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April 23, 2014
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Utopia or oblivion


“Ameritopia.”

That’s the title of a new book by conservative radio host and professional blowhard Mark Levin. Levin, in case you’re not familiar with the fellow, is a lawyer and best-selling author, whose on-air delivery can sometimes make notorious curmudgeon Bob Grant sound like Casey Kasem in comparison. He’s become one of the more successful members of that enormous gaggle of commentators and pundits who make scads of money by telling their mostly-quite-comfortable audiences how embattled and imperiled they are, and how our society has become inundated by “liberal media.”

I haven’t read the book yet, so this isn’t a review as such, but his title and his premises provide a good jumping-off place. Levin’s point in this book, judging by the excerpts and commentary I have read online, is to refute “political utopianism,” which he defines as “tyranny disguised as a desirable, workable, and even paradisiacal governing ideology” exemplified in Plato’s “Republic,” Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and of course the writings of Karl Marx. He seems to think that such utopianism is innately collectivist and anti-individual, and that liberal attempts to use government to improve people’s lives—to create what Levin calls “Ameritopia”—lead inexorably to a diminution of personal “freedom,” which for Levin is the greatest good. In the service of the utopian vision, he argues, people enslave themselves and others.

But if there is such a thing as liberal utopianism, isn’t there conservative utopianism as well? (Think of Reagan’s favorite phrase, “the shining city on a hill”—if that’s not a utopian notion I don’t know what is.) And if utopianism can be perverted into the practices of Stalinist Russia or the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, it can also create the concentration camps of the Nazis. The problem, I’d suggest, isn’t utopian thinking per se, but utopian ideas poorly thought out and incompetently executed, or used as cover for less idealistic pursuits.

Some people, who might call themselves “hard-headed realists,” would prefer to pooh-pooh utopian thinking entirely, of whatever stripe. But to me, the utopian imagination is critical, and should be encouraged, nourished and fostered. As Harvey Cox points out in “The Feast of Fools,” how can we create a better world if we cannot imagine what we want such a world to be? I believe we need some kind of utopian vision—which is, after all, nothing more than a set of goals—to give our lives focus and direction, whether individually or collectively. (Be honest now: if you fulfilled all your New Year’s resolutions, wouldn’t that be a little bit of utopia?) The question, and the danger, is: what are you willing to sacrifice to make the vision reality?

Human nature is imperfect, society is flawed, and utopia is by definition unattainable—but that does not mean that we should not be constantly trying, in our imperfect and stumbling way, to bring about improvements in our lives and in the world around us. I have had people tell me that the peace movement is absurd because “peace will only come when Jesus returns,” or that we shouldn’t have anti-poverty programs because “Jesus said ‘the poor you have with you always.’” I think such attitudes are attempts to take the easy way out, and skirt the full extent of our responsibilities.

For me, the last word on the subject of utopia belongs to futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. We have a choice, Fuller says. Either we will create a world that works for everyone, or we will eventually destroy ourselves: Utopia—or oblivion.