The Nation of 17 May carried a piece about the shortcomings of the new South Africa. The article seems well-informed and mostly reasonable, and some (but not all) of the shortcomings seem short indeed. But my heart sank when I saw it. It’s not that I thought post-apartheid South Africa was heaven on earth, it’s just that the constant thump of hopes tumbling gets demoralizing after awhile.
I’ve read The Nation for decades, but it was this piece that got me to thinking about the familiar tropes of the left. Nothing is ever good enough, pure enough, for progressives. So much dreaming and debate is invested in imaginary perfection that real life can never measure up. And what stops this politics in its tracks is the tremendous, stupefying cloud of moral outrage it churns up when people turn out to be merely human. How many pretty good ideas have been discarded because they don?t measure up to the crystalline perfection of ideology?
The most extreme example of this tendency is those leftists who still idolize something called socialism that exists in its desired form only on paper; its transplant into flesh-and-blood always fails. The meta-headlines of progressive journalism are “Feet of Clay” and “Things Are Much Worse Than You Thought.” (Don’t get smug, rightists: your equally catatonic meta-headlines are “Someone’s Getting Away With Your Money” and “The Other Side is Beating Us Up.”)
I can’t put myself on that spectrum anymore. As Kant said 200 years ago, “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved.” Shouldn’t we take it as given that all human social creations are imperfect? What I want to discover is where progressive social imagination goes when that reality is part of the equation.