The death of idealism

social_idealismIdealism is not exactly original. Pretty much every slightly geeky 15 year old is a blank slate of dreams; they all think the world is a bit magical, and populated by people who think deeply about the same things they do. They also think their thoughts on the meaning of life are highly original, and that they will be the ones who change the world, or at least fire its imagination. I guess one of them does indeed go on to become the President of the United States, one of them will lead the UN, one of them might one day find the cure for AIDS, one of them will become JK Rowling.

Religious children (I was one, briefly, but it’s ok, I joined the dark side) might think about how they can save the world from its sins, and convert it to whatever they have been taught is the true path, light from light, and all that.

15 year olds imagine the world will be as one, and they’ll meet John Lennon. Even if you never wanted to be statesman or a famous author or in fact particularly important at all, you were sure that hard work would be rewarded. The people who got the life they wanted were the ones who deserved it the most, who were the most capable of whatever they did for a living, and who didn’t stab anyone in the back in the process. The nice guy gets the girl in every romantic comedy, the honest guy exposes corruption and gets rewarded for it, girls are cool journalists who live in New York – even if for some reason they’re always single.

Either way, we believed in all the underpinnings of our society; we believed in the great human progress that the welfare state represented, the benefits that science and medicine have brought us, in the redistribution of wealth via the tax system, in the moral integrity of our democratically elected governments.

As I was at school in Germany, we were of course taught about the causes and enablers of totalitarianism, how the mechanisms of dictatorships worked, and how the structure of the federal constitution was designed to prevent unilateral coups. We were taught that tolerance of difference was the key element of a just society. We were also taught about broader-reaching mechanisms such as the UN, which were designed to promote international collaboration, and prevent the world from ever standing by and watching such genocide again. War in Europe would never happen again. In a democracy, armies were only deployed to fight just wars, to fight for freedom and ultimately for the ideals that the enlightenment brought Europe, for a world of rational tolerance and all the rights enshrined in various “real” constitutions – like freedom of movement, congregation, religion, and speech; equality of all before the law and equality of men, women, races, disabilities, political beliefs. These were all things I passionately believed to be inherently right, and still do.

Then there was Bosnia. The UN hung about passing lots of resolutions, wringing its hands. The news networks sent hundreds of people there to tell us how bad it all was, how terrible that there was war in Europe. I watched in total disbelief as Rwanda imploded on itself, while the world stood by, wringing its hands a bit more profoundly, and delivering more weapons in exchange for cash.

Israel was always in the news, and I was full of hope that this apparently intractable conflict would be resolved. Two populations that shared everything except religion were apparently making some overtures towards the whole concept of tolerance and forgiveness, under the leadership of Itzak Rabin. I was 17 when I watched him die, and felt again that resignation at the world’s vicissitudes.

Still, soon I was off to university, and full of enthusiasm about sports teams and student politics. Endless serious and drunken debates took place in people’s rooms, everyone seemed opinionated and clever, and I loved it. There was hope; we would change the world after all. As someone once said, “student politics can afford to be intense, because the stakes are so low”. Tuition fees were the debate of the day, and I was sure they were wrong. I wasn’t really sure what the alternative was, but it seemed stupid to label everything an academic degree, persuade everyone they had to have one, and then charge them so much they would never even apply unless they had a trust fund. It was no way to improve social mobility, and I wanted everyone to have the same privileged background that I did due to my parents’ and grandparents’ education. Education and knowledge were the pathways out of menial jobs and into the free lifestyle of academia that my parents enjoyed. So I tagged along to all sorts of marches, and hung out in exam schools one night (mainly for fun, actually). Tuition fees were introduced anyway, and all the middle class parents paid them by remortgaging their skyrocketing London houses. I still don’t know what the working class parents have done. I quite quickly gave up on the whole topic, and didn’t want to talk about it any more. No one seemed to care anyway, and what was I ever going to change?

I graduated, went to London like everyone else, and got a pretty menial temporary job for a website. It was another brave new world, the internet. It would change everything, open up the world, make knowledge accessible, enable people to work from anywhere in the world and never get on the Underground again. It wouldn’t ever lead to a situation where democratic governments used technology to spy on all of their citizens’ electronic communication, because that would quite patently be hypocritical and wrong. We can’t tell a dictatorship that what they’re doing is wrong only because they’re doing it, rather than us. That would all be some nightmarish mashup of 1984 and Catch 22.

So I worked hard, let my frustrations about the dullness of my work be known, and was rewarded with a proper job. This was great, I was making a difference, doing cool stuff with technology, hanging out with people who loved to party and sometimes listened to my earnest diatribes about whatever was in the news at that time, probably the Damilola Taylor acquittal. Some cute 10-year old kid whose family came to London for a better life bleeds to death as a result of a big gash in his femoral artery, and it then turns out that he somehow just fell on a broken bottle? Really?

Tony Blair made up some sketchy excuse to deploy troops to Iraq. This was the guy I had voted for to  get rid of the nasty old Tories, who was just supposed to vaguely “make things better”, and he decides to deploy troops to fight a totally unjustified war. No one was providing any troops for peace in Gaza, or Darfur, because they didn’t have any oil, so civil wars and dictatorships were mysteriously none of Europe’s business after all.

So the world was full of bad people doing mostly bad stuff. I wasn’t going to change it. But my life was ok. I had a little room in someone’s attic (yes, really, but the novel never happened), so I had enough money to enjoy London. I loved drinking, and going to nice restaurants, and the Royal Opera House. Then I made a bit more money, because I started working in financial services. After all, money is the reason all industries exist, so why not go work for the money? And anyway, it wasn’t like I was working for a loan shark, I was working for an investment manager that bought and held shares for decades. It gave companies the stability to expand, to keep hold of their workforces in a recession. Kind of a good guy. But after several years of travelling around the world working on slightly pointless projects (I wasn’t complaining, business class booze is great), I wanted some more fun people to work with, so I went back to another internet company.

Back to the bit about how the people doing the work are the ones that get rewarded: well, turns out that’s not really so true either. The boss who passes off my work as his own while he spends his time shaking people’s hands, tells me that I’m “talking to too many people who think you’re the one that does all the work”, and tells me I’m a “clever girl”? He’s now working at Google, and posts messages on his facebook page (with his 1,500 fake friends) about how he was in the Times, or he met David Cameron, and here’s a picture of him with Boris Johnson. He’s just generally awesome. I guess people who are so awesome need an awful lot of validation.

Still, medicine, science and education remain ideals.  Only I’m not sure how it’s ideal that in one half the world you still die of AIDS, while in the other half, you live well enough with HIV. Or that medical advances mean people in Europe now spend so much of their lives in retirement that governments and pension funds will turn a blind eye to pretty much any investment if it can shore up the black hole of their finances. They’re quite happy to invest in tobacco and weapons companies, because they makes loads of money. If things go wrong on the stockmarket, either through fraud or insane risk-taking that is very much encouraged by government clients when it’s helping their funds, then that’s because bankers are corrupt.

Education is indeed still seen as the ticket to a better life; only it shouldn’t be confused with knowledge for the sake of expanding ideas that may or may not lead anywhere useful. It has to be a business studies degree, otherwise all those tuition fees will go to waste.

So, idealism, well, who was I kidding anyway? I’ve got a pension to feed.

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