Oct 23, 2009

On Ideology

Friday, October 23, 2009 Rota, Spain

Of late, I find that I am increasingly concerned about the degree to which political ideology is dividing us from one another. We all would like a world that works - with justice, a high degree of personal freedom, and a fair distribution of wealth. And yet, from small groups of citizens all the way to the halls of government, our conversations about how to achieve a just world are marked by acrimony and polarization based on our varying ideologies.

Let’s step back a bit and take a look at ideology itself. I would define ideology as a belief system about the nature of political reality. Please read that sentence again before going on.  I assert that reality, as it applies to the world of politics, is chaotic and messy. It is constantly in flux and very hard to capture in words – just like any other part of reality beyond our immediate senses. It is easy and tempting to formulate or embrace beliefs about the nature of reality. We all want to feel that we know what is going on around us. But, from an epistemological standpoint, belief is a rather low order of knowledge.

Being human, we would like to find a way to generalize in such a way to be able to talk about political reality. Here is where we get into trouble. Since we can’t directly perceive the way components in the political sphere interact with one another, we must make generalizations about cause and effect without really being able to verify those causes by direct experience. I have met some younger people who have decided to ignore politics entirely because of the uncertainty (and bad behavior on the part of their elders).

But as citizens, we are called upon from time to time to take actions in the political sphere, at the very least by actively voting. We are forced to choose between candidates or to decide whether or not a particular proposal will move society closer to our ideal. We must make these choices on the basis of far too little information. We read the papers, watch TV, talk to friends and are bombarded by theories about political reality - if we vote for X, it will cause Y to happen. But in reality, it often takes years before the consequences of some political action become apparent.

This is frustrating. It is human to want to understand reality better and paradoxically, the desire to understand can lead us into dependence on ideology – to embrace belief systems about political reality. This is a kind of political religion where we find others who agree with us that something is true although we can’t really see it directly. Political religion has its high priests – authors and commentators who earn a good living making messy reality easier to understand through simplification, generalization, and creating theories of causation. They write books, create slogans, invent formulas for how the world can be saved by rejecting certain political actions, and so forth. The worst part is they don’t limit themselves to suggesting theories on political causation, but move beyond that to suggest that those who believe in “our” particular form of political religion are good and those who don’t are bad. This divides us in a most unhealthy way.

Now, the consumers of this political religion are motivated by the desire to be better citizens and to better understand their world, a really noble motivation that I do not wish to impugn. The alternative to embracing political religion is to be willing to stand in mystery – to accept that we do not know - and yet be constantly attempting to come closer to reality by staying abreast of current events and by studying all kinds of political thought without necessarily believing in any of it. This is difficult to do for most of us. A truly independent thinker will seem a dullard in a debate with an ideologist because the ideologist has developed a system of thinking about his topic and has defended it against all perceived alternative ways of thinking. The independent thinker may in fact have a better grasp of reality, but will not be able to assert it with the force and conviction of the ideologist.

I assert that it is healthy, in a topic as vague as political reality, to be willing to hold a high level of self-doubt. I have always recognized a genuine intellect, not by the force of its convictions, but by the quality of the questions it raises. By seeing the quality of the questions with which the intellect grapples, I get a sense of the breadth of the intellect’s perception – how wide is the horizon for that individual? Having a broad view of reality usually indicates a person’s dedication to learning and grappling with questions without having to draw immediate conclusions. The ideologist is unable to resist the impulse to draw conclusions and in so doing terminates the learning process. I assert that the ideologist is more concerned with having the answers and being right about them than understanding reality. Let me hasten to assure that when I discuss Ideology, I am not discussing Ethics. Folks on different sides of an ideological position will often be coming from the same ethical basis - i.e. we all value a strong family. But the political question of how to create an environment for healthy families can result in wildly different answers, depending on the ideology applied (political belief systems).

Now I suspect that most of my readers, having gotten this far, are by now thoroughly insulted, disgusted, or angry. Politics is a hot topic today and few of us are immune to the heat. So to better illustrate what I am talking about; let’s move to a parallel universe to try to get away from the heat. That universe is economics, specifically the stock market, since that is one place where you can get measurable results from your ability to understand economic reality.

Now the economy is every bit as chaotic and messy as politics. Listening to economists talk, it is pretty clear that they don’t have it all figured out. But let’s limit ourselves to the stock market because there we can get results from our belief systems or lack thereof.

I invest in the market and so every day I read web pages about investing while checking the status of the markets. I find plenty of paid commentators who are eager to explain the complicated workings of the market and make it understandable to my less sophisticated mind. The problem is that, on any given day I can find a commentator who will tell me that the market is going up and another commentator who will tell me that the market is going down. These folks get paid to offer their opinions, but which of them do I follow? Well, some investors find their favorites, I suppose. And then of course, there are lots of theories about how to play the market – market religions we might say. For example, there are those who believe in technical analysis and make all their decisions based on the movements of the daily charts.

Now, in the past few years, I have had some success in the market. I’m not a bold investor, but have enjoyed some nice returns when the market was rising. Of course, anyone can make money when the market is rising. You can apply the goofiest theories around and still make money. The real test comes just before a market crash. As it turns out, I have managed to sell everything just before all the major market downturns. I watched my friends lose big chunks of their net worth during the dot-com debacle. I couldn’t advise them to sell, because I couldn’t articulate exactly why I had decided to sell. To call it a hunch would be to undervalue the process. The fact is that I had been reading and following the markets closely as well as following current events. I wasn’t necessarily believing the commentators, but I was listening to all of them and making my own decisions about the way the market would go. And finally, my gut told me it was time to sell.

Now the reason I point this out is simply to try to use an example of relating to reality without depending on ideology. You can’t aggressively assert why you are acting, but somehow your brain has taken input from many sources and has synthesized a “hunch”.

It is the same in the domain of politics. It is hard to understand political reality with the clarity that one understands the physical reality that is in front of us. When we are surrounded with people who believe in some kind of political religion, it is hard to stand apart and to be willing to not know the answers. But, I assert that we are better served and our nation is better served for us to do exactly that.

In a future essay, I propose to list what I perceive as the burning questions of our day and invite others to add to the list. From this, we might be able to find the basis for some stimulating conversations.