Beware idealism’s downside

Brian Jones
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Despite its many foibles and foolishness, you’ve got to admire youthful idealism.

Where would we be without it? Too many of us would be Tories, using manipulation and propaganda in place of open discussion and debate.

You’ve got to admire Brigette DePape. The 21-year-old Winnipegger turned her youthful idealism into national fame — or infamy, depending on your point of view. She has even gone on a national tour, of sorts, and was in St. John’s this week for a panel discussion at Memorial University about activism and climate change.

DePape earned her fame in dramatic fashion. Working as a page in the Senate, in June 2011 she held up a sign reading “Stop Harper!” as the governor general read the speech from the throne.

Give her credit — that was one day, at least, when the Senate wasn’t dull.

DePape was fired, of course, as she later said she knew she would be. That’s bona fide idealism: a willingness to take action even though you will suffer personal consequences.

One can quibble, as idealists so often do, over details. Take the phrase “Stop Harper!” Some Canadians pointed out it was an insult to the electorate, since only the previous month they had elected Stephen Harper in a fair and free democratic election. (Note: those arguments were made long before “robo-calling” became common political lingo.)

Others pointed out DePape had a duty, as a Senate page, to obey the rules of that chamber. Of course she did. That’s why she was fired for her actions. She doesn’t seem to be bitter about it, so why should anyone else be?

Here’s the quibble with her sign: it was unilingual. Perhaps the reverse side read, “Arret Harper!” Or maybe DePape reasoned, understandably, that Quebecers — having heavily favoured the ascendant NDP — had already stopped Harper and had no need of her message.

It is unfortunate idealism is so often and so easily coupled into the phrase “naïve idealism.” DePape quickly showed hers, when she told reporters, “We need an Arab Spring in Canada.”

Oh, my dear. Be very, very careful what you wish for.

Looking back

Here is a list of idealists’ concerns over the last couple of generations: economic inequality, corporate power, native rights, the environment, war, animal rights, racism, Palestinian rights, gay rights, access to education.

There are probably more. Latin America no longer makes the list, because most countries there got rid of their generals and are now democratic. The Cold War is off the list because global warming put an end to it.

A main challenge facing idealists is to not be so caught in idealism’s thrall that you refuse to look at an issue from multiple angles.

Overtaken by time

In later years, this can prove to be embarrassing. Many leftists of the 1930s must have regretted their admiration for Joseph Stalin. Many new leftists of the 1960s surely regretted their adulation of Mao Tse-tung.

The sad story of Anna Mae Aquash shows how idealists’ assumptions can sometimes be so wrong.

In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Aquash was a heroine among the idealistic left and student radicals. A native of Nova Scotia, Aquash moved to the U.S. and got involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM).

AIM activists dominated headlines for two months in 1973 when they occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., and had shootouts with the FBI. In 1975, Aquash was found dead on a remote site of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

For years afterward, activists claimed the FBI had murdered her.

Aquash is still in the news.

It turned out she was killed not by the FBI but by AIM members who suspected she was an informer. One of them, a Canadian, this week appealed his conviction.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at

Organizations: FBI, American Indian Movement, The Telegram

Geographic location: Canada, Latin America, Nova Scotia U.S. Wounded Knee Pine Ridge Reservation

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Recent comments

  • John
    March 24, 2012 - 14:37

    I wonder if the left still think Stalin is to be admired.

  • Terry Murphy
    March 23, 2012 - 14:46

    Jeez Brian, you almost made me choke on my morning cereal today. When I read, what you of all people, had to say about 'manipulation and propaganda' in place of open discussion and debate, I had to laugh. But then you of all people should be familiar with propaganda, it is after all what most of your stuff is based on.

    • Mark
      March 23, 2012 - 19:12

      "Idealism" is a trait of the individual, not their political leanings. It is ignorant to conclude idealists are left wing, while realists are right wing. Both camps have their idealists and realists. Take Joe Stalin for example... not a drop of idealist in him. Pure realist. Rather modern conservative in his mindset actually.

  • Herb Morrison
    March 23, 2012 - 14:05

    Any inkling of idealism that we have must be tempered by the reality that we are not ourselves ideal beings nor do we live in an ideal world. Because we ourselves are physical beings, and because the world we live in is a physical world our personal vulnerablity as well as the vulnerability of the world in which we live, just doesn't nurture idealism. If we strive for ideals, and to some extent achieve the ideals we strive for, we do so in spite of ourselves, because we are not by nature ideal.

  • John
    March 23, 2012 - 10:25

    I wonder if the right still think Adolf Hitler is to be admired.