reveals that he has Alzheimer’s. With large medical bills looming on the horizon, Cath uses a connection to get a speech-writing job at a top Wall Street firm. In order to take care of her husband, Cath finds herself in a job that requires her to violate many of her dearest principles on a daily basis. She hates every minute of it; one of her few daily respites is a stolen cigarette or two with Mike, a fellow sixties refugee who finds himself working for people who represent and do everything that he despises.
As the story progresses, both Cath and Mike find various justifications for their daily betrayal of their values. Cath, for instance, knows that she cannot hope to earn the money it will take to care for Bailey long term without a regular, well-paying job. This does not, however, make her feel any better about her abandoned dreams. After one conversation with Mike late in the book, Cath reveals something.
Okay, a secret. In my wallet, I keep a scrap of disintegrating paper on which is written, “The revolution is magnificent, and everything else is bilge.” Who said this and which revolution I’ve forgotten, but I’ve transferred it from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years to remind myself of a time when I was young and silly, but cared. The idealism was magnificent, not the revolution.
If Cath was a real person, she and I would be roughly the same age. I also am a child of the sixties, but for many reasons was not a real revolutionary—at least in practice. I was a bit too young to take part in many of the protests (my brother, three-and-a-half years older, did); my conservative religious upbringing in rural Vermont also limited opportunities for my internal rebel. But I had my moments. For instance, I was too young to vote in the ’72 presidential election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to Ted, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far.
My best opportunity to be a revolutionary came shortly after President Nixon’s escalation of the War in Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. I was in my freshman year in high school; my school was a public/private hybrid, serving as the local public high school for our town but also taking in several dozen boarding students—mostly from the NYC area—each year. Each day started with assembly for the five hundred or so students, a gathering that began with the Pledge of Allegiance. There was one morning during my sophomore year when it dawned on me that I was pledging allegiance to a country whose present activities—at least some of them—did not deserve my respect or allegiance. So I didn’t stand up. And I did not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America or the Republic for which it stands at any subsequent assembly for the rest of my high school career—about two and a half years. Other than causing a few other students over time to join me in my non-pledge of allegiance, my daily statement and protest accomplished nothing tangible, other than a threat from the assistant headmaster to report my activities to my parents (a threat that I dearly wish he had followed through on). But it did something for me, and perhaps that’s enough.
Fast forward more than four decades. My positions on political and social issues are, if anything, more liberal now than they have ever been. During our current political cycle and presidential campaign there are voices—from both extremes of the political spectrum—calling for a political revolution. I observe with delight and admiration young fellow citizens who, involved for the first time in their lives in the political process, are strongly supportive of a candidate whose policies and positions on just about every issue reflect my own as closely as any national political candidate in my lifetime. Somehow this candidate has managed to sustain his liberal idealism through a lifetime of political engagement, first on the local and then on the national level. I recognize my teen and twenty-something self in the young folks who are this candidate’s most ardent supporters. They are calling for a political revolution.
But I resonate more fully with the piece of paper that Cath has transferred from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years. The purest revolutions, historically speaking, have tended to be the ones that created the most havoc and caused the most damage. The revolution—any revolution—is not what is magnificent. What is magnificent is the ongoing struggle to engage the idealism that energizes revolutionary visions with the pragmatism required by real life. How will this beautiful, revolutionary vision be accomplished? Am I willing to cultivate the patience required to shepherd the most praiseworthy ideals through the swamp and muck of reality? To the idealists out there, don’t forget that for ideals to be worth anything, they have to work in the real world. For those suspicious of ideals, I challenge you to name one meaningful change that has ever been accomplished without them.