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Utopia, In Part

utopia-in-part

Anyone who listens to Glen Beck’s description of his Independence Park project will undoubtedly come away with a distinct impression of what such a place signifies. For the moment, let’s set aside its political import and concentrate on an aspect that may not be getting the attention it deserves: its educational goals. At the very heart of Beck’s utopian city is a library, which he describes as his own personal “national archive.” The conceit of the city’s theme park is that its attractions are based upon (Beck’s interpretation) of U.S. history. A good chunk of the city is the nerve center of his expanding media empire. All of this is based around a single, preeminent goal: giving you Glen Beck’s understanding (via a lived model) of how the world works, how it should work, and how it all came to be. I find myself in agreement with Beck on one thing: education is of paramount importance to a community. Our visions of what constitutes education undoubtedly diverge.

Education is not a simple matter. It is not simply taking time to learn everything that is important. Most things are important to somebody, and no lifespan is long enough to complete an education of that magnitude. Speaking for myself, there is no limit to my ignorance. I could study every day for the rest of my life and never know everything there is to know. What astonishes me is not that other people are ignorant of something I happen to know, or even that they have no interest in learning it. What astonishes me is how willfully  people can construct their lives around a principle of refusing to learn anything they have not previously considered.

For me, education is about learning how to adjust one’s worldview in light of new information. Making such adjustments to my worldview (however it is currently constructed) is a slow, deliberate, and painful process. I own it to be my responsibility not to change my mind without due consideration; I also own it to be my responsibility to consider every possibility. I don’t think everyone ought to agree with every viewpoint I hold, but I would prefer that others take the process of arriving at their viewpoints seriously. Part of this is due to my peculiar temperament, but a part of it is due to the dawning realization that, for as much as people talk about such virtues as “liberty,” “self-determination,” or “community,” how many truly consider the dizzying ramifications of such ideals? I daresay that, for most people, life is four-fifths habit and one-fifth obstinacy. It’s a Long Island Iced Tea served on the rocks of the blasted heath of the Bikini Island Atoll. We are poisoned, but the drink makes us feel all warm inside.

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Glen Beck is not attempting to create a utopia. Utopianism is nevertheless an inherent part of the Independence Park project–it is part of any project that attempts to create a better world from the world we already have. A planned community of the Independence Park variety runs the double danger of sliding into totalitarianism and/or crumbling under the weight of an inflexible founding vision. In response to something like Beck’s libertyville chimera, it is tempting to posit a planned community of one’s own. But how to avoid the same pitfalls that accompany such a project, regardless of one’s ideological disposition?

If utopianism is a useful intellectual exercise, then it is useful not so much for teaching the right way to live, so much as it is a useful tool for teaching how to learn. The purpose of a utopia is to serve as an ideal. Ideal forms are meant to be debated, not simply instilled. Grappling with ideals — and learning how to do so — is one of the most valuable functions of education. It is important to ask, “How shall we live?” It is just as important to ask, “Why shall we live like that?” Thus it is important to understand founding principles and to enable ourselves to remake those principles if the need arises.

For centuries, philosophers  have conjured up visions of the “ideal society.” These visions were not always intended to be blueprints for a literal heaven on earth. In the classical tradition, ideals — the purest expression of moral/ethical form — are supernal, intangible things. They exist as a mental model around which to form more concrete actions, thoughts, or physical structures. They serve as a contrast to the problems of worldly kingdoms, just as the mighty deeds of mythical heroes serve as a contrast to the fumbling, pragmatic deeds of real-life citizens. In coining the term “utopia” to describe his ideal society, Thomas More explicitly denied the reader any expectation that such a society could ever be found (or founded) here on Earth. It was a modest proposal of the way Moore thought things ought to be: a thought experiment carried to its logical conclusions. Moore hoped to inspire intelligent debate and consideration of more practical affairs of state and how they might be carried out more morally.

Utopianism has taken different forms in the last couple hundred years, depending upon the ideological priorities of its proponent. On the Right, utopianism took the form of jingoism, often manifested in the guise of nationalist exceptionalism. Think of Hegel’s Spirit; Britain’s “civilizing” of indigenous peoples around the globe; America’s “manifest destiny;” Hitler’s Third Reich; Japan’s beneficent Pacific empire. On the Left, socialists and progressives have nurtured a notion of perfecting the human condition by perfecting his material conditions. The idea of a brotherhood of man united has taken the form of socialist and communist governments that replaced one inequality with another; progressives in the U.S. spearheaded such luminous episodes in social control as Prohibition and eugenics; the global wars on social problems like poverty and hunger have yet to declare any sustainable victories, while creating much in the way of cultural imperialism.

These brushstrokes are not a strict taxonomy. The main point is that the spirit of utopia, once manifested in practical politics, leads often to militarism, chauvinism, bureaucratic control, and hegemony (not to mention numerous other unsightly marks on the historical record of wealthy nations.) These efforts are anti-utopian by definition, since they attempt to make existing places and people into things that can only exist in the imagination. No wonder that utopian movements are doomed to failure: any movement towards “utopia” is bound to go literally nowhere.

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I have never believed in utopia. Who can believe in a place that, by definition of the very term, can occupy no place in existence?

My utopia is therefore an anti-utopia. Not only because utopia cannot exist, but because the entire telos of my project is anti-utopian, intended to thwart the utopian impulse. My ideal society is one that takes education so seriously that it would inform nearly every aspect of our public lives. The central conceit is that every citizen must grapple with ideas, facts, and perspectives that are heretofore unknown to him. It would be built into the legal and physical structure of the nation. I don’t imagine that my anti-utopia would much differ from the daily grind of any developed country, save in that the struggle of learning would manifest itself in the mores and customs of the culture.

Mandatory education would begin before preschool and would continue year-round until high school graduation. Adults would participate in public debates, online discourses, tutoring, and other activities fostering the exchange of ideas, regardless of profession. Citizenship would not depend upon where one was born, but upon consistent participation in these social activities. Multilingual fluency would be the norm, and mastery of the world classics (including religious texts) would be expected of every man, woman, and child. In lieu of a standing military, national defense would be poured into science and engineering. 1 Un- or underemployed people over a certain age would learn an assigned trade. Every adult would be required to keep up intellectual mastery of at least one area of public policy. Failure to attain satisfactory academic progress at each grade level would result in being held back, regardless of age or socioeconomic status.

Naturally, the forced implementation of these ideas in a practical sense would be, in a word, authoritarian, and would radically alter the social structure of our current society. I don’t desire this to happen in real life. As a fantastical model of how things could be, or how behavior and values might be, it raises a multitude of ethical and moral questions. That is the point. What would be the benefits of such a society? Its drawbacks? What does the contrast between this utopia and our current society teach us?

My utopia will never — and must never — actually exist. To exist would be to subject it to inevitable corruption. Even if I were somehow supplied with a few billion dollars, a huge tract of land, and a team of experts ready and willing to build a city on my idealized vision of society, I would hope that the very nature of my utopia would exist to thwart the utopian impulse. It is predicated on malleability, conflict, the hope that individuals and the community would learn for themselves how they want things to be. The whole point of my utopia is that it would someday evolve into something I could not recognize as my own. Whether for good or ill, even that society would have a lesson to teach us. If only we would be willing to learn.
 


 
 Edited by Tracy McCusker.
 

  1. My theory being that potential enemies are less likely to screw with the country possessing the best toys.

Matt Schneider

Writer at Catecinem

Matt blogs about cinema, faith, and politics at Catecinem. One day, he will travel to the farthest reaches of the cosmos to discover what God needs with a starship.

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  1. By Playtime: Utopia, in part | Catecinem on February 27, 2013 at 12:01 am

    [...] Playtime, in which I muse upon Glen Beck’s Independence Park and its relation to utopianism. Check it out. Also, many thanks to my editor, Tracy, who didn’t so much finesse the piece that I [...]