“Changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as ‘socialist’ any proposal to reform exploitative behavior in the marketplace.”
The preceding quote is from a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, wherein Al Gore explains why the public is failing to swallow his environmentalist agenda. It exemplifies an approach toward ideas that dominates mainstream media, humanities departments and politics.
In response to any failed policy or agenda, it’s never the ideas that are examined; instead, some nefarious force is charged with acting to stymie action or dupe the public. Disagreement among people is treated as “those in the know” against powerful forces of hatred and divisiveness, poisoning an ignorant public.
Could it be that there’s another point of view — that advocates of unfettered markets have reasons for why this is proper — which people find more convincing? Could it be that Al Gore is losing an intellectual battle against opponents with better arguments?
Such questions are regarded as inconceivable. After all, they say, the facts speak for themselves – no ideological argument is necessary or possible. Only “extremists,” ideologues and masquerading showmen would resist the kind of “common sense” regulations being proposed.
But facts don’t evaluate themselves. How one interprets the facts, chooses between essentials and non-essentials, integrates them with the rest of one’s knowledge and makes decisions based on them depends on his ideas about the world. This process of integrating facts into an ideology, or philosophy, cannot be escaped. Whether one forms one’s beliefs through an explicit, conscious process or accumulates a mixture of unexamined ideas passively from the culture, everyone develops an ideology.
In fact, the rejection of ideology is itself an ideology — one that prevents its adherents from identifying not only their opponents’ ideologies, but also their own. Al Gore, for instance, denounces labels like “socialist,” while advocating the oxymoronic idea of an “exploitive marketplace” straight out of the socialist manifesto.
Although Al Gore presents himself as merely a champion of science and “sensible” controls, his conclusions and policy proposals fall squarely in the camp of socialist ideology. Likewise, while environmentalism, of which Al Gore is a prime representative, poses as being concerned with “clean energy” and pollution reduction, it is an ideological movement based in Marxism with a particular view of what constitutes a proper political system.
These perspectives are not self-evident truths; they are conclusions based on a chain of thought. Yet the likes of Al Gore do not argue for, nor identify, their ideological beliefs — and when confronted by disagreement, they lash out at their opponents instead of addressing their arguments.
This animosity toward ideological debate was apparent at the recent UW lecture by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In her lecture, Ms. Ali argued that Islam is a political ideology fundamentally opposed to Western liberal democracy and that its system of ideas deserves to be scrutinized. Ironically, it was not her specific characterization of Islam or liberalism that was debated, but the very idea of identifying these systems as standing for something — as having a fundamental nature. The primary criticism by professors and students alike was that she was attaching “labels” to beliefs, painting these systems with a broad brush and ignoring complexities.
Critics did not offer an alternative interpretation of Islam or America; rather, they denounced attempts to identify any essential nature of these political systems. But as Ms. Ali pointed out, both identifying and scrutinizing ideology — especially one’s own — are essential to being an independent, thinking individual.
As a final example, consider the response to the tea party phenomenon. Most mainstream media regarded it as unimportant or a well-funded right-wing propaganda machine sowing the seeds of discontent. Many viewed the activists as being motivated by racism and a hatred of government. This prevailed despite eager activists willing to explain their views on the Constitution, the founding of America and the unjust incursions on their lives by both the left and right.
What mainstream media cannot conceive of is an alternative view of the role of government. Like Al Gore, they lashed out at those with whom they disagreed instead of seeking to understand the movement’s underlying ideas.
We need to stop treating abstract ideas and ideology with disdain, and start identifying and debating the merits of competing ideologies. What basic principles should guide our actions and institutions? It’s time to identify and debate them openly.
Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student studying biological sciences.