We live in the real world, not the world of John Lennon’s imaginings. Those who seek utopia rather than rational reform will not be happy with what they get.
“The best is the enemy of the good.” That observation by Voltaire may help to explain the vast destruction resulting from two weeks of violent protesting following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
The saying means that those who are satisfied with nothing less than perfection will never be satisfied. In the case of the death of George Floyd, the sentiment is encapsulated in the slogan “no justice, no peace.” One suspects, however, that what is sought is not practical, achievable justice, but perfect justice—the kind only God can deliver.
In a perfectly just world, George Floyd would never have been killed in the first place. But there can be little doubt that practically the whole nation agreed that he had been done an injustice, and that everything possible ought to be done to right that injustice.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota authorities acted quickly. The officer who killed Floyd was quickly removed from the force, jailed and charged with third, then second degree murder. The three other officers who were involved have also been jailed. The Minneapolis City Council has even proposed that the police force be dismantled. Moreover, many of those who are protesting the killing of Floyd are white. In some cities, white protesters seem to be in the majority. Would this be the case if America were an irredeemably racist society in which blacks will never see justice? What’s more, many of the racial justice reforms that were sought in the past have long been in place. Numerous cities have black mayors, black city council members, black judges, black police chiefs and, in some cases, black majority police forces. In Minnesota, where the nationwide protests first erupted, the chief justice officer is Attorney General Keith Ellison, a black man
Of course, there is, and will always be room for improvement. But, once again, it seems that what many people—both black and white—want is not improvement, but perfection: the kind of perfection that human beings by their very nature are incapable of. It’s not just perfect justice in the area of racial relations that is sought, but, increasingly, in every area of life. And, in some cases, what is demanded is not simply perfection, but impossibilities. Thus, some people believe that there can be no justice in society until everyone is free to choose their own gender. And not only that, but they believe there can be no justice until everyone else is forced to assent to their beliefs. In their quest for justice for one group, they deny it to another.
Likewise, the nationwide protests over the injustice done to George Floyd have resulted in myriad new injustices: almost two dozen killed, more than a thousand injured, many hundreds of businesses destroyed and livelihoods lost.
I am not discounting the role of outside agitators, such as Antifa, in fueling anger and discontent among the throngs of protesters. They play a large role in provoking violence, in spreading the protests and in keeping them alive long after they would normally die down. These groups—mostly leftist—did not spontaneously “hijack” the protests. They had for some time been organizing and preparing to exploit just such an occasion as the one that arose in Minneapolis. And human nature being what it is, the occasion inevitably did arise.
Antifa and Antifa-like groups tend to subscribe to a Marxist vision of society. And that vision is essentially a utopian one. It promises an almost perfect society which will emerge once wealth is equally shared. Although some of these leftist agitators seem to be without conscience, it’s probable that some of them are motivated by idealistic dreams of a perfect society and perfect justice.
The question is, why are so many others so susceptible to the same dream? Why do they find it intolerable that perfect justice and peace has not yet been achieved?
Why do so many in our society believe that utopia is or ought to be just around the corner? The answer is that they have been exposed to an educational system that is heavy on societal responsibility and light on individual responsibility. Part of this comes from a therapeutic strand in education that is obsessed with the goodness of the child’s inner self, and the wrongness of inhibiting its expression. Part comes from the Marxist-socialist strand (typified by Howard Zinn’s view of history) that blames social structures for all of life’s ills. This approach dwells on the many imperfections in American history and gives the impression that perfect harmony is the normal state of mankind, and anything less is the result of oppressive racist and capitalist institutions. Each new injustice, such as the killing of George Floyd, is used to confirm this narrative. The overall message is that you are not responsible for your troubles, society is. Likewise, you are not responsible when you cause troubles. Indeed, your rioting, looting, and arson may be justified by the oppressions you have suffered at the hands of society. Or, as the gang members in West Side Story explain, “We’re depraved ‘cause we’re deprived.”
The evidence that we are in the grip of this Rousseauian-utopian delusion keeps piling up. The latest iteration of this noble savage view of human nature is the “We-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-cops” movement now underway in numerous cities. The theory behind the movement is that once you remove the police from the scene, everyone will begin to act like Jean Valjean after the bishop saved him from the gendarmes. Thus, the mayor of Los Angeles wants to severely cut back the budget for the Police Department, dozens of cities want to defund the police, and, as mentioned, Minneapolis wants to disband its police force. But that’s okay. It will be replaced, says one city council member, by a “public safety” committee.
Hmm. “Committee of Public Safety.” Where have we heard that before? Oh yes, that was the group that organized the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. But not to worry, says the city council member: “We can reimagine what public safety means…we can invest in cultural competency and mental health training, de-escalation and conflict resolution…we can declare policing as we know it a thing of the past, and create a compassionate, non-violent future.”
Polls show that the police are more highly trusted by the public than most other professional groups. So perhaps they are more compassionate than the city council member gives them credit for. But, even supposing that police forces can be made super compassionate, does that solve the problem of the lack of compassion in spouse-beaters, looters, arsonists, muggers, and rapists? Will restructuring law-enforcement reshape the criminal? Will you feel safer in a community where the police have been disbanded and re-imagined as social workers and therapists?
I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s comment on men who try to solve the problem of fallen human nature “by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
It’s interesting that the line occurs in the context of the Church’s duty to talk about “Evil” and “Sin,” less men be deluded into thinking that salvation comes from reforming societies rather than reforming lives.
In a press conference during the protests, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio invoked John Lennon’s utopian song “Imagine.” “What about a world where we didn’t live with a lot of the restrictions we have right now?” asked the mayor.
Restrictions? Like prisons? Like the presence of police? But we live in the real world, not the world of John Lennon’s imaginings. Those who seek utopia rather than rational reform will not be happy with what they get. Utopian cities without police to enforce the law will not be pleasant places. The word “utopia,” of course, means “nowhere.” And the cities of the utopian dreamers’ imaginations are nowhere that any sane person would want to live.
This article originally appeared in the June 7, 2020 edition of Catholic World Report.
Pictured above: Statue of John Lennon in Havana, Cuba
Photo credit: Pixabay