Why Utopia Cannot Exist
Earlier today, I was cleaning out my room when I found an untouched, two month-old (!) edition of The International New York Times. Presumably I had meant to read it on a balmy February night, but – as is obvious at this point – I never got around to doing so. Always eager to discover any and all sorts of timeless epiphanies, I promptly flipped it open to the Op-Ed pages and had a look.
The feature Opinion article (a piece by Salil Shetty, the current Secretary General of Amnesty International) particularly intrigued me. Entitled ‘Unshackle the United Nations’, it discussed the weaknesses of the UN during humanitarian crises, especially in relation to the veto power yielded by the P5 nations. The gist of the piece looks something like this: a) the world is in crisis, b) we know it is in crisis, c) we – and our leaders – could do something about it but d) complicated politics and geopolitical interests always trump the humanitarian good. But most importantly, the piece ends by appealing to the international community to stop sitting on our haunches and realize that what is hindering us is not the end, but rather the means to the end.
I would identify as a pacifist. For a hefty portion of my life, I was also an idealist. As someone who one day wishes to enter the global hothouse of changemaking, I, too, have always been frustrated as our leaders place civilian lives on the back burner simply to abide by the way things – geographic, political and social things – are. And more often than not, how these things are, when projected into the future, look like how these things will be. And frankly, it’s terrifying.
But what I’ve begun thinking about recently is whether or not this trend is inevitable. Are we just being lazy, or is there an actual reason why realpolitik (a system of politics based upon practical rather than moral considerations) cannot be undone?
Previously, I’ve viewed this kind of ‘we-must-protect-our-interests-at-all-costs’ politics as something both cruel and cold. Something so degrading to humanity, it is a surprise that it still pervades our political landscape at all. But thinking about it today, I’ve realized that realpolitik is not completely detached from humanity. Furthermore, that making a decision isn’t as quick as the bang of a gavel. And when you take this into consideration, it becomes increasingly obvious to realize that utopia – a world in which we could reconcile our differences and make decisions based on the sanctity of the human life – cannot exist.
To make the explanation slightly easier to read and write, I’ve decided to elucidate my justification in a list form.
Premise 1) Realpolitik is, beneath its many shapes and forms, an extension of humanity. It is the accumulated consequence of hundreds of years of history, millions of real lives, opinions, upbringings, environments, cultures, lifestyles and values. It is indeed frustrating to watch the US use its veto power on resolutions that remotely threaten the interests of Israel, thereby blocking significant progress on the Israel-Palestinian issue.
But why is this the case? Now, look at the US more closely and you will see huge grassroots support for Zionism bolstered by a widespread pro-Israel sentiment.
Yes, it still sounds super political. Let’s look even closer.
Look at these blocs and you will see communities that form and come together because of their mutual belief in something important to them. Look at these communities and you will see individuals who have grown up believing in Zionism, surrounded by loving people who advocate for Zionism. Look at these individuals and you will see a tapestry of human history that involves their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents… the list goes on. Ultimately, realpolitik seems inhumane because it is a product created way down the production line. But if you make your way backwards, you will see it involves years and years of history that cannot be undone. If the ultimate aim is to make people ‘happy’, by making decisions that directly clash with centuries of belief you would, perhaps, lift the happiness of some but at the expense of others. And when these ‘others’ are the ones who have the resources to support our politicians in the first place, the net benefit is quite tentative to say the least.
It is too easy to look at others and consider their way of thinking ‘inferior’ or ‘wrong’. But we have no right to think this way, because our world is filled with too many permutations and combinations of circumstances that we simply don’t know what it is like to really be in someone else’s shoes. When the scenario also involves human dignity – the feeling people have that their opinions should in no way be ‘trumped’ by another for an arbitrary reason (to them at least) – it’s even harder to break out of the political stalemate.
(Disclaimer: oftentimes, we confuse ignorance with being steadfast in one’s beliefs. I recognize that, in an unfortunately significant portion of cases, the two can be the same. Thus, I cannot claim that it is fully justified to respect the wants of the more privileged at the expense of the lives of others. I am in no way claiming that a stalemate is the correct or right way to be; in fact, I would argue the contrary. I am just stating that one of the biggest reasons why realpolitik seems – or is – irreversible is because of its irrevocable connection with humanity.)
Premise 2) Complete cooperation – especially beyond the civilized, political sphere – is unattainable. Okay, so let’s say we do reach some form of utopia in which all our politicians made a massive, international compromise and did something about it. Great. But is it really?
Now is the time to realize that the movement of our world’s affairs rest not solely on the UN or bodies like the UN. If you think about it, the UN and its counterparts are, in themselves, representations of utopia: they were created as both means and ends to global cooperation, something that we’ve only seen happening for less than a century. Which is pretty spectacular. But our world is not an utopia, hence the reason why bodies like the UN exist. Beyond the general assemblies and neatly designated delegations, there exist other forms of politics that are more sinister: terrorism, for example. We know all too well the devastating consequences terrorism can have on our societal, economic and political well-being. When trying to solve or mitigate these consequences, the only way we can truly be successful is if we somehow reach a two-sided agreement or, at least, a sense of closure.
But history has shown us that reaching this bilateral decision is very, very rare. Not only is it rare, it is also incredibly difficult. And when reaching an agreement is difficult, it is impossible to have complete cooperation in every regard – the kind of cooperation we need to foster sustainable change in our geopolitical landscapes.
Our politicians know this. Perhaps this is why they are always reluctant to let go of the comfortable realm of realpolitik: because no matter what, not everyone will comply.
And why? Well, beyond the normal arguments of clashing ideologies, maintaining superiority and mutual resentment that are often used to explain why the dynamics between our world leaders and terrorist leaders are, well, not so great, I’ve tried to think about it through a more philosophical lens. Not sure if this idea is original (highly doubt it is) but here’s what I think:
Premise 3) We are all islands unto ourselves. I’ve actually touched upon this subject in a previous post on why it is impossible to attain 100% happiness. I’ve also kind of touched upon this subject in premise 1.
All of us are too different. No two of us can ever be the same. We are products of our experiences, which are, in turn, products of what we see, smell, touch, taste, hear, when we experience these sensations and how much we do so. Even when two people share the same cake, they’re not getting the same experience. You cannot eat the same slice of cake and the configuration of your digestive system would also be very different. (Yes, it’s tough.)
For that reason, sometimes we can’t even get along with those whom we resonate with the most. By that logic, most of the time – if not all of the time – we can’t get along with people who are so different from us that the international community deems us as ‘foes’. Such is the relation between a group labeled a ‘terrorist’ group and the government that did the labeling in the first place. Even if the leader of that terrorist group one day decided to wholeheartedly agree with the government at hand, this doesn’t mean his followers would feel the same. Because a terrorist group holds leverage with the fact that they are a cohesive unit, it would take a whole lot of changing minds to actually reach an agreement. And human nature in itself isn’t geared towards making many sacrifices. The hunter-gatherer argument tells us that we always act in our best interests.
So, compounding the facts that a) it is incredibly difficult to change someone’s mind, b) let alone a group, c) actually involve any group, especially an antagonistic one, d) actually agree amongst ourselves and e) unravel the history that exists behind the creation of ourselves, utopia cannot exist.
In the way we know it, at least.
Perhaps we could find a new definition of utopia: not the perfect world, but a world as perfect as it can get in the imperfect world we have. I agree with Salil Shetty in his claim that tackling the problem with the veto power could potentially play a part in this ‘new’ utopia. This new utopia would simply grant us more equality and leverage when talking on an international scale, especially when these problems concern us all.
And they do, indeed, concern us. Perhaps this runs slightly contrary to what I claimed in premise 3, but the fact of the matter is that we’re still irrevocably bound together by what we share in this world. Our environments. Our cultures. Our belief in what we have.
So I’d like to close with the words of John Donne, whose words I niftily borrowed earlier:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.