Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

Space the Nation: Dissing utopia

Contributed by
Jan 8, 2019

Right-wing activists have come up with a lot of ways to dismiss the country’s youngest female member of Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’ve mocked her wardrobe and her speech patterns, they’ve deemed her unserious and uninformed. In other words, they’ve treated her like social conservatives treat women in general.

More moderate Republicans have gotten their licks in as well, and in these descriptions there’s a curious overlap between those who froth at the mouth and those who merely stroke their chins: They consistently describe (and dismiss) Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas as utopian, as though universal healthcare and free-to-cheap public college tuition were as preposterous as a zero-hour workday and not, you know, the norm across most of the industrialized world. When Ocasio-Cortez hit the campaign trail with the vision of “a modern, moral, and wealthy society for all people in the United States,” the conservative Weekly Standard sneered that it was a “utopia with no particular precedent” — as if that were a bad thing.

Ocasio-Cortez is a science fiction fan — Star Trek: Voyager, in particular — and one presumes that if she was really interested in promoting a fantastical, unprecedented utopia, she’d start with faster-than-light travel and food replicators and then work her way down from there.

We shouldn’t be surprised by conservatives rejecting a utopian future, of course. Conservatives conserve. In the more colorful image adopted by William F. Buckley, a conservative “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Conservative visions are backward-looking, albeit toward a version of history as drenched in magical thinking as any H.G. Wells fantasy.

Trump himself continues to embroider on a fictive America of yesteryear, a Christmas-obsessed wonderland without illegal immigrants or drug crisis, where black Americans were better off than they are today and the country, in general, was “winning” — a streak that his presidency was supposed to revive: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.”

Does that count as forward-looking? Perhaps there is a utopian strain to the modern conservative imagination — especially if we allow that the word doesn’t necessarily have to mean “optimistic” … what if it just indicates thoughtless presumption? By that definition, is there anything more utopian than believing you could shut down the federal government and everything would just … be okay? What about blithely privileging short-term fossil-fuel company profits over addressing climate change because you think you know better than scientists? Sounds very utopian to me! Or consider the assumption that flooding a country with guns will somehow make it more safe? Show me the way to that utopia!

So Trumpian conservatives are more attracted to utopias than they'd have you believe -- it's just that their utopias don't imagine a future free of want or pain, they imagine a present free of consequences.

The use of “utopian” as a dismissal isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Even Thomas More, the 16th-century philosopher whose eponymous novel gave us the word itself, didn’t think he was being realistic. Though we’ve come to think of “utopias” as unattainable paradises, More’s neologism only emphasized the unattainable part, smashing together the words for “no” (u) and “place” (topia). As for writing off ideas because they are too fanciful to work in the here and now? That rhetorical technique reaches back almost two millennia prior to More; Diogenes was trolling Plato about his twee notion of abstracted “Forms” three centuries before the birth of Christ. Diogenes’ urge to transmute philosophy to real-world, lived principles is how we get the word “cynic,” actually, though “cynic” isn’t as oppositional to utopias as you’d think.

Originally, “cynic” didn’t mean you were bitterly skeptical, it just meant you distrusted social conventions. The Greek cynics rejected money, power, sex, and fame; they owned no property and constantly challenged social norms. They thought true freedom lay in living in accordance with nature. They detached from the material goods but relished evangelizing their worldview. They were the Classical period’s answer to CrossFit devotees and newly converted vegans: people who have found freedom in giving up some comfort and now want to convince you to do the same.

Which means there’s a big difference between Diogenes’ ornery earthiness and critics’ casual derision of Ocasio-Cortez proposals — not just because Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion of a 70 percent marginal tax rate seems a lot more classically “cynical” than free-marketers' assurances about trickle-down economics.

Her critics aren’t just arguing against having to part with individual wealth, they’re arguing against change; they’re not just dismissing utopia, they’re rejecting the future itself.

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