Tag Archives: Post-modernism

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

Are all truths equal?

REPOST: (I wrote this some months ago when I first considered starting a blog). 

I was reminded this weekend of a conundrum that Art Linsley, one of my seminary professors, presented to me some years ago: Is God above the law or beneath the law?

It was an old Duke Law Journal article written by Arthur Allen Leff in 1979 (Unspeakable Ethics; Unnatural Law) that got my mind spinning on the subject. Leff was a professor of law at Yale Law School. His article focuses on whether a ‘normative morality’ or sort of universal law can exist without God. Interestingly, Leff was an agnostic and asked the question of whether there is some “findable” law that “ought” to dictate human behavior. The implication is that the point of human law is to find and point to a law that pre-existed. I am fascinated by and continue to struggle with some of Leff’s arguments but I am also awed by his intellectual and philosophical honesty. It seems Leff struggled with a sense of absurdity in humans dictating rather than finding law—and presenting a made law as the “Great Ought To.”

Leff’s conundrum would read something like: If law is not from a supreme source, then can it be a supreme law? Or if there is no findable law then don’t we make ourselves “god” in dictating a law? Leff did not assume God (quite different from Linsley).  I sense he is arguing for God’s existence through of a shared notion of universal “rights” and “wrongs” across time, but he winds up concluding that there really can be no rights and wrongs! My conclusion is different, but I think Leff builds a strong intellectual platform on which to build the case–if not for the existence of God–then at least for the consequences his absense.

***

So….Is God above the law or beneath the law?

I realize this question presupposes a proper God, but for the purposes of this discussion, “god” can be thought of in non-specific terms—i.e. a higher power/intelligent designer, etc. You will probably see there is a problem with both of the options presented. On the one hand, if God is above the law, the law is, in a very real sense, arbitrary. That is, should the designer have chosen other things to be ‘right’ instead, they would be. Or, he could change his mind and something that was right yesterday might not be right tomorrow. The natural conclusion here is that nothing is actually True in a cosmic/permanent sense, except at the whim of their god.

On the other hand, if God is below the law, then God is himself subject to the law. But if that being is subject to the law then isn’t it the law itself that has become God? For in this event, the rules would rule the ruler, becoming themselves the ultimate ruler. You might still posit an intelligent designer, but its hands would be tied by a Law that supersedes. We are left with a cosmic Truth, but a toothless god—an omnipotent Law with a weak chief executor. Further, we might wonder whether the law is “good” or if it “has our best interests in mind” for it would be faceless, nameless and somewhat cold to the feel I think.

It’s interesting to note that in either event, something is True, a salient point in a world that has become definitively relativistic. If we accept some sort of Supreme Being, it’s hard to reason that such a God would have no view of right and wrong. If above the law, He might change right and wrong over time, but it would be His discretion, not our own. If beneath the law, there is an inalienable, faceless truth that would be unchanging. So in order to conclude the absence of some unassailable truth at any point in time, one, I think, has to argue that there is no God—regardless of the fashion in which it exists.

As Leff argues, one of the great ironies of life is that humans seem to yearn so strongly to be free, and yet cannot deal with the consequences of absolute freedom. We want to rule our own lives and define our own truths and yet find the implications terrifying. Post modernism suggests the notion of Absolute Truth is archaic—that we have ‘progressed’ to higher philosophical grounds. Relativism rules the day. Relativism is appealing because it allows us to define our own truth. It allows us to be politically correct and to embrace others and their beliefs without any uncomfortable questioning. But I think we realize that in so doing, we are letting go of one of our greatest hopes—that something is True, that something is Good. Or perhaps even more importantly, that there are things that wrong.

For in the absence of such an Absolute, we are forced to conclude that we cannot apply standards to others. Relativism suggests that what is right for any person or group, is right for that person or group and what is right for me is right for me. The one thing a person cannot do, though, is to apply her own sense of right and wrong to the others. Therefore, if I accept relativism, can I really say it is wrong to kill? Can I say Hitler was wrong, the 9-11 hijackers? Can I say that rape is wrong? I would argue that I cannot. The natural conclusion of relativism is that everything is true and therfore nothing is True.  I find this to be a terrifying conclusion and I think relativists must often reach into the abyss searching for some laws that are inalienable, even if they can’t describe from whence those lswa might come.

The Biblical answer to the conundrum is that the Biblical/Judeo-Christian God is, in and of himself, the Law. This means that God is Truth and that Truth is unchanging–that the Law is not arbitrary but is, rather, an expression of God’s character and very essence.  It follows that in understanding what is True, we understand God Himself.  And to the extent we can know God, we will know what is True and right.  If you follow this out a bit, we arrive at a God whose character defines a spiritual universe  (that is subject to that spiritual law), just as his actions created a physical one (that is subject to physical law–think Newtonian Physics). As there are physical truths (e.g. you will hit the ground and hurt yourself if you fall from a window) there are also spiritual truths (e.g. you will damage your relationship if you lie to a friend). God did not make it so, he has expounded on it for us so that we know it is so. And we know that the Law is Good because it expresses God’s own character. He is not above the law, having decided that you should not lie. Rather, it was always wrong to lie, before the dawn of time, but God allows us to know that law. God’s law then is not to arbitrarily rule over us, but to help us live more fulfilled lives—jump from windows less, if you will.  It’s an instruction book, not a to-do list.

Leff begins his article:

I want to believe —and so do you— in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe —and so do you —in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and good and to create it.

He concludes:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot —and General Custer too— have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.