I live in a tiny little city. Back when I worked at the Really Big cable news network, I used to joke that if you took the lake out, the whole thing would fit in the newsroom. That’s an exaggeration, of course, one of the whoppers we tell to emphasize something. In this case, the tiny-ness of my little city, which quite frankly, is too small even to be considered a quintessential small southern town.
It does have a couple of the hallmarks of the small southern town. The neighborliness, how everybody’s always up in everybody’s business, how everybody will come to help at the drop of a hat. But it lacks a Main Street, or even a main street, and has very little business to speak of, so the death of downtown never happened since there wasn’t a downtown to die.
We do have that aforementioned lake, this year home to two families of five Canada goslings and one family with a single gosling, a couple duck families, a bunch of turtles, red-winged blackbirds, and rough-winged swallows, two kingfishers, a pair of great blue herons, a green heron, about a million American goldfinches and a pair of barred owls. I apologize if I left anyone out.
The human population is made up of artists and musicians, free spirited free thinkers, people from all walks of life, spiritual identity, genetic haplogroups and just about every orientation — sexual or otherwise — imaginable. We are, on the whole, rather liberal and progressive, and even the conservatives among us are more of the moderate variety we don’t see so much any more on the state or national political stage.
We also have our fair share — or perhaps more than our fair share — of idealists.
There’s nothing wrong with idealism. Idealists are our dreamers, our visionaries, the ones who keep moving us on toward better things whether we want to go or not. These are the folks who create entire worlds in their heads, imagining how things ought to be in a perfect world while many of us can’t even acknowledge things could be different from how they are.
But this isn’t a perfect world, and therein lies a problem for idealists. Sometimes they completely forget that their perfect world isn’t reality, and that sometimes getting from here to there is gonna take more than a couple of quick steps or a presidential executive order. Change happens when everything is ready — not necessarily when we’re ready — and that’s often way later than the idealists think it should.
You may or may not remember the brouhaha back in 1996 when Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, hurriedly passed by a homophobic and terrified Congress after the Hawaiian Supreme Court said the state had a provide a compelling reason to bar same sex marriage and them homosekshuls started getting excited. We queers gave Clinton the same lashing we gave him back in 1993 when he tried and failed to remove the military’s ban on openly gay service members, opting instead for the hideous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that required us to lie.
But as much as it pains me to say it, Clinton was right. It wasn’t what the idealists wanted, but it was what could be. DOMA wasn’t a Constitutional amendment, and therefore could be repealed or, as just happened, struck down by a court in a more tolerant age. And DADT at least slowed the witch hunts that had gone on in the military for decades.
It’s hard, very nearly impossible, for idealists to see the wisdom in incremental steps. They want it all, now. Yesterday even. That’s how we ended up with George W. Bush as president, in fact. That election should never have been close enough to get tossed to the Supreme Court, but the idealists were ticked off at the Democrats and stayed home or voted for Ralph Nader. Six weeks after the inauguration, Bush had destroyed everything Clinton had put in place domestically and in foreign affairs and was well on his way to war in Iraq. We woulda got there, too, in 2001 if it hadn’t been for 9/11 and Bush having to send the troops to Afghanistan.
I’m not talking about this to blame idealists for the mess we’ve been in for the last 13 years. I’m talking about this so we can maybe take a little look at how everything we do has consequences. What might have happened had Bill Clinton signed an executive order in 1993 allowing lesbians and gay men to serve openly in the military? A hypothetical question, I know, but I’ll just bet it would have been far worse than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And what if he hadn’t signed DOMA? It passed with veto-proof margins, y’know.
Some of those same type of situations are happening now, and the idealists are again all up in arms. They are stung in some parts by reactionary elected officials who are quick to pass reactionary legislation against whatever social ill they imagine might be threatening their way of life. On other stages, they rightly see the damage done by drone attacks on civilians, by rampant spying and by bills that only go part way toward the right thing. But if the right thing is just not possible right now, would it be better to do nothing?
We do what we can. And we keep striving for better. Bill Clinton wasn’t our enemy in 1993 or 1996 and Al Gore wasn’t in 2000. But we treated them like they were, and now we try to forget the roles we played back in those days, those days that weren’t so long ago.
We do what we can. Many of my neighbors are idealists. From time to time, it creates discord, anger, polarization. Here in this little tiny city by the lake, with the birds and turtles and honest friendliness and helpfulness, life isn’t always as idyllic as it could be.
But then, that wouldn’t be anything like reality, now would it?