Tag Archives: Liberty

Ideas are bulletproof

And the diminution of ideologues

after a hail of gunfire doesn’t stop V

Creedy: Die! Die! Why won’t you die?… Why won’t you die?
V: Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.

—Taken from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta

***

I was watching a favorite evening news/commentary program this week, when one of the most opinionated and partisan hosts on television denied the accusation of being an ideologue. It got me thinking….

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know what the term ideologue means. It occurred to me that its root must be “idea”—a word with innocuous or even positive connotation—and yet my sense is that ideologue is most often used in a pejorative context. I’ve never heard anyone claim to be one, but have heard people deny it.

A William Safire article confirmed my hunch as it recounts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation in 1847 that ideologue was “a word of contempt often in his mouth.” Safire claims the term ideologue is synonymous with “dogmatic”, “doctrinarian” and just short of “zealot”—labels virtually nobody wants ascribed to them. In 1957, the critic Clifton Felton summed it up: “An ideologue may be defined as a mad intellectual. He is not interested in ideas, but—almost the exact contrary—in one idea” (Language: The Evolution of the Ideologue, New York Times, 13 November 2005).

Safire goes on to suggest the term idealist may be construed more positively than ideologue, the former connoting a “high-minded, visionary, if somewhat impractical”—idealist coming from the root ideal, versus ideologue coming from the root idea…a “model of perfection” instead of “a concept” (ibid). Though I’m sure his history is correct, I don’t believe there’s much of a distinction in today’s town square—I think both labels are used to diminish.

It was not always so:

Before the French Revolution, the philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac took an empiricist idea from John Locke that knowledge came from experience and sensations and not, as the rationalists believed, from innate ideas. Condillac’s disciple, Destutt de Tracy, was known as an idéologiste espousing idéologie after the Revolution (as quote by Safire).

So while ideologue may have originally been a label of esteem—noting the value ascribed to knowledge from experience in place of innate ideas—this would eventually reverse. Today, the most feared individual in the public square is the one who believes in innate ideas—the ideologue.

(Chorus gasps as villain enters!)

The hero of this production (life’s sociopolitical drama) is of course the free-thinking, moderate pragmatist (also very handsome), who does not kowtow to these innate ideas. Innate ideas are a collar that the hero throws off—so he can move the lines where our modern sensibilities suggest they belong, rather than letting it be determined by some archaic and esoteric idea. He is able to take inventory of what the world needs now (love, sweet love) and thus make recommendations on how to proceed. He offers hope for what we can achieve.

The hero’s idea is that an ever-evolving humanity should let human history inform its future goals and aspirations—the way we govern and set up our societies. We can correct so much of what we’ve gotten wrong.

Many of today’s heroes, for example, believe religion was the worst construct ever (while often protecting votes by paying lip service to its value). Sure religions filled a need for ancient people (the logic goes)—helping them construct an understanding of the world and maybe giving them a basis on which to organize communities and care for the disenfranchised. But look at all the war and death they have brought—hatred between nations and peoples. Plus, now we’re sophisticated enough to know they’re mystical and nice, but none can actually be true—certainly not any more than another. Clearly, any new society would want to exclude them; particulay those that make a unique claim to truth.

This type of analysis continues through all aspects of society and culture, driven both by the hero and his focus groups. For example, in our generation advanced Western states have often concluded that religion, nationalism and personal charity should be diminished. State run programs and multinationalism should replace them. The list goes on.

So with the very idea of innate ideas rejected, we move the line to a place where it suits us.

The hero’s new idea simply creates a new ideology—a new set of truths; it’s called relativism. We believe it’s freeing but we’re really just escaping from innate truths, only to bind ourselves with constructed truths. Most often, we’re trading ideas for the hope of desired results (see here); and assuming the means will justify the ends. As those desired results change, so moves the new ideology. So moves the line.

Right now, the prevailing wisdom of Western civilation is that a man should be able to do whatever makes him happy—that no one should impose his ideas on another.

I often wonder how this ideology works, because it seems to create some very difficult conundrums.

What happens when your happiness start to infringe on mine? What happens when a behavior starts to compromise social order? What happens if I still love my religion now that we’ve decided that the new order will exclude it? What if my nationalistic pride comes off as arrogance in the new (superior?) multinational world order?

And assuming we can answer these questions and implement the plan, will we like all the consequences?

At the state level, in the most constructive cases, the result of rejecting innate ideas tends to take the form of social engineering. This is the ultimate reversion to the mean, where focus groups determine allocation of resources, values, standards and laws. It strangles outliers with its fraternal embrace—saying: “Believe anything you want, except the existence innate ideas—believe what you will, as long as it maintains no claim to being uniquely correct”. If you make an absolute truth claim, you will be labeled an ideologue—and you will be demonized.

In the more tragic cases, it has resulted in oppressive fascism; but in reality only a fine line separates the two. Personal liberty and freedom diminish in both, and it’s a short jump to fascism once the will of the people is softened by its mild despot (a.k.a. The State).

Neither is a result I think we want.

But even at the moral level, I’m not sure we really accept the natural conclusions of relativism. If Nietzsche was correct in his claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations”, we are left to ponder how we can defend an Idea that we know in our hearts is right and how we can reject behavior that we know in our hearts is wrong (see Are all truth’s equal?).

On what grounds will we defend the value of human life? Many in history have drawn a line that allows for genocide to achieve some “greater end”.

How will we defend the right to personal liberty? Today, Iranians peacefully protesting a rigged election are being killed in the streets.

And on what basis can we condemn the mass murders and rapes of Darfurian civilians or the Iranian regime’s unwillingness to recognize the voice of its people?

These Sovereigns have drawn their lines as we have drawn our own. In the absence of innate ideas, I would suggest all we can do is advance our own interests. Who cares what happens to them?

…But then again, I’m an ideologue.

I understand that scares people, and admittedly not all ideologues are Good. It all depends on what that one idea is.

My idea is a Man.

He started an upside-down, inside-out Kingdom where glory comes only through service (see here). A Man who lived this out by dying to win his great victory—a victory that demonstrated the value of human life and the dignity of each person (see here). And it guaranteed the ultimate restoration and Shalom of this fallen world (see here).

Consequently, I believe what we do on earth matters, both in relation to each other and in relation to the created world. I believe in human dignity, the right to personal liberty and the obligation to defend the defenseless, to enfranchise the disenfranchised (see here). And I believe that we are not granted the privilege of ignoring any of the above in the interest of pursuing other personal or national interests.

I’m interested in lots of ideas, contrary to what Mr. Felton might have suspected, but I will not forsake the above for any other. No end is greater than what is required by this Idea.

***

By the way, I think John Locke was right, at least halfway. We should have a worldview that is informed by experience and sensation. Truth should not only be right, it should feel right (we know this in our hearts)—it should be consistent with what we see around us (see also here, here and here). But his argument does not offer logic that allows us to reject the notion of innate truth.

We’re left to ask, what if there are some ideas that are innate?

True, many are the claims of innate truth; and they are different in nature. But shouldn’t we at least understand what those claims are before rejecting even the possibility? I can tell you this; they wouldn’t go away just because we thought them inconvenient. They wouldn’t die just because we wanted them to. Ideas are bulletproof and innate ideas are eternal. An idea can still change the world.

***

Evey Hammond: Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot… But what of the man? I know his name was Guy Fawkes and I know, in 1605, he attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. But who was he really? What was he like? We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed first hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them… but you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it… ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love… And it is not an idea that I miss, it is a man… A man that made me remember the Fifth of November. A man that I will never forget.

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore.


As a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true. Common men have less brains, but more sense.

—William T. Stace

WALL-E and the Welfare State

Did you see Pixar’s animated movie Wall-e?

It’s a cute story about Wall-e the robot, the last Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth Class) still working to clean up the planet—hundreds of years after humankind had destroyed it. Wall-e is the little robot who could; though all the other load lifters had long since broken down, he ‘awakened’ each morning with only his pet cockroach for company and spent the day dutifully cleaning.

The humans, meanwhile, have all gone to live on a giant spaceship called the Axiom—waiting for the day they can return to a cleaned-up and inhabitable earth. Axiom is like a cruise ship on steroids—all your needs catered to and limitless leisurely activities to fill your days. It’s an endless holiday for the human race while they float through the heavens with no responsibilities.

As you might imagine, this new environment did nothing to abate the rampant consumerism, laziness and lack of personal responsibility that caused the earth’s destruction. In fact, humans had become utterly dependent on BuyNLarge (the company that runs the ship) to meet all their needs. On the surface it was working out okay, but the cost of that dependence was pervasive obesity and physical inability. No one could walk, so they cruised around on hover crafts going from one leisurely activity to the next … and in the end, they had no choice but to allow BuyNLarge to address their every need.

Lest you accuse me of ignoring the central storyline of Wall-e to suit my purposes, I should tell you a sleek new robot model is sent to earth as a scout. Wall-e falls in love with Eve and together they endeavor to make it known that the earth may indeed have become hospitable to life once again—an unwelcome message to those in power on Axiom. The romantic drama plays out from there; I will avoid spoiling the ending.

I very much enjoyed the film but as I left the theater I couldn’t get over the image of humanity it portrayed: universally obese, all with the same stupid look on their fat faces and unable to get up from the chairs they sat in as they were fed and clothed by the ship that carried them.

It’s an image of an advanced welfare state and in many ways, I think our post-modern infatuation with fairness and/or substantive equality (i.e. equal results) puts America on a path that leads down this familiar road.

***

Fairness is a very popular idea these days. It’s a very tricky word.

William Gairdner published a review of Alan Wolfe’s new book, Liberalism, in Rutgers University’s The New Criterion (Wolfe in Sheep’s Clothing, March 2009, p 4). Wolfe, in defending social engineering (and admittedly I did not read his book but am using Gairdner’s review as my source) as an essential component of new liberalism makes the claim that “the welfare state is an institutionalization of the moral idea of empathy.”

But isn’t empathy here really just another word for fairness? I think Wolfe’s idea is that the forces of liberty have resulted in outcome gaps between groups of people so onerous that the state must remedy them through social engineering. It’s really institutionalized “fairness” we’re after.

The problem, as Gairdner points out, is that we’re playing a zero-sum game. Liberty and fairness (which he calls ‘equality’, used to mean guaranteeing more equal outcomes) tend to move opposite one another. Said another way, as a state endeavors to increase fairness to one, it diminishes the liberties of another.

So the question starts to become something more like, fairness to whom? And this only raises another set of questions starting with, who should decide what’s fair? Gairdner points out the absurdity of social engineering in these terms: “there is a plain and simple—very simple—and quite contradictory, equation: government direction (that is, coercion) will make you free”.

State-sponsored programs are redistributive in their very essence and undermine individual liberty. The money that allows them to exist must come either from a redistribution from the more-wealthy to the less wealthy (i.e. taxes) or from future generations to the current generation (i.e. deficits).

Taxes are necessary and will be redistributive in almost any case, but not necessarily for the sake of being redistributive. In other words, it would be difficult to imagine a system where the rich didn’t pay more than their pro-rata share for government services, hence subsidizing the poor—for a state to meets its basic budgetary needs. But it is something else entirely to impose punitive taxes on the rich simply for the sake of leveling the results.

That’s the fairness that modern liberal doctrine seems to propagate. Equal outcomes. It comes in the form of arguments like: “It’s a God-given right to own a home”. Since when? My reading of the Bible certainly does not support that thesis.  Jesus himself didn’t own a home!  I don’t own a home

Such policies encroach on the liberties that America is supposed to represent.

***

One of the perverse consequences of the state taking on the role of the Great Equalizer is that Charity (empathy) itself starts to become the purview of government rather than people. I would suggest the hope for meaningful empathy ultimately diminishes to the extent we ask the government to be its executor. Empathy is better administered in our schools, places of work and communities, in our churches and synagogues—in our lives. The cold (re)distribution of government rations does nothing to humanize either those who give or those who receive. It’s dehumanizing to both, and discouraging to the giver.

But loss of empathy is only a symptom of the most serious consequences of the welfare state—loss of personal responsibility. When we can get neither “too high” (because the state takes from us at some level they define) or too low (because the state gives to us), we begin to believe that what we do doesn’t matter. When no matter how hard we work we end up in the same place, the great downward lurch can begin. Those who were once very productive will realize at the margin it’s useless, and there starts to be less to go around. That’s how humans ends up obese on hovercrafts–unable to stand and defend themselves—just living off BuyNLarge and feeding the behemoth’s (read: the state’s) power.

A state that tells its people “Yes we can” but means, “No, I don’t believe you can, but I’ll start a program to bail you out” is a state on the decline. It will take away its people’s liberty as well as their dignity. For who, in the end of their lives, does not want to look back and see that they accomplished something? Who doesn’t want to believe that they worked hard and succeeded, maybe even provided for loved ones?

It should still be our right to work hard and receive the benefits of that work—or give them away in empathy as we see fit—and in the end, look back and feel good about what we have done and the decisions we have made. It should still be our right to make decisions for ourselves even if they are bad ones.

I believe God will hold us accountable individually for our lives.

***

The misplaced focus on fairness as equality of outcome should be redirected to equality of opportunity. Humanizing empathy would focus on empowering and equipping individuals to succeed—rather than implicitly questioning their abilities by offering them handouts.

There is much to say here, too much for today. Clearly equal opportunity is difficult to provide, but it’s impossible to guarantee equal results. And in the meantime, empowering and teaching people to do for themselves—and allowing other people to participate in this—leaves individual liberty and dignity intact.

There can be no fairness as we strip away personal liberties, and empathy can only truly be administered by the people.

***

Okay, I will spoil it—Wall-e, the last one actually working was able to save the world. He believed it was his responsibility to do so.  Everyone benefited.

He gets the girl too.