Pragmatism and Idealism

There are a couple of people out there in Internetland who are worried that I am cultivating a right wing following.

If that’s what’s happening, it’s certainly not my intention. I don’t consider myself “right wing” at all. I don’t have any friends in real life who are right wingers. I have no interest in leading any kind of political movement.

It depresses me to see so many Buddhists in America wholeheartedly embracing leftist politics and presenting leftist political ideas as if they were Buddhism. But if American Buddhists decided to embrace right wing ideas and present those as if they were Buddhism, that would be just as bad. Worse! That’s not happening, though. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” (Matthew 12:30). I never knew that’s where George W. Bush stole that line from until recently. It’s a very Christian idea. Much of Western culture is shaped by the idea that one must be fully committed to some specific religion or ideology or else you’re the enemy of those who are. If you refuse to take a side, you are seen as taking the other side, however the “other side” is defined.

Maybe that’s why the Middle Way advocated by the Buddha is so difficult for us. Buddhism is all about middles, centers, balance. We’re not accustomed to that. If you’re leaning far to the left, someone who is balanced at the center looks to you like they’re leaning right. If you’re leaning far to the right, the same sort of thing happens. You’re unable to perceive the center if you’re too far to one side or the other. You might even believe that the center doesn’t exist.

It seems to me that people to the far ends of the political spectrum are always highly idealistic. When I say “idealistic” I don’t mean that as a synonym for optimism. I mean it in the philosophical sense. Idealists are people who believe in ideas more than they believe in reality.

Some idealistic people on the far right want single-race ethno-states. They want countries where only people of a certain race live and others are excluded. The Nazis came the closest anyone ever has come to establishing such a state. But it failed utterly. It failed because it was (and still is) a stupid idea. Such a state could never exist. It’s a dream, an idea. It will never happen.

Leftist idealism can often be made to sound much sweeter than right wing idealism. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if everyone had the exact same access to everything? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all economic and social equals? Yet in the real world this is not possible.

One thing I’ve learned by observing political conservatives is that they tend to be very pragmatic. Take the way that American conservative Christians have supported Donald Trump. Obviously Trump is the furthest thing from the Christian ideal. He’s been divorced twice. His current wife used to pose for nude pictures. He can’t even get the names of the books of the Bible right.

Yet conservative Christians are willing to overlook that stuff because they know that the most practical way to get the kinds of laws they favor passed is to support Trump. It’s totally pragmatic. They don’t snipe at Trump for being not precisely what they want him to be. They knew that their ideal candidate was not on the ballot. So they chose the guy who was closest to that.

Contrast this with liberals, and you can see that they are driven by idealism to their detriment. Look at the way they treated Al Franken. He was one of the few guys on their side who had the power and popularity to go against someone like Trump. But when Franken fell short of their ideals, they destroyed him.

Personally, I generally favor Al Franken’s politics over Donald Trump’s. I’m not fully on board with either of them. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose Al Franken. No question. That’s no longer an option, though.

This is why liberals keep losing out to conservatives. The liberals are far too idealistic. They’re chasing dreams and ideals that can never be realized, rather than looking at the real situation and dealing pragmatically with what actually is.

I am highly critical of the political left mainly because I’d like to see them do better. I’d like to see them put aside their idealism and work on practical ways to implement the changes they want to see in the world. But they always seem to end up battling with each other over who is the most pure. Meanwhile, the more pragmatic conservatives just step right over their squabbling mess and take power.  

But let me get back to the question of whether I am cultivating a right wing following. I really don’t know who listens to me or reads my stuff. I know there aren’t many of you. If you’re right wing, or left wing, or conservative, or liberal, I don’t mind very much.

But if, for example, you’re a dedicated racist and you think I am too, then you’re not paying very much attention. Racism is stupid. Only an idiot believes his own race is somehow superior to others.

If you love Donald Trump and you imagine I do too, then you really haven’t been paying attention. I don’t think everyone who voted for Trump is evil. But I am no fan of Trump himself. I think the way he conducts himself as President is a national embarrassment and sets a dangerous tone. But I express that as a personal opinion from me as an individual. That’s not some kind of eternal Buddhist truth. You don’t have to believe what I believe about Trump to be a true Buddhist.

I understand the conservative idea that governments generally do things inefficiently and can’t be trusted. I also understand the liberal idea that industries need to be regulated and not simply left to their own devices. The only sensible approach to such matters is one that recognizes both of these facts.

For committed leftists, no one will ever be pure enough. There is nothing I can say or do that would ever convince a committed leftist that I’m not a dangerous right wing demagogue. Even this article will be seen as more evidence that I am a crypto-fascist. They’d probably say it’s full of “dog whistles” that are so subtle even I can’t notice them.

When I see Buddhists embracing the far left, I know that’s a losing strategy. They may like you guys now. But at some point you’ll do something that will prove to them that you’re the enemy too. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to satisfy that crowd. It is impossible to be pure enough.

Embracing the far right would also be a losing strategy. Which is why I’m not doing that either. I’m not interested in palling around with racists and fascists. Hate never gets you anywhere. Besides, right wingers also aim for impossible purity.

I’m not interested in extremes.

The truth is never there.



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