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Practical idealism's walk around the block of political theory
Practical idealism would have first been a common phrase in English, connoting a general world view, outlook, or philosophy of life. In 1984, I entered presidential politics and chose "practical idealism" as the name of my political platform. Presidential politics is its own arena where one can research public statements, and realize that mine was the first introduction of practical idealism in Presidential politics.
It is a brand name of politics. When, in 2000, Al Gore tried to call himself a 'practical idealist,' it did not well resonate nor stick. His policies were flatly more sold out, and less people-centric, than those of my own practical idealism, as I had prior placed on the record. Some people will say that my use of the term "doesn't count," since I was only an 18-year-old running a write-in campaign for U.S. President. For my part, I have discounted Al Gore's use of the term.
In any case, I've used the term again, with capital letters forming a proper noun to connote the John Kusumi flavor of Practical Idealism. I've done that more recently than the Gore campaign of 2000, and also Practical Idealism has become a shared endeavor of myself and leading Chinese dissidents. (I run with the crowd that took over Tiananmen Square in 1989, having formed the China Support Network that year, and boosted the Chinese democracy movement ever since. We were the originals of GenX politics, and Practical Idealism is increasingly our shared brand of people-centric politics, now vectored for China as well as America.)
GenX is known for thinking "outside of the box," and Practical Idealism goes beyond the usual candidate campaign literature. For most political candidates, a voter can expect a conventional hand out flyer, that lists issues and positions. ("On taxes....On education....On seniors....") We've gone above and beyond such standard fare, because we have released some core principles that inform and guide the politics of Practical Idealism. The original five principles of Practical Idealism appeared in 1984, and they are simply these--
Reality, as best we know it, is to be accepted at face value.
If we live in keeping with just that, the resulting behavior is "civilized," and if everyone kept with the program, then terrorism would be gone, suppressed by these basic principles. To fight terrorism, we must brace, buttress, and stabilize the system of nation states -- and brace, buttress, and stabilize civilization itself. China is flatly off the page with civilized behavior. There, the Communist Party runs a system that is a machine for killing offenders, religious believers, minorities, and seemingly also innocent normal Han Chinese. That government covered up SARS (a deadly disease) and gave AIDS (a deadly disease) to over 1 million people. 30 million Chinese face starvation; many lack safe water to drink; millions languish in a gulag of slave labor camps, and now we have learned that half of China's children have lead poisoning.
When half of China's children have lead poisoning, then some are being killed by government negligence. The Tiananmen Square massacre in China put the icing on the cake, by showing the world that the government there also will use tanks and troops to kill its own people, in a demonstration where the students of 1989 were unarmed, peaceful, and non-violent.
Chinese dissidents had very good reason to co-sponsor the social compact of civilization with me. Some Western leaders may also find themselves challenged about that compact -- one of the rights is to "no police brutality," and so when that occurs, even in Western democracies, we term that to be uncivilized behavior. The common people of China, America, and the world may wish that governments and terrorists alike would "get on the page," or get with the program, of civilization as seen from here.
So. Practical Idealism has gone above and beyond standard campaign literature of political candidates, by placing these "fundamentals" on the wall. (For the social compact of civilization, in its full treatment of discussion, click here.) My discussion could stop here, but the headline says, "An amble around the block."
Even with principles on the wall, and beliefs about civilization, some people can still have curiosity, to wit -- "What are the basic beliefs of Practical Idealism about government?" Here in my intellectual amble around the block, I will thank the writer, G. Edward Griffin, who produced a discussion of "individualism" versus "collectivism," as a central chasm in political thinking. Individualists are political thinkers who emphasize the rights of the individual. Some founders of the American government, notably Thomas Jefferson, were individualists. They believe that a constitutional republic is a mechanism to protect the rights of people against abuse by government. On the other hand, collectivists believe that the whole of society, under management, has overriding interests and that these justify some compromises, where government sacrifices some people and their interests, stepping on a few for the benefit of the many.
Practical Idealism resists easy classification. In America, I may at times be criticized for being "way too liberal," and yet then, some others can criticize these politics for being "way too conservative." While people from both angles can have their point, no pithy summary is correct. They cannot both be right. In my reply, I say that it is Practical Idealism, and it keeps its own balance between being fully liberal or conservative.
Likewise, I resist an easy division of the world into individualists versus collectivists. Facing the idea of two extremes, Practical Idealism suggests that the truth is somewhere in the middle. There must be a middle way of balance that accommodates some amount of ideas from both view points.
G. Edward Griffin, in his writing, suggests that six questions are a litmus test, and that to answer the questions will tell us if one is an individualist or a collectivist. In this article, I am having an intellectual amble around the block, and it will answer the curiosity of onlookers. I.e., these remain good questions.
Question 1, on the nature of human rights. Griffin offers that if you believe rights are unalienable, they are intrinsic at birth, then you are an individualist. If you believe rights are given to people by the state, then you are a collectivist. Practical Idealism suggests that rights are inherently part of the package when civilization prevails. They are inseparably part and parcel of the situation. Whether they came from God or the state doesn't matter to Practical Idealism.
As long as they got there somehow, they exist and we will work with them. Reason? --In the first principle of Practical Idealism, reality as best we know it is to be accepted at face value. We accept the idea that rights are intrinsic to civilization. There is also a different word, democracy, that involves all of the rights in civilization, plus even more rights.
Question 2, on the origin of state power. Griffin offers that if you believe that government power comes from the governed, by way of their consent, then you are an individualist. If you believe that government power comes from something else, whether that is God or the barrel of a gun, then you are a collectivist. Practical Idealism believes that people invented civilization among themselves, for mutual protection and other purposes. Government, and government powers, are included in the package of civilization, but that package came from people -- there are no others on this "Island Earth" to whom we can ascribe or attribute the invention of government and civilization.
The existence of people was a necessary pre-requisite for the invention of civilization, so we believe that government powers come from the consent of the governed. On question 2, Practical Idealism comes down on the "individualist" side of the discussion.
Question 3, on group supremacy. Some people (who Griffin calls collectivists) would say that "Group rights are more important than individual rights," and that "Bigger groups are more important than smaller groups." Practical Idealism says that "People are important." We believe that civilization was an invention, and that the existence of people preceded any act of their inventing anything. But, Practical Idealism straddles the individual - versus collective question. In 1984, the basic message of Practical Idealism was, "PEOPLE ARE IMPORTANT -- ALL PEOPLE, as INDIVIDUALS, as well as collectively."
When we read carefully the message of 1984, it underscored the importance of people "as individuals, as well as collectively." People are both individuals and members of groups. There is something to be said for individuals, and there is something to be said for groups. On question 3, Practical Idealism straddles the individualist / collectivist divide.
Griffin makes the point that pure democracy -- majority rule -- has been criticized where it can trample on the rights of minorities. The founders of America were aware of this and produced a constitutional republic to allow a limited democracy that is constrained and prohibited from violating certain rights of individuals. Practical Idealism agrees that it is appropriate for a constitution to limit powers of governments, and that a republic is the preferred structure to protect the rights of minorities.
Question 4, on coercion versus freedom. Griffin asserts that individualists prefer freedom and private sector, or faith based solutions. On the other hand, he says, collectivists are enamored of big government solutions and believe that there ought to be a law for every problem. On this question in the United States, conservatives are thought to come down on the individualist side of the debate, and liberals are thought to come down on the collectivist side of the debate. Practical Idealism straddles, believing that there can be a mix of private, or market based, solutions for some matters, and government based solutions for other matters.
Looking into the real life of America today, there is already that mixture. In Practical Idealism's principle # 1, we accept reality and work with it. Practical Idealism has its eclectic, pragmatic nature, and that is seen in how different choices may be made on question 4 for different issues, based on assessing the merits of each case of a different issue.
Question 5, on equality versus inequality under law. Griffin asserts that individualists want all citizens to be equal under the law, and that law should not be giving distinct, unequal, and preferential treatment to individuals of one group or another. Collectivists, he asserts, go for laws and solutions that treat people unequally based on income, marital status, number of children, age, type of investments, national origin, race, religion, gender, education, economic status, lifestyle, or political opinion. Results of the latter, he asserts, include racial quotas, gender quotas, affirmative action initiatives, and censorship.
On a good day, government should present the same face to all. Where other politics focus on clashing, colliding, and fighting, based on a mentality of "us versus them," Practical Idealism focuses on "livable conditions for all." Laws are better when they are carefully designed as elegant solutions that are applicable to all. That's idealism.
Being practical, we have to straddle on question 5. Not every day is a good day. The law must be able to recognize exception cases. For example, special treatment, consideration, or restitution should perhaps be rendered to Falun Gong; political dissidents; Laogai inmates; those wrongfully convicted of crime; those forced to have an abortion; or those who have been injured by the government in other ways -- perhaps by removal of their house -- or, those who were given HIV/AIDS (or other ailments) due to government negligence. Almost everyone in China is a prior victim of the government's oppression. They have not been having a good day.
Question 6, on the proper role of government. Collectivists, according to Griffin, have great faith in the wisdom of government. They feel that it should proactively go to every question, have responsibility for every problem, and take the lead in all affairs of men. Individualists, according to Griffin, want the government simply to protect existing lives, liberty, and property -- then, get out of the picture. This question concerns "big government" versus "limited government."
Practical Idealism again must straddle on question 6. Government should not flirt with the extreme of being big. People must have freedom of belief, of faith, and of conscience. Government at the extreme of big goes into telling people what religious beliefs to have, and to attempts at thought control, or wishes of mind control. For government to think that it is omnipotent is mistaken, and leaders who go there are fooling themselves. At the extreme of big comes a totalitarian government like that of the CCP's PRC. That's too big.
However, Practical Idealism does not go to the other extreme of small, limited government. America and China have both gone into having big government, for example to the point of having space programs, in both countries. Practical Idealism feels that there is value to those large scale, organized efforts led by government. For government to do so, it does more than the mere protection that is valued by individualists, as noted by Griffin, and that is also valued by America's libertarian segment of political thinkers. On question 6, Practical Idealism again calls for a balance, and a middle way somewhere between the extremes of big and little government.
*John Kusumi is Executive Director of China Support Network
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