Does Idealism Have to Come with An Expiration Date?

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

By Sibel Edmonds

“Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions and the mean ones truths?” –Edith Wharton

[First published 10/23/2013 at Republished with permission.]  There are a few common adjectives and nouns associated with political activists and critical-thinking action takers. The establishment driven society commonly tags the voices of dissent as “Radicals”, or sometimes, belittlingly, “Idealists.” It always has, and it always will. By the establishment shaped and driven society I mean the mainstream media, academia, literature, the work place, our colleagues, common households- our parents, and my mother. For the purpose of this discussion I am going to specifically focus on the notion of idealism– the attitude of a person who believes that it is possible to live according to very high standards of behavior and honesty, and how the noun is used to belittle, dismiss, or even attack and destroy one’s adherence to ethical and high-standard beliefs and practices.

I would like you to go back to your childhood and start there. Let’s go back as far as we can remember. Because this is the only stage, a brief one, where idealism is tolerated, accepted, and sometimes even rewarded. Whether it is the perfectly rational and linear logic of fairness, or, generosity, or, aspiration, society tends to accept or even praise children’s expectations and expressions of these notions. Granted, most parents view it as something preciously cute (and childish) and adorable. After all, they know it is temporary: this purity and innate nobility. They know it is something one will grow out of. Because they must. They have to. After all, the world does not operate based on these notions of nobility, ethics, and a sense of justice and honesty.

As we grow up, little by little, we are forced to make sense. Meaning, to abandon those innate notions, and to replace them with what our parents and schools coin: Realities. Let me give you an example:

I was around eight or nine years old and attending third grade in a school that catered to highly affluent families in a very affluent neighborhood. The school had some sort of quota system- It accepted a certain number of under-privileged children who academically ranked high. One day, at the end of the school day, after the dismissal bell had rung, when we all ran to the coat-rack to retrieve our jackets and coats, I became witness to a very cruel action inflicted upon one of my classmates by another classmate of mine. A girl from a very prominent family (financially and politically) harshly pulled a girl, who was one of the very few students from a very poor working family, and pushed her to the side, and said, ‘You have to take your coat last. You are poor and dirty, and you can’t go in front of me. Don’t you know your place?’

The poor girl solemnly, embarrassedly, and obediently stepped aside. As the nasty girl, who was now right in front of me, reached for her coat, I grabbed and pulled her back, and said, ‘It is not your turn. It is her turn. Apologize and let her get her coat first.’ Well, she slapped my hand, and yelled, ‘Get away from me. None of your business …,’ and she turned around to retrieve her coat. I repeated the same action. This time she turned around and ran to the principal’s office while crying (more like screaming) from the top of her lungs. After I retrieved my coat, as I began exiting the school building, the principal called after me. I was taken to her office, was given a lecture, and told to stand in the corner until the school spoke to my parents. A few minutes later my father, who was outside the school since he was the one who always picked me up from school, came to get me from the principal’s office. He was told to talk to me about ‘not getting in the middle of things and being aware of who I was dealing with before taking actions like that.’

On the way driving back home, while I was expecting some sort of lecture, he said, ‘You did the right thing. Sometimes people mix up their rights and wrongs. In this case, the people who switched their rights to wrongs are the school authorities. Although I believe they are very well aware of it.’

The experience was supposed to be one of those mini turning moments during our transition from childhood into adulthood. In this case it was meant to teach that justice is not blind. That justice and fairness depend on one’s position and hierarchy within society. That we all have to accept and observe that-regardless of fairness. That we must first engage in this calculation to determine who is the abuser and who is the victim before we take any action. People such as my school principal, the majority, called this: pragmatism and realism. They considered the experience the process of learning the realities of life and circumstantial sense of justice and fairness. They tagged my father and people like him idealists with their heads buried in the sand.

As we transition from childhood to young adulthood the expectation of replacing our idealism with establishment-driven realism increases. The pure sense of ethics and fairness is no longer looked upon as cute and adorable. Instead the majority consider this period as the time to wake up and smell the roses. This is the time when we are expected to begin the process of outgrowing childish idealism. The sooner the better!

Can you think of a few examples from your life at this stage? I certainly can. At the age of fifteen, after two visits to a local orphanage in Istanbul with my best friend, I had decided to spend my weekends volunteering at the orphanage. And I did. Instead of sleeping late on weekends, I woke up early to hook up with my friend and take the morning bus to the orphanage. You would think this would come as a relief to parents who worry about pubescent years and related mischief. Well, not to my mother. She didn’t consider it healthy at all. Was I under the influence of a friend whose parents were considered a bit socialist-communist? Shouldn’t I have spent that valuable time enriching myself with things that would make my future even more promising and brighter? You know how sometimes (most of the times?) adults talk about their kids, in front of them, as if they don’t even exist? I remember my mother talking with a wise friend about her concern for me spending so much time volunteering and wasting my precious time, and this was what her wise friend said, ‘Oh, she is so young. This is when they are so idealistic. Give her a few years and she’ll grow out of it.’

See, that is the expected. The norm. You have idealism as children, and maybe a bit into your young adulthood, but then, you are supposed to grow out of it. Grow out of it as you grow out a pair of pants, or your punkie hair or something like that.

As you grow up, and grow out of your idealism, you begin entering what the establishment coin realism: the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly. Now, let’s take the people in my examples and plug them into this definition of realism: accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.

In the case of my school principal: I should have accepted the situation- a girl from a powerful and very rich family bullying and abusing a girl from a powerless and poor family. I should have dealt with it accordingly: Well, according to whom? Because if I gone along with the Iranian monarchical government and its authorities, including the school authorities, according to their reality, then I should have done nothing to stand up for the powerless girl. I should have either said or done nothing, or, helped the powerful girl bully the powerless girl even further.

The same principle applies to my father’s activism and abiding by his Hippocratic Oath. And to my experience at the FBI. And to the experiences of all the other US government whistleblowers. And to the experiences of almost all activists or revolutionaries … throughout the history of mankind. I believe our cases refer to idealism not outgrown. At least not completely. Were Germans being realistic when they accepted the genocide taking place before their eyes, and dealt with it accordingly, which was looking the other way? How about all the soldiers who witnessed atrocities committed by a few mates during the Vietnam war? The majority of the witnesses never opened their eyes because they were practicing realism: Accepting what had happened, and keeping their mouth shut accordingly , knowing the consequences of speaking out. How about those who spoke out? Were they being idealistic?

Do you remember when you grew out of your idealism? Maybe you never did. Oh boy, then you are, just like me, just like my father, in big trouble. You are a misfit. You are weird. You are immature. You are a radical. Maybe even a bit crazy. Possibly the government, wherever it is, whoever it is made of, considers you a likely criminal to watch out for. This is not how it was supposed to work: You were supposed to outgrow your idealism a long time ago!

I recall this conversation between a respected surgeon (physician) and my father who also was a highly respected surgeon. This was during one of those many periods when my father had gotten in trouble with the state for his humanitarian activities (as a doctor, and based on his Hippocratic Oath). The surgeon used to be my father’s buddy during their medical university years when they both were engaged in political activism. However, unlike my father, he’d grown out of it. Anyhow, the guy said, ‘By God, why couldn’t you let it go? It is one thing to be an activist when you are young, poor, with no family or anything to lose. It is totally different when you are older- when you have a life, wife, children, house and all these things. You don’t risk all these things you’ve earned, where you’ve gotten, for some idealism and activism! Leave the activism and idealism to the young who’ve got nothing to lose!’

That’s right. As this guy told my father, there are rules and conditions for idealism and true activism. It is okay to be idealistic when you’re a child. It is all right to be an activist with some idealism when you are very young, poor, and without anything to lose. But hey, don’t go beyond your idealism’s expiration date! Do not engage in activism once you are educated, with a career and a family of your own. Otherwise… Well, otherwise what? Otherwise you’ll be one of those tagged as radicals and nut cases? Otherwise you’ll be doomed-lose your job, house and family? Otherwise you’ll be one of the members of the irate minority here at Boiling Frogs Post?

I invite you to think about it. Do you remember your idealism period? Did it come with an expiration date? If so, when did you have to outgrow it? Those of you who went past the expiration date set by the establishment: what’s up? Did you have to give up careers, jobs, family? Or have you so far survived it? What would be your advice to your kids: Look what happened to me, thou shalt observe thy idealism’s expiration date? Or, are you like my father, and back your offspring’s idealism?

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Sibel Edmonds is the Publisher & Editor of Boiling Frogs Post and the author of the Memoir Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story. She is the recipient of the 2006 PEN Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for her “commitment to preserving the free flow of information in the United States in a time of growing international isolation and increasing government secrecy” Ms. Edmonds has a MA in Public Policy and International Commerce from George Mason University, a BA in Criminal Justice and Psychology from George Washington University.

Image credit: Flckr Creative Commons, PooksPantry


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