James Bowman has an interesting essay in the current New Atlantis. Its general theme the replacement in our culture of heroism by utopianism, and it is well worth a read; but I want to focus on one point near the end of the essay.
It has long been a puzzle to me why the Liberals give President Bush no credit, none, for grounding his foreign policy on Liberal principles. Few public men have ever embraced democracy with a much enthusiasm as George W. Bush; few have spoken more highly of the spread of freedom by American might; few have appealed more frequently to the liberty-loving part of man, or depended more confidently on its power to overcome other aspects of his character. This is Liberalism through and through; indeed, I will say it is the best of Liberalism. And yet Liberals hate him. Why?
Bowman offers a subtle answer I have not heard before, and I am inclined to think there something to it. Discussing a popular play which dramatizes the lives and dreams of some European utopian socialists of the mid-nineteenth century, he notes the “routine swipe” of a reviewer at Bush. He writes,
The point is not to build something, but merely to care passionately about the idea of building something. It’s this which lifts the failed or frustrated utopians onto a higher moral plane than, say, “the American government.” Yet the routine swipe at the Bush administration should not be allowed to pass without noting that its supposedly “destructive ineptitude” is really just the liberal utopia of passionate carers translated into political and military reality. How is President Bush materially different from those “complex, articulated characters, doing their imperfect best to solve the hardest problems with which existence confronts us”? He is at least partly, and to the extent that he believes a democratic government can be imposed on the Iraqis, a victim of the great modernist paradox, which is that we don’t want the utopias themselves anymore, but we want the utopian style. And we want it because it is a self-validation. It shows that we believe in the right things — in peace, in progress, in compassion for life’s victims, and in universal principles — even though we no longer have any intellectually coherent program for institutionalizing them among men. [. . .]
We may have lost confidence in the ability of those engineers to design a perfect system, or even to live up to their own high expectations of humanity, but it is easier to go on clinging to their fantasies as if we believed them to be real than to submit to the despair of admitting to ourselves that life is still for us what it was to our great-grandfathers who believed — or at least pretended to believe — that there was nothing in it more important than being good.
Ah, yes. There is something to this indeed. “We don’t want the utopias themselves anymore, but we want the utopian style.” All our utopian dreams have been shattered in practice, their failure disclosed by fire and slaughter, by death camp and gulag, by mountains of corpses and the bloodiest century in history; yet we cannot abandon the pretense of utopian passion and idealism. We don’t want a return to plain old virtue — “being good.” We want good intention to still count. We still repeat the old clichés. If you’re not a liberal when you’re young you than have no heart, etc. We still like the roguish unreliable young intellectual, with dreams of a better world. We still fall for the dissipated idealist.
And for us “idealism” can never embrace the heroic virtue of living a good life.