By Denise Heap
Dr. Armin Mruck of Towson University recently observed that the stories of those who resisted Hitler during the Shoah remind us of the importance of being idealistic. “I don’t think there’s too many idealistic people in our environment. And it wasn’t just these students [White Rose], there were other resistance groups as well who thought it was worthwhile to put your life on the line. That’s not very popular these days.”
Mruck’s statement generated a fascinating and ongoing debate: What is the proper balance between idealism and realism when one is trying to right a wrong?
This is hardly a new debate. In the 1960s as global student protests raged against the war in Vietnam, Vincent Probst (son of Christoph Probst) and Christian Petry penned a fervent appeal to their generation not to make the same mistakes the White Rose had made, that is, not to be so steeped in idealism that they could not effect real change. That call to action earned them Inge Scholl’s vitriol. Instead of comprehending their message, she perceived it as a slam against the White Rose (defined at the time as her siblings).
But Probst and Petry were right. Change in the 1960s did not come about because people wrote leaflets. Change came about because hundreds of thousands of students and “grown-ups” were willing to march on Washington, because legislators passed laws ending legal racial discrimination, because brave men and women like Abraham Joshua Heschel walked side by side with those whom our society marginalized. Change also came about (and this is harder to wrap one’s head around) because of non-violent – and violent – protest.
In no way does this short essay mean to legitimize violent protest. Rationally, we must adhere to the notion that an eye for an eye makes both of us blind, that burning buildings and bombing army recruiting offices is both illegal and morally wrong. What do we gain from the murder of an innocent, simply to make a political statement?
Although our rational mind tells us this (and it is right), historically we must analyze the great shifts in world history and acknowledge that for better or worse, violent protest often plays a significant role in bringing about lasting change. From the American and French Revolutions, to the military force required to end Hitler’s regime, to the violence that has accompanied the Arab Spring: We cannot escape the role of violence in informed dissent and civil disobedience.
Yet we also see that violence for the sake of violence cannot change things for the better. The riots that followed in the wake of the acquittals in the Rodney King case (April 1992) represented a legitimate protest of a perceived injustice. But those riots were only a gut-wrenching expression of anger, with no focus, no visible intent to change something. Nothing changed for the better. If anything, the lives of the very community that had suffered injustice was harmed by the destruction of property.
Back to the original question: What is the proper balance between idealism and realism when one is trying to right a wrong?
In a perfect world, I believe that change could and should come when thinkers and dreamers (idealists) see an injustice and join with doers (realists) to ‘right the ship’ through legal channels: Passing and enforcing laws that protect everyone in their society, overturning laws that marginalize citizens, opening doors to opportunity for all. But we live in an imperfect world, when too often power rests in the hands of those who use power to protect self-interest, not to work on behalf of the good of the whole.
The only thing that seems clear to me: Real change cannot happen until idealists and dreamers join hands with realists and pragmatists. We need Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. We need Gandhi’s non-violent protests and Indian politicians negotiating with the British. We need Abraham Lincoln’s clear-eyed eloquence defining the ideals of a united America and Abraham Lincoln’s focused determination to make it happen. We need FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and FDR’s decisive action to prevent disaster. We need the beauty of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and the messiness of LBJ’s political maneuvering.
We need the idealism of compassion and we need concrete action.
Talk about this here. What do you think? Do you know of local examples where idealism and realism have joined hands to change your community? Do you have other insights on this topic?