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 Fantasy and Imagination 

July 25, 2006 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, November 29, 1994]
paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationWhy has liberalism failed? I think the reason is that liberalism stands for fantasy in politics, whereas conservatism stands for imagination. In the short run, fantasy prevails; but imagination will have the last word.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationWe usually confuse imagination with fantasy. Today's column is "Fantasy and Imagination" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.But this is a mistake. The two things are nearly opposites; or rather they are related to each other as youth is related to adulthood.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationA daydream is fantasy, a flight from reality, a wishful and superficial series of images; just as socialism is a fantasy, a dream of a world divorced from nature. It is easy to fantasize a world in which all men are brothers and share their possessions unselfishly; it is more difficult to explain why such a world can never be. Shallow people call the pursuit of such fantasies “idealism.”

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationUnlike fantasy, real imagination explores reality and possibility. You can’t separate it from the intellect. It takes imagination to see the world as it is, to understand people as they are, to grasp the remote implications of ideas, to foresee the results of various courses of action, to perceive abstract relations, to find analogies, to view a single truth from many angles, to sort out the essential from the inessential.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationThe Iliad and King Lear tell stories with little or no basis in what we call fact; but they are works of imagination, not fantasy. They have a powerful internal logic that fantasy lacks. That is why we speak of their “imaginative truth” (not “fantastic truth”).

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationFantasy is bold and passionate; imagination is more cautionary and objective. The youth who wants to rush headlong into a project may be inspired by a dream; but his father, who cautions him against it out of his own experience, may actually be more imaginative, in the sense of being more capable of imagining the real outcome. Imagination is a mode of seeing and knowing; fantasy is usually blind.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationFantasy has its place, and the youth may be right when his father is wrong. We need our dreams, provided we remember that they are, after all, only dreams. And of course there is such a thing as excessive caution. Besides, to idealize the past, as conservatives sometimes do, is only another kind of fantasy. But as a general matter experience enriches the imagination, and we disregard it at our peril.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and Imagination“I dream of things as they never were, and ask, Why not?” said Bernard Shaw, a socialist. We can now see that the failure of socialism was precisely a failure of imagination, because it was a triumph of fantasy. The socialists failed to imagine everything that actually happened when their scheme was imposed on intractable reality.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationIt was the realists — preeminently a few prophetic men like Ludwig von Mises — who had the imagination to know in advance why socialism would fail. They were even accused of cynicism for rejecting the fantasy. In a supreme delusion, fantasy became a moral test which any sane man was bound to flunk.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationYou might even say that in our time fantasy has managed to keep imagination on the defensive. In democratic politics, fantasy always has a natural advantage, because everyone can fantasize but few can imagine. The fallacy is fun; the refutation is heavy lifting. The world is perpetually easier to seduce than to persuade.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationLiberalism, our watered-down piecemeal version of socialism, still relies on a rhetoric of fantasy — and self-righteous fantasy at that. The liberal proposes his dream of, say, national health care; and then he reviles as “inhumane” and “lacking compassion” those who assume the burden of imagining the real consequences.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationWhen, amid the ruins, one side says to the other, “I told you so,” that’s imagination rebuking fantasy. Using the imagination can be a hard and thankless task. And conservatives often fail in imagination when it is most needed. Sometimes they have nothing more than the stubborn intuition that the liberal fantasy is overlooking something they can’t specify. But even then they are usually right.

paragraph indent for Fantasy and ImaginationBut fantasizing is always easy — fatally easy. The world is often short on foresight, but it never runs out of dreams. We should enjoy our dreams without being tyrannized by them.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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