Ideas: Part 3: The Problem With Ideology

People are literally the soil where ideas (or memes) are planted; ideas are planted by teachers, peers, parents, churches, advertisers, and governments; and for this reason thinking can be, paradoxically, a rather thoughtless process; it’s enough to make a person wonder whether or not anyone is capable of conceiving an original thought or if we’re doomed to always occupy intellectual spaces constructed by others.

Russia in the 19h century illustrates this notion of people being soil for the planted idea. Imperial Russia was a repressive regime with every attempt at revolution failing; that is, while violence is easy (all it takes is anger and hot heads) true reform is difficult; this is because change requires first articulating why reform is necessary and a public ready to listen. Thus, the Petrashevtsky, a reform-minded group of intellectuals (including a young Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)) avoided open conflict with the Tsar. Instead of open revolt, this group pursued a decades’ long strategy of exposing the Russian peasantry to the appropriate propaganda in order to “[win] hearts and minds, so that when, in the distant future, the revolution finally came, it could be sure of mass support” (Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, Page 103). The important role propaganda plays in shaping our understanding of the world cannot be discounted: we are literally what we think about; and the content of our thoughts is informed by the information we are exposed to; so it makes intuitive sense that all of us, to varying degrees, are influenced by ideology.

There are many different types of ideology, e.g. there’s fascism (a tendency to look inward for meaning and enemies), liberalism (a belief in a limited government and freedom of the individual), communism (a faith in the role of class conflict leading humankind inexorably towards the dictatorship of the proletariat), etc. and so on and so forth. For all their explanatory power, ideologies pigeon-hole our thinking; ideologies limit the options available to us by boiling complex issues down into simpler components like a party-line or a favored line of reasoning.

Turning our attention to economics, the support ideas like “trickle down economics” continues to receive from many despite the fact it objectively doesn’t work speaks volumes about how easily people are manipulated by propaganda mills. Trickle down economics, it was argued in the 1980s, would encourage broad economic growth across class lines; however, the opposite has occurred, in that, with the advent of globalization only the top 1% of Americans have actually benefited from this economic practice. Money didn’t trickle down; rather wealth tends to gravitate towards the powerful; and as money becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands the general population maintains its high standards of living, not by spending money it has earned at well paying jobs, but through the artificial purchasing power granted to them through access to cheap credit and financial deregulation. Trickle down economics simply doesn’t work. Yet, free market fundamentalists, ideologues in every sense of the word, keep selling the idea it works and the population keeps buying into the myth.

The blind faith some people have in free market fundamentalism, or its bastard-child trickle down economics, demonstrates the single greatest weakness of any ideology: ideologies only make sense if its foundational assumptions are accepted unquestioningly and at face value. To gain an appreciation for the absurdity of unqualified acceptance of any ideology, let’s discuss two situations drawn from the history of science:

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union. He was notoriously distrustful of intellectuals. Stalin’s power was so complete he used his influence to have the history of the Russian Revolution actually re-written so the dictator appeared to have played a more important role than he actually did. He was uncompromising in the pursuit of seeing his particular vision of communism realized: only those pieces of art, music, history and literature reflecting the Leninist-Marxist ideology were acceptable. No other alternatives were entertained.

Leninism-Marxism not only made for some questionable Russian history, it also had deleterious effects on Russian science. Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was a preeminent geneticist working in agriculture during the time of Josef Stalin. Vavilov didn’t believe science had to be made to fit Leninist-Marxism; rather, he believed science was a process of discovery where the world revealed its secrets to us through testing. As a geneticist working in the 1930s and 40s, Vavilov accepted the idea that the building blocks of life (DNA) were comprised of tiny things called chromosomes and alleles; however, despite the evidence in support of this view, Vavilov was hounded out of Soviet science for accepting the existence of chromosomes, etc. by a pseudo-scientist, and Communist party hack, named Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976).

According to Lysenko positing the building blocks of life were divisible into chromosomes and alleles was ideological heresy. True “socialist science” stressed the “unity” of the “whole organism.” Socialist scientists could not in good conscience tolerate any notion that tiny, individual pieces were responsible for shaping an organism; this was the scientific equivalent of saying society should be divided into different classes; however, Marxists asserted history was on the side of the industrial worker and the end of class systems and capitalism. Therefore, Lysenko forced Soviet science to conform to political expectations by directing professors, researchers, etc. to only study those ideas and models conforming to socialist expectations. If scientific ideas didn’t agree with communist ideology as interpreted by Stalin (or one of his lieutenants) it had to be abandoned.

The absurd thing is that even though the full structure of the DNA molecule wasn’t fully understood until the work of Watson, Crick and Franklin by the mid-1950s, we could still see this molecule with its chromosomes, alleles and such. Facts or reality don’t matter much to the ideologue though. Ideological purity is more important than possessing and adhering to the correct information. Thus, science in the Soviet Union—at least when it came to genetics—made the Central Committee and Stalin’s personal authority, and not physical-objective reality, the measure of what is true and what is not. In a scene resembling something out of the Spanish Inquisition, one Soviet scientist was apparently commanded to recant his “faith” in chromosomes by an important Soviet diplomat named Vyacheslav Molotov. The scientist had the stones to reply, “But does Comrade Molotov know more about genetics than I do?” The scientist, and anyone else who did not toe the party line, was dismissed. In the case of Vavilov, he was actually imprisoned for “believing in” Mendelian genetics (chromosomes, alleles, and all). Lysenko’s interference set Russian science back decades (Alec Nove, Stalinism and After, Pages 104-105).

A similar situation played itself out in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. A Nazi scientist attended a lecture given by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in the United States on the theory of relativity. This scientist returned to Germany excited by the paradigm changing implications of Einstein’s ideas. Excitement turned to disappointment, I am sure, when he was told to forget relativity because Einstein was teaching “Jewish physics.” According to Philipp Lenard (1862-1947), an anti-Semitic and Nazi proponent of the so-called Deutsche Physik (or “German physics”) movement, Einstein couldn’t properly apprehend the physical world because of his “Jewishness.”

Lenard argued that “the Jew conspicuously lacks understanding for the truth…being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth…Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German Physics.” Lenard’s view was, and remains, demonstrably false: between the years 1905 to 1931 no fewer than ten German Jews were awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science (William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Page 251); moreover, as of 2014 the final of some 20 odd predictions made by Einstein based on the theory of relativity was confirmed, e.g. as the earth spins the surrounding space-time warps into a swirl like whip cream spun on top of a latte. For the record there’s no such thing as either German or socialist or Jewish physics or biology (there’s just physics and biology). However, the communist and Nazi examples illustrate facts don’t matter; it’s more important, it would seem, to force the world to conform to expectation.

Few of us actually appreciate the significance for how completely arbitrary or fabricated and accidental our worldviews are: if we were born to different parents, at a different time, on a different continent it’s a virtual certainty we would look at the world in directions that the accident of our birth pushes us. Although some ways of looking at the world are demonstrably better than others—thinking scientifically (objectively) as opposed to superstitiously or ideologically—there really is no single, right way, no ideology, which best describes the world we inhabit. So far as I can tell there are only preferences, prejudices, propaganda or a combination thereof.

The ideas we entertain as true are so near and dear to us we rarely see them for what they are—a snapshot of us fixed in time. Ideas aren’t outside of us (they wouldn’t even exist if humankind didn’t). Ideas are a reflection of the values, assumptions, and emotions of the individual as opposed to a reflection of the reality they purport to describe. For instance, I am a 21st Century Canadian. Although growing up in a democracy, my understanding of what constitutes a genuine democratic society is completely different from the view held by an ancient Greek from the city-state of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

An Athenian would have no problem accepting that the gods divided people into masters and slaves whereas my modern sensibility makes slavery completely incompatible with anything resembling democracy. I was also raised Catholic and taught by well-meaning parents and teachers the value of honesty, telling the truth and humility. For all intents and purposes I believed what I was taught was right and not living this way was somehow intrinsically wrong. Yet, by contrast, young boys in ancient Sparta were taught the value of being cunning, shrewd, calculating, and to steal; it was only ever wrong to steal if you were caught. The way I was raised was fundamentally different than how Spartan youth were.

Despite the fact different groups or governments value different ideas or possess differing worldviews over time, this doesn’t stop most of us from thinking we ourselves somehow are fortunate enough to possess the right understanding or right ideas. Yet, again, our particular understanding is just a snapshot in time of a person who just so happens to live where you do, had the parents you did, lived under the political/economic system you do, and so on.

So, whether you believe baseball is better than cricket, that women should remain subordinate to men or not, that the economy cannot be tampered with for the sake of the environment or not, or if you prescribe to a religion or not, etc. at some level you likely feel your particular way of looking at the world is closer to the truth than not (and you might even feel a combination of anger and compassion at the ignorance of others who don’t prescribe to your view). If our worldviews are just accidental collections of ideas which we just so happen to prescribe to at a given time in a given location, then what constitutes truth? What is knowledge? Is there such a thing as one correct way of looking at the world?

I fancy there isn’t…