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Roger’s Rules

Utopia Limited

November 11th, 2008 - 7:36 am

I was, I admit, disappointed when Christopher Hitchens–sharp-taloned hawk on the subject of Islamic terrorism–announced that he was joining the Obama brigade. Was he, too, susceptible to that charismatic fairy dust that Obama exudes in such profusion? Up to a point, perhaps. But I am happy to see that he emerged from the episode with his critical faculties intact. In an column in Slate yesterday, he sounded a welcome cautionary note:

Those who think that they have just voted to legalize Utopia (and I hardly exaggerate when I say this; have you been reading the moist and trusting comments of our commentariat?) are preparing for a disillusionment that I very much doubt they will blame on themselves. The national Treasury is an echoing, empty vault; our Russian and Iranian enemies are acting even more wolfishly even as they sense a repudiation of Bush-Cheney; the lines of jobless and evicted are going to lengthen, and I don’t think a diet of hope is going to cover it.

Indeed. And Hitchens is appropriately acerbic about the “pain-free and self-congratulatory” Obama surge. The embarrassing cataract of enthusiasm–the demand for a national Obama holiday, for example (shouldn’t we, asked Glenn Reynolds, wait till he has actually done something?): is there not an awful hollowness to it? The Wizard-of-Oz (“pay no attention to that man behind the curtain“) meets Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Limited in which the Good King Paramount has the splendid idea of transforming his country into a limited liability company, thus evading all manner of unpleasant realities.

The problem is those unpleasant realities have a way of poking through the fabric of our hopes, not matter how audacious. As Hitchens notes, “there are vicious enemies and rogue states in increasing positions of influence throughout the world, . . . yet many Obama voters appear to believe that the mere charm and aspect of their new president will act as an emollient influence on these unwelcome facts and these hostile forces.”

In the waning days of the campaign, John McCain took to accusing Obama of being a socialist. The epithet lacked traction. There were, I think, two main reasons for that. One was the fact that McCain was a poor messenger for his own ideas: he never really articulated his position in a compelling way. The second reason is that many people who have not had the misfortune of actually living under under a socialist regime regard it as a jolly good thing. Socialism, as Joshua Muravchik noted in his book Heaven on Earth: the Rise and Fall of Socialism, was “the most popular political idea ever invented.”

It was also undoubtedly the bloodiest. Of course, many who profess socialism are decent and humane people. And it is worth noting that socialism comes in mild as well as tyrannical versions. Muravchik, who was once a socialist himself, pays frequent homage to the generous impulses that lie behind some allotropes of the socialist enterprise. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “regimes calling themselves socialist have murdered more than one hundred million people since 1917.” Why?

A large part of the answer lies in the intellectual dynamics of utopianism. “Utopia” is Greek for “nowhere”: a made-up word for a make-believe place. The search for nowhere inevitably deprecates any and every “somewhere.” Socialism, which is based on incorrigible optimism about human nature, is a species of utopianism. It experiences the friction of reality as an intolerable brake on its expectations. “Utopians,” the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed in “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered,” “once they attempt to convert their visions into practical proposals, come up with the most malignant project ever devised: they want to institutionalize fraternity, which is the surest way to totalitarian despotism.”

Obamania may be a harmless enthusiasm that will spend itself naturally in the coming weeks. Then again, its “spread-the-wealth-around,” egalitarian tendencies may presage something far graver. It’s just possible that Obama actually believes what he says about redistributing wealth and sitting down for cozy chats with dictators, etc. In that case, the country is in for a very rude awakening. I think that is what worries Hitchens. It worries me, too.

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