John F. Kennedy described himself, in a brilliant phrase, as ‘an idealist without illusions’. That is what is needed now to fight the War on Apathy at home and the War on Terror abroad. So come on, you Conservatives! Man the ideological barricades! ~Maurice Saatchi, The Spectator

JFK also said of himself that he was the Democratic nominee for President who “happened to be the Catholic.”  Not exactly an inspiring example for the ages, or have I confused him with the other JFK?  A better description might have been: “political illusionist without ideas.”  No one did ever die of apathy, but quite a few people died because of JFK’s illusions, or rather delusions. 

Now I am all for chucking out the politics of “the centre,” which is just a way of anointing the policies of the establishment with the holy chrism of moderation and reasonableness (and thus the “McCain-Lieberman Party” or, as it might now be known, the “Torture-War Party” is supposedly the embodiment of “centrist” politics!), and the application of serious ideas in politics would be a remarkable novelty.  It has only occasionally been tried, and usually with fairly bad ideas.  But here are a few problems: there are no idealists who do not suffer from illusions of one kind or another, and ideological barricades are made for, well, ideologues who ought to have nothing to do, properly speaking, with Conservatives or conservatives. 

Once a body of ideas is truncated, chopped up and reprocessed into a regime-justifying, power-seeking, lackeyish propaganda tool called ideology, it is not longer worth talking about or supporting.  The most radical–and idealistic–thing that any of us can do is not to man “ideological barricades,” but to depart from the street-fighting on the barricades between ideological camps and consider philosophical ideas in a spirit of genuine inquiry.  If there is still such a thing as a philosophical conservatism, it has been terribly ill-served by its attachment to a political movement, which requires the philosophers and orators to play the roles of apologists and panegyrists for the movement rather than as lovers of wisdom and truth.  Compromising with “the movement,” they submit themselves to it and sooner or later find themselves either corrupted by it or put on trial.  They are routinely urged to modify and change their views, told to refrain from commenting on certain kinds of things that might induce divisions in the “movement” or nudged towards a bland consensus position that promises an easy path to good connections and patronage but seems to go nowhere near the road less travelled of intellectual integrity.  This is a generic example of the kinds of effects this sort of alliance of idealists and intellectuals with political movements can have.  If we can only too readily recognise contemporary political movements in this description, that should tell us something about the state of those movements and the quality of the ideas they espouse.