End of an Era (Im yirtzeh)

In 2005 Russell Jacoby wrote a short (149 pages, not including footnotes) book about utopians and utopias called Picture Imperfect. Not a best of 08 (not of ’08 at all) – on the day of the inauguration, it is perhaps a good moment to offer to you, our readers, an invitation to read this brief book.

In the introduction,there are two points to pick up on. In this day, most utopians (he says) are either thought of as foolish dreamers or totalitarians in disguise (i.e. you bad bad communists! naughty, naughty! or the like). Jacoby points out that the accusation of utopians as totalitarians is unfair and inaccurate, but I’m actually (unlike Jacoby) interested in the idea that utopians are fools. Jacoby says (p. xiii-xiv) that perhaps it is a lack in modern imagination that plagues us, draining the life from visions of what could be. He describes two types of utopians – “blueprint” and “iconoclastic” and suggests that blueprint utopians are misguided because their visions grow outdated and even ridiculous (he offers a few examples of such stale visions). He cites (xvii) Paul Celan citing another book which paraphrases the Talmud that whoever pronounces the Holy Name loses his share in the world-to-come – and suggests that utopia is like this – we need to have the imagination to break the status quo, but not hem ourselves with details.
Butif anything, this year’s election shows the reverse, that vision takes an object. Atthis moment, what we need is not to abandon specifics, but to the contrary, to be willing to be bold about them, to dream big – but with specificity- to implement visions that are of real people, living in real societies, acting together to create the new, whether that is new technology implemented for solutions, or people coming together to work towards goals that yes – perhaps we can be said to have abandoned too soon- ends that we can achieve, like universal health care, and dismantling the abysmal and dangerous surveillance state, the violations of our civil liberties (well, just to start with, say). We must insist upon not just vision – as if there can be vision if it so lacks connection to the world we live in that it floats away like mist, content to remain a dream of maybe. we must insist on depth, breadth, height and not stint on detail. To say that we shouldn’t invest in details, is to subtly admit that we can’t really achieve our dreams.

This is a betrayal of (in Jacoby’s words) “the Jews [the utopians] mainly were.” On this day before a new era, what we pray for is a new era, a courage of convictions, of change and not a settling for the hopelessly underwhelming pragmatic compromise. We have reached for a dream that encompasses more, for everyone – in other words – a utopia. Obama has stirred great hopes not only in the USA, but around the world, and hope has great power to change us all. He is only a human, and will surely not bring the moshiach. I, of course, believe with emunah shlemah that moshiach will come tomorrow, but certainly not because of one election and not because of one man, a man who has an enormous amount of thankless work ahead of him. A man who will certainly fail at many things, and we should try not to judge him too harshly for being just a human like us. but despite all that, he is also a man who now has the opportunity to bring great change, if he will only be strong and of courage enough not to settle. Not to let reaching out turn into compromise -in the sense of not doing what must be done, but only what can be done.

And so, let us say good bye – I hope- to the era of narrowing, and let us come forth, and continue to go forth into a new land where we might just achieve something bigger than we thought possible, before we realized that we could do it. And yes, we did it , and we can do it again.

One Response to “End of an Era (Im yirtzeh)”

  1. I’m impressed that you still feel so optimistic. I had been hoping for an uplifting inaugural speech, but heard, instead, a hodge-podge of a little something to please everyone, with none of the somethings of any significant substance (and I tend to shudder whenever any politician uses the words “difficult choices,” which tends to be newspeak for “I don’t have the guts to take on…” — fill in the blank).


    miri · January 21st, 2009 at 2:51 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik