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The Age of Ideology

The Twentieth Century has been declared the “Age of Ideology,” apparently to distinguish it from prior centuries, especially the nineteenth, when rationality, raison d’ etat, balance of power, “white man’s burden,” geopolitics, evolution, industry, hierarchy, monarchy, stability, “cabinet diplomacy,” “national interest,” etc. were governing factors of common life. By contrast, the last century was governed by a set of “isms,” Communism, Fascism, Liberalism, that held sway and dominated the evolution of mankind until now (maybe).

Yet, these concepts, “isms” all, contributed to what many consider the worst age in humanity: two world wars, a Cold War and a spiraling excess of violence, nationhood and deprivation that made earlier times seem tame and parochial. The Second World War alone, against Fascism and Militarism, took an estimated 75 million lives and ended abruptly with atomic blasts that murdered over a hundred thousand civilians in seconds. The Cold War, Communism versus Liberalism, saw tens of thousands of such bombs stockpiled within a global contest between “superpowers” for world supremacy.

In previous centuries, Europe controlled the world. Now there are almost 200 countries competing, most with their own version of some “ism,” while global anarchy has replaced a rational “balance,” and a semi-controlled “community” of interests has been replaced by endless chaos. The “War on Terror,” begun in 2001, is now eighteen years old, a time that exceeds the total combat-years of the American military from the Revolution through the Korean War. In the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries there was a “Hundred Years War” (actually 116) but it was both intermittent and between only England and France. Casualties, also, were limited and contained (arrows, not airplanes).

While the last century is history, the notion that ideology is over is, at best, suspect. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Castro are all gone, true, but “isms” still abound. An “ism,” briefly, takes an innocent noun and turns it into a mass-movement, a comprehensive worldview that allows no interference, hesitation, qualification, or even explanation. As opposed to “intellectual,” quiet, patient, tentative, inquiring, relatively non-judgmental, ideology is emotional, fiery, accusatory, judgmental, and often violent.

Sex, race, nation are, by themselves, benign and innocent, nouns that describe different kinds of people. In theology, God created them. In ideology, they becomes “isms,” created by people themselves and applied against each other. “Nationalism” was the ideology of the “Westphalian” state system, “proletariat” was the ideology of Communism (“Marxism”), “Aryan” of Nazism and “democracy” of Liberalism. Their heyday was the Twentieth Century, but they have replacements in the new century.

Nationalism and Patriotism are in “holding patterns,” at war with the influx of personalist ideologies based upon gender (“sexism”) and ethnicity (“racism”). Both of these personify most of humanity, in any case, and they are posited as the “wave of the future” (“progressive”) against “tradition.” Thus, we have President Trump and MAGA in a cultural war against ideology, racism, and sexism. The global Cold War is now replaced by the new American “Civil Cold War,” a war without the military, but a war nonetheless.

The stakes, as before, are defined in characteristic apocalyptical ways. Whole new meanings are being attributed to human conduct and outcome. History is being re-written or simply erased. Stalin did this in Russia by destroying old art, books, and memories of the Czarist past. Similarly, vestiges of the past are being torn down in the U.S., names are being changed to suit new ideologies, and definitions of any and all reminders of what was once part of a shared life is now defined as “institutional” vice. To remove the vice, remove the institutions first.

Examples abound. Washington and Lee High School in Virginia is now Washington and Liberty; hundreds of street names and statues have been removed with new names and new definitions of civil acceptance. The New York Times, arguably our leading newspaper, has begun “Project 1619,” to “reframe” America’s birthdate to August 20, 1619, the date of the arrival of the first slave ship (alleged). That proposition was actually promoted in a recent Democratic primary debate, with that day to replace July 4, 1776. A prominent columnist in the Washington Post recently advised that we judge the Founding Fathers by their acceptance of slavery against any political or cultural virtues they may have brought forth. Thus, the country that brought liberty into the modern world will henceforth be defined by an institution that was both timeless and universal throughout history. Rather than being unique, America should now be regarded as both reprobate and “deplorable.”

This is a tiny sample but, characteristically, is only the beginning. Ideologies are comprehensive and lack definition or conclusion. From an ideological perspective, the answer to the question “what is the lasting effect of the American Revolution?” is “it’s too soon to tell.” Race and gender are now ideologies, defined through slavery, “white privilege” and men as primal “predators.”

The key dictionary definition of “ideology” is that it “may or not may” be factual and that it is not “epistemic.” Thus, ideologues pose “analytical” or “historic” pretensions, but this masks deeper and hidden designs. Americans who challenge traditional values for alleged altruistic explorations are, realistically, “revolutionaries” themselves, seeking substantive transformation. When The New York Times claims that it seeks only the “unvarnished truth” about slavery and America, it actually behaves as an agent of societal change, history as enemy. Innocent inquiry hides aggressive and ambitious agendas.

But for most, it doesn’t even matter. There was never a “proletariat” revolution in history, but millions of people and many countries still call themselves “Marxist.” Germany could never control the world, but Hitler took them to war under that pretension. Democracy will not fit everywhere, but that didn’t stop Woodrow Wilson and “Wilsonians” since him, including “nation-building” nearly everywhere.

In 1951, the “longshoreman-philosopher” Eric Hoffer wrote The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. His many conclusions are appropriate, for example: “A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunication.”

Half-a-century later, we see that his message has still to reach the American people and the “elites” who continue to pledge the age-old ideological slogan, “we tear down to build up.”

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”