When I was barely seventeen, I left everyone I knew in the world for the first time in my life and packed it off to summer school at William and Mary, 1,500 miles away. I hadn’t been in my strange new surroundings a week when something happened that lifted me high in my young eyes (very young, since I had graduated from high school a year early). In working my way through the cafeteria’s dinner line, I had forked four slices of ham onto my plate, thinking I had only three—and paying for only three at the register. In the middle of my lonely meal, I discovered my error and promptly returned to the checkout woman to correct it. She was so visibly amazed and delighted at my punctilious honesty that I basked in the glow of her smile for days. What a fine young man I was, after all!
So thrilled was I by this good news about my soul that, not more than three or four days later, I dropped a quarter back into the register’s draw, insisting to a different checkout attendant that she had overpaid my change. She wasn’t amused. Instead of the earlier smile, the look I got expressed shock and a little outrage. I went away with a lot more to chew on than green beans and mashed potatoes.
For even if my math had been better than hers (and it probably wasn’t), I knew in my heart that I was seeking an artificial re-ignition of virtue’s fires. I wanted to feel good about myself again… and in my theatrical, self-centered clumsiness, I had left the attendant in a very awkward position. I had tried to buy a higher opinion of myself at her expense, not only casting her competence in question but also, very likely, throwing off the receipts at day’s end.
For a boy of seventeen to be as deeply mortified by this incident as I was—and to learn as much as quickly from it as I did—was probably higher praise of my maturity than I knew at the time, or would realize for years to come. In fact, only recently, as I see “virtue-signaling” at epidemic levels all over the place among people all the way up to my present age, have I understood that some of my neighbors will never grow up. They’re forever dropping dollars and dimes back into the cash box in the service of some superior cause—only the money is seldom their own, but has been volunteered by them, rather, from the pockets of fellow citizens who require the influence of big-brotherly duress to “do the right thing”. Meanwhile, the cash box’s contents become so poorly reconciled with proper calculations that planning grows impossible and pilfering rife. No one can say where those dimes end up… and it’s all thanks to the “good people” who stepped forward to act as society’s conscience.
The idealism that spurs us to stifle self-interest and to strive after a new and higher reality redeems us from a squalid animal state. It is our finest, noblest characteristic. When an observer of human affairs like Ayn Rand attacks this uplifting motive as, instead, the most debasing impulse of our species and savages Christianity (for instance) as an emasculation of heart and mind, the reasoning seems insane to me. (It becomes fully so, in Rand’s case, when she insists on identifying artistic realism with the emasculated Christian mass and romanticism, contrastively, with heroic egotism: Ayn, meet Friedrich Nietzsche.)
That said, I’m afraid there is most certainly a fine—and very perilous—line between genuine, functional idealism and self-aggrandizing delusion. The “visionary” or “dreamer” who would have us pool all of our resources together so that everyone has equal amounts of everything doesn’t deserve the name of “idealist”, in my opinion. All true idealism is morally good—and all moral growth requires that the individual struggle and learn. Insulating a child from the painful lesson of the hot stove by banishing all stoves whatever from his presence only ensures that we have on our hands a permanent child, a foolish brat who, at sixty-five, still won’t tie his own shoes. This kind of vision is not compassion or social conscience: it is gross self-indulgence—an arrogant parasitism of the soul that gorges itself fat on preempting the challenges necessary to the health of other souls around it. The ostentatiously, sloppily “compassionate” among us are a huge tapeworm in our society’s gut.
Even the rare “dreamer” who uses his own money to sustain others in a state of spiritual anemia remains a saboteur rather than a philanthropist. And, yes, there are too many of these within the ranks of people who style themselves Christian, though I would have hoped that someone of Ayn Rand’s intelligence might have distinguished between fool’s gold and real coin. Genuine charity, like all forms of selflessness, is hard. You don’t throw cake from the window of your coach: you have to figure out how the farmer can grow a healthier crop with his own hands.
When I was teaching literature (always the happiest time of my roller-coaster classroom career), I found Don Quixote a uniquely puzzling work in this regard. I’ve no doubt that Cervantes wanted us to think the grand old madman not quite as big a fool as he appears to various road agents, pickpockets, prostitutes, and shysters. In fact, the two “working girls” whom he addresses as fine ladies in his original sally end up being deeply grateful to him. It costs us little enough to treat our fellow man somewhat better than his deserts, as Hamlet advises Polonius. Yet our “knight’s” idealism strays far off target when he saves the poor lad Andres from a brutal master only to leave the bully to redouble the blows once a “gentleman’s assurance” has sent him cantering merrily away. And surely Cervantes didn’t approve of La Mancha’s withered champion when he freed a party of convicts to resume their predations upon law-abiding society….
So where does ennobling idealism end and self-debasing folly begin? We need hardly doubt that a world without idealism is a jungle, be Ayn Rand’s “romantic” heroes ever so rugged in their individualism; but a world saturated with self-indulgent, virtue-signaling idealism is a morass where might makes right beneath a slimy overgrowth of hypocrisy.
We can demand that our fellow taxpayers pony up the cash to buy health care for the entire planet’s grandmothers… but in the process, we will conveniently have overlooked that there isn’t enough loot in the solar system to fund every state-of-the-art procedure that every person with a pain might want. We open the gate, rather, to a system more elitist than ever, where the happy few have private doctors on their staff while the many line up to receive aspirin, and where determinations are inevitably made about who is “more savable” or is likely to have a “more useful” lifespan. (Hint: Grandma will be first to get nudged from the waiting list to the graveyard.) In ushering in such horrors, we will actually have collaborated in creating a great evil.
We can demand that “refugees” be admitted from nations all over the world on the ground that fleeing a bad economy is as valid as fleeing a murderous dictator. The populace we admit, however, will bring with it an inclination to flee from, evade, or deflect existential problems of any sort rather than stand and face them—an inclination that, in political terms, translates into a habit of looking to paternalistic rulers for long-term solutions while creating a mess of impromptu, under-the-table quick-fixes. (Try counting the number of illegal TV cable hook-ups that spill like spaghetti from the power poles of large Mexican cities; blackouts and fires sometimes result.) Our “charitable” disdain of borders will prove, all too soon, to have assisted in creating a one-world order dominated by an aloof, omnipotent oligarchy and peopled by scurrying ants without moral resolve or civic dedication.
Be sure to reckon at its true, full value the cost of posing your soul in a virtuous light for a loving snapshot. While you’re hugging the portrait in its gilded frame, you may have to step around a few corpses.