The Tunnel Vision of Ideology in the US
Part 1 of a series on Ideology versus Principle and how its shaking the foundations of civil society
I have a friend who is legally blind. The disease Retinitis Pigmentosa, restricts his vision to a narrow cone of 19 degrees. Most of us get to use 160 - 170 degrees to the edges of our vision. Test it by starting with arms outstretched 180 degrees and while you look look directly to the front, bring them slightly forward until you can see your hands. Flexing fingers makes it easier to see them. Then imagine what 19 degrees is like by pointing your arms directly forward from each shoulder. That’s all my friend gets to see.
When we sail together it’s as if he can see more than me - because although he sees only what’s directly in front of us, every part of what he sees there, the ocean swell, the birds, the boats, he’s learned to observe more keenly than me.
This helps me understand an intellectual form of retinitis pigmentosa. It’s as if what we see when we imagine life’s possibilities has become more and more restricted, to just 19 degrees.
And it helps me to understand the cause of the damage done to our neighbourhoods and communities by the more militant followers of political and social ideologies like “liberalism”, and “conservativism.”
Adhering to a way of making sense of the world - be it “liberal,” or “conservative” - might give us great perception on the issues that matter, like “poverty” or “public debt,” “a right to life” or “a woman’s right to choose,” but the problem remains that the issues dealt with by various ideologies are just a slice of what really matters to an increasingly diverse population of 312 million here in the US.
Ideological liberalism for example has little space for religious observance or religious views, and places a lot of hope in education, especially in the sciences. Ideological conservatism for example has little or no space for wealth held in common - “common wealth” - or trust in democratic government to administer it.
When we rigidly adhere to our limited view, like soldiers for the truth, we can prove dangerous. We’ll demonise people in order to exclude them from the perfect world of our 19 degree cone.
People who live by ideology, will start with attacks on the reputations of those who disagree with their view. We hear them on syndicated radio shows, and national TV networks. They fear a conspiracy behind almost every exercise of power by people outside their 19 degrees of vision, like people scared of encroaching darkness. But we also run across them in our neighbourhoods, workplaces, even in our families.
I experienced this today in a gift store on a pier at a well known beach. Glen Beck was pontificating out loud on the radio, T-shirts were nailed to the walls with out of context quotes from George Washington and other founding fathers promoting hatred of government, and the proprietor muttered and blustered as a background echo of Beck’s commentary so we all knew we were in a store where ideology reigned but which was also literally labelled as a “patriot” establishment.
When asked if he sold stamps for the postcards, he snorted, “There’s no profit in it.”
This kind of dissatisfaction with civil society has taken extreme forms. In recent world history we’ve experienced from the left of politics the blood baths of Soviet Russia, China, and Cambodia. And on the right we’ve suffered The Nazi Third Reich, the Klu Klux Klan, South African Apartheid, now Al Qaeda, and for Norwegians, the recent massacre by an individual that is all too familiar. History warns us that people who surrender to an ideology reduce their hopes to pithy slogans and propaganda, derive their information from their own media, and when empowered, freely murder people who don’t fit the world they try to construct.
There is a difference between an ideological life and a principled life. But alas, people given to an ideology sincerely believe they are highly principled. It’s self deceiving, because they take their cue for action from their tunnel vision, and fail to reference the millennia old values that lie outside their view. It’s as if my friend decided to drive a car again because what he sees, he sees well. That’s likely to become a fatal call for some unlucky family on the highway.
So here let’s make a distinction between living by ideology and living by principle.
Truly principled people take a case by case approach to the issues of the day. That doesn’t mean they disown their preference for liberal or conservative society. But they’ll use their preferred philosophy with its various values as a guide, not an absolute rule. Their concern for the best outcome for real people outweighs their ideas for what makes for a better future. Ideologues prefer their ideals, like the freshmen congressmen who didn’t care if their stand against increasing the US deficit limit would tip the world economy into recession again, and ruin the lives of millions beyond the US. And of course, they’ve promoted themselves as the only principled people in Washington.
But truly principled people will act with courage, and care not for what their “base” wants or “believes,” but for nobler, wider, and deeper reasons than that. Usually they are motivated by core values derived from thousands of years of human experience rather than ideals derived from the past 250 years of their national history. And they will risk personal humiliation rather than make decisions that will hurt a broad constituency.
Like Kay Bailey Hutchison breaking with her Republican Party to end the stalemate over the funding crisis for the FAA that would have destroyed the jobs of 10,000 people while members of Congress enjoyed their lengthy summer recess. Like President Obama facing off ideological members of his Democrat Party and seeking compromise from both parties in order to get a necessary debt limit increase before the government defaulted on what it owed and shook the foundations of the global economy.
What appears to afflict us in 2011 is that a critical mass of US citizens have come to believe that political party dogma is the most efficient interpreter of reality and political office the best way of shaping the future. This attitude gave rise to the Soviet Union under Lenin. And so we see enthusiastic base members of the political parties making sectarian politics the norm, while the danger for the rest of us is that we become disillusioned with politics and government and fail to engage.
We can reverse this trend. We need to become more discerning of where the problem lies: mistaking ideology for a principled life. And we’ll need to speak up and name the phoney when it’s at work or risk losing our civil society.
There’s no reversing retinitis pigmentosa although medical scientists are working on it. And, even though it’s true that my friend sees better than most of us in the small view he has of things, he’d rather have his sight back again. He at least is painfully aware that he suffers from blindness.
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