IDEOLOGY


There is an eternal struggle going on in the world between good and evil.  Most people believe
that, and most people believe that they are on the side of good.  In fact, I can’t recall anyone ever
claiming to be on the side of evil.  Those who go forth to fight evil very often wind up fighting each
other.  And of course the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s easy to label as evil some
individual criminal who committed a heinous act or has an overall mean, selfish attitude. We
speak of the Devil as a supernatural being who is at work within each human being, tempting us
to commit sinful acts.

But we like to see evil as transcending the individual and looming as a vast, powerful force
threatening whole societies.  And so the good, righteous people must loom as a powerful force
capable of destroying societies.  You see where this is going.   

We’re all so quick to see evil in those with whom we disagree, and yet paradoxically, the greater
evils are usually perpetrated by those who claim to be fighting it.  Hitler believed that the Jews
were evil.  If that’s not a convincingly enough example, the Osama bin Laden and the Islamic
terrorists think the US is evil.  Communism was born with the belief that robber barons and
royalists are evil, and yet the Nazis believed that the Communists were evil—and vice-versa.  
They couldn’t have both been right, could they?

It’s amazing how frequently we bandy the concept about without much discussion as to how we
define it.  Is it some supernatural force that exists for the purpose of producing destruction and
suffering on Earth?  Is it any act that results in human deaths or suffering?               

Those who pursue a political agenda driven by a set of interests or concerns will invariably
encounter those who have competing interests or different ideas of what’s best.  Having squared
off as opponents, most of us will try to convey the advantages of our point of view while pointing
out the deficiencies in theirs.  (Of course it’s much better to objectively balance all relevant
factors yourself before articulating an opinion).

But some people have trouble distinguishing between competition with opponents and conflict
with enemies.  If two groups are arguing over the same resource that they each want for
themselves, the situation is easy enough to understand, if not to compromise on.  But in disputes
over policies or laws of the land, partisans will go far beyond arguing that their ideas have more
advantages and fewer flaws than their opponents.  No, we’re the heroes and they’re the villains.  
Our opponents are just out to hurt people.  One side or the other may be misguided in some way,
or there may be a sharp disagreement on priorities or likely results, or there may be those who
consider the status quo virtually sacred and fear change, or perhaps the actions of a few zealots
lead to unfair characterizations of the group.  Some may charge that unwelcome aspects of a
policy is the true intent, as in “the government taxes us just so they can take our money” or
“opponents of affirmative action want to roll back gains made by minorities”.

But a political movement simply can’t have purely harmful or hostile intentions and have any
viability, so warnings to the contrary are likely to be off-base.  A mainstream movement needs to
be seen as entirely benevolent to be successful, and a movement that can’t resist a hard-line
agenda will be relegated to the fringes, the irony here being that it is these groups who will most
loudly accuse their opponents of malevolence.  A successful extremist movement like the Nazis is
the exception which proves the rule, both in that they rose to power amid the vilest denunciations
of the groups they targeted, and since then in providing an example for countless extremists to
base their denunciations on.  Quite clearly then, it is characteristic of extremists to portray their
opponents as opposing extremists, polarizing the populace as they square off for conflict.
  
       Our problems and the political landscape we deal with them in have evolved greatly in recent
history.  For so much of the past, people faced invasions by neighboring tribes or nations, were
taxed or enslaved by greedy rulers, stood to lose more than they gained in revolts, enjoyed
second-class status, or otherwise faced adversaries in situations which were black-and-white if
not life-or-death.  Conditions like this still prevail in much of the world, but in areas such as the
West where has been much reform, the moderating weight of massed public opinion can deny
power to anyone who could emerge as an “enemy”.  Nevertheless, in a throwback to dark ages
just past, many here persist in portraying any dispute as a violent conflict-in-waiting.  In the real
world, reconciliation awaits understanding and compromise; in the symbolic world of the extremist,
roles of hero and villain are assigned to parties to the debate as though it were a great drama set
to unfold--if not as a war then a “war”.  It is the extreme extremist who goes beyond imagining a
real war is in the works, but behaves as though one has actually begun.  The only thing more
amazing than how stupid these people are is how inevitable is seems to be.

       A political movement is shaped like a pyramid.  The bulk of its supporters are on or near the
solid ground of moderation, but from their midst arises a smaller number who take a more
uncompromising stance.  The broader the base, the higher “off the ground” the true believers will
be, until the tiny cluster at the top emerges as dangerous whackos on a mission.  Recent
examples abound of a movement being represented by its extreme extremists even as its
mainstream distances itself from them:  The Oklahoma City bombing and the murders at several
abortion clinics have shown how quickly a war of words can lead to real killing.  The beating of
Reginald Denny (during the Rodney King riots) shows how extremism can escalate to violence
with spontaneity, while the random killings of blacks by white supremacists show how deeply
rooted it can be.  The fatal bombing at the University of Wisconsin by Vietnam anti-war extremists
and the Tate-LaBianca killings by the counterculture extremists that were the Manson family show
that a killer can emerge from any movement if the numbers are large enough, even if that
contradicts the movement’s ideals.  But the 60’s movement which gave rise to these two examples
had tens of millions of true believers whereas the anti-government gun-nut movement which
begat the Oklahoma City bombing was much smaller.  So it seems that some pyramids are
steeper and narrower than others, the slope of the sides indicating how inclined, as it were, its
members are towards violent extremism.

       Indeed it’s often easier to identify a political movement by what it opposes.  The warnings
given, whether exaggerated or all too real, against the actions of an institution, an ongoing
practice, a certain group of people, or another political movement, and the actions taken against
it can define a movement more readily than its positive goals.  Such positive goals, as
communicated, can be vague and fanciful, and even begin to resemble those of one’s opponent
(“prosperity for all”), but rising to the surface as always is the conflict.  Wherever sides can be
drawn sides will be drawn, to the point that people expect there always to be sides.  But opposing
political movements rarely square off against one another, then join in political combat, not at first
anyway.  More often a campaign gets started up against something that’s simply been going
about its business (nasty business though it might be), then a counter-campaign emerges and
the tide swings back and forth.  As the warring parties seek more support, they seek to define the
times in terms of their cause.  Society becomes polarized along the lines of not one but a whole
range of issues which line themselves up.  People’s positions on various issues, and the people
themselves, are associated with one another symbolically, and they associate their opponents
with the symbolically opposite positions on those issues.

       All of politics is thereby reduced to one symbol.  We’re all familiar with the “left wing/right
wing” model.  The wing, as we’ve all been taught, balances on a point of perfect moderation and
moves towards extremism on the left through liberalism, then radicalism, to communism, and on
the right through conservatism and reactionaryism to fascism.  This model--these symbols--are
used constantly in political discourse, but is it real?  For example, on the left, where does
socialism--more moderate than communism--fit in alongside radicalism?  Where on the right does
laize-faire capitalism--the opposite of communism--fit what with fascism occupying that slot?  
Whither anarchy, Left or Right?

       The whole Left wing/Right wing thing got its start in the 1790’s in revolutionary France,
where the members of the Council of 500 took to arranging themselves from one side to the other
of their hall, most revolutionary to most conservative.  The latter side, the “Right”, came to
represent as a whole the established political order in any mid-modern society, consisting as it
does of institutionalized authorities, a capitalist (or feudal) economic system, and a wide variety of
traditionalistic mores.  To the “Left” are those who decry the unfair inequities, oppressive taboos
and violent injustices brought by them the “establishment” and the late-modern movements
opposing it politically.  Institutions such as the government, the military, the church, and  moneyed
interests embody the status quo as a singular entity, accepted positions on all issues being
handed down from among them in turns.  Different societal standards can become established
where revolutionary change has occurred, but always only to some extent on some issues in
some places.  Often while movements bring radical change to some aspects of society, the status
quo prevails in many others, or now it’s the backlash to the backlash ad infinitum driving the
issues further afield.  The traditional alignment of issues in the ideological spectrum gets pulled
apart and reshuffled as their true, more complex, relationships gradually emerge.  Furthermore,
the meaning of political labels can change entirely, depending on perspectives of time and place
which issues are emphasized at the moment.  So the idea that everyone in the world is on one
side or the other of a one-dimensional “wing” is clearly false dichotomy.

       For example:  In the Russian revolution of 1917 Communists took over that country, then in
1991 they were toppled by a movement which brought democracy and free market economic
reforms.  From a global/historical perspective, communism is regarded obviously as a left-wing
movement, seeking to overthrow traditionally capitalist societies one after the other throughout
the world.  But having been the “establishment” for generations, the Russian Communists could
be regarded as conservative--and therefore right-wing--in comparison to the free-market
Democrats (or is that a small “d”), who are obviously liberal.  That means they’re left-wing, but
only so far as the two terms are synonymous.  What with the root of liberal meaning “free”, a free-
market economy is liberal and left-wing to the extent that it’s less controlled by the government
and allows people to seek their fortunes independently.  But its conservative and right-wing as its
proven track record of success and growth resists change despite undesirable results such as
worsening inequality.  A socialist economy is liberal--which also means “generous”--in that it
seeks to redress the toil and deprivations amid plenty that afflicts the less fortunate.  But when
implemented to any degree where it deprives anyone of liberty or significant property, socialism is
not liberal.  Political radicals who would support more extreme socialism can be vengeful or
indoctrinaire enough to disregard people’s rights, and once in power can act like any right-wing
regime.

       Speaking of right-wing regimes, the Nazis got their name from an acronym which means
“National Socialist German Worker’s Party”, and while they certainly did not abolish private
industry they did maintain considerable control and had many state-run enterprises.  They came
to power criticizing war profiteers and those who rich during Germany’s severe depression,
resenting especially the economic success of Jews who--in yet another twist--who were also
associated by the Nazis with Leftist revolutionaries (the “stab in the back”).  More so than
economics, the Nazis emphasized extreme nationalism--taking it as far as genocide--and
implemented more totalitarian control even than the Soviets, who conversely de-emphasized
nationalism in favor of global revolution.  Already we have at least three issues which appear as
polarized dichotomies:  The economic issue framed by collectivization and unfettered capitalism,
the one between totalitarian government and unfettered civil liberties, and the one between
nationalistic identity and globalism.

       There are many more issues that may be portrayed as a contest between opposing extreme
positions.  And since there’s only one world, all issues are ultimately connected, yet the
substantive relationship is often very indirect.   Nevertheless, the symbolic connection that exists
in people’s minds can create a very real political significance.  The emphases placed on certain
issues by groups pursuing an agenda, together with the fears that produce enmity toward groups
with differing priorities, are what drive political conflicts.

       Any hope of settling persistent political conflicts in society (assuming this is what people
actually want) requires that high standards of objectivity be brought to bear upon the areas of
dispute.  Assuming as we must that the days when we could fear annihilation and would seek in
response to annihilate are gone, disputed issues should be seen as disagreements over which of
two or more options should be favored in the many decisions on imposing policies upon the
group.  All decisions have both positive and negative consequences.  Objectivity requires
anticipating as completely as possible what they would be and why each is good or bad without
regard to pre-conceived notions, personal preferences or symbolic associations.  Decisions over
what should be considered priorities are issues as well as decisions over what actions, if any,
should be taken in each case.  Some consensus needs to be arrived at on the former question
before objectivity can begin to work on the latter, but the need for making a choice between
competing priorities often doesn’t fully emerge until the consequences of courses of action
become identified.  For example, the need to weigh the priority given to protecting the
environment vs. protecting jobs never was considered until various environmental policies--
implemented or proposed--had played out to the point where an economic threat to jobs could be
perceived.  The differing sets of consequences to different possible regulations or permissions
reveal how what appeared to be one issue is in fact a myriad of issues, with a wide range of areas
to focus on and wide degrees of variability in effort and outcome.  In other words, there are many
ways for everyone to go too far.

       Indeed the environmental issue provides examples of the many complex factors and
relationships that characterize major political controversies.  There appear to be two sides:  
Those who support further restrictions on various outdoor human activities that involve killing
animals, clearing land, or disposing of waste products, as the necessary means to protect specific
aspects of the environment, assuming it is that important in each case.  Opposing the
environmentalists are those who want to lessen such restrictions since they often require
considerable effort and expense to comply with, can deprive those who work the land or sea
much of what they might produce, and do so in a way which amounts to further government
intrusion in people’s lives and businesses.  The two possible extreme positions which frame the
issue are laws which would completely ban killing any animal in the wild, cutting any plant, or
releasing any but the most natural of substances, and the complete freedom to kill any animal
you encounter, totally transform any land one owns, and dump or vent any pollutants anywhere.

       There are historical trends which resemble a pendulum propelled by alternating backlashes,
in this case they swung from the tradition of ignorance during the conquest of the land, a
conservation movement early in the 20th century, accelerating pollution and devastation as the
country fully modernized, a more significant environmental movement arises during the ‘60 and
pushes through more regulations, opposition to new regulations, especially in the West, escalates
to violent incidents while Republicans in congress move to roll back some of the restrictions, and
now the Republicans are sensing that protecting the environment remains popular and are
backing off a little bit.  Related disputes still rage far afield, where the inevitable small number of
extreme extremists are spawned.  They include on the one side those who have resisted the
efforts of government officials in a few incidents which turned violent, plus a number of terrorist
bombers who struck the offices of certain agencies, and on the other side those who “spike” trees
in logging areas, making them dangerous to cut with a chainsaw, and of course the Unabomber.

       But most people, as is normal, seek a middle ground of compromise and thus we have
policies which seek to restrict--but not eliminate--various emissions and land usages, phase in
changes or develop new alternatives with an eye toward saving people money or inconvenience
or jobs.  But there are sticking points that complicate efforts at compromise, such as when
endangered species are threatened with extinction, or when protective measures call for ripping
some well-established practice out by the roots.  Naturally, both sides align themselves with
traditional left/right, liberal/conservative associations and a polarizing of mutual perceptions due
to this confrontation.  Both try to associate the other with unpopular groups, so it’s the greedy
industrialists vs. the stoned hippie radicals.  The motives of the other side is increasingly
portrayed as evil, so while the environmentalists are portraying their foes as willing to sacrifice
future generations to satisfy their greed, the conservatives are accusing theirs of wanting to
harass and bankrupt hard-working Americans, and even that they are a pagan cult.  
Environmentalism equals animal worship or “Earth Goddess” worship which equals Satanism.  
After the smear it’s the scramble for the moral high ground, the Right combining the proud
traditions of hunting and clearing the land with the belief that man’s dominance is completely
condoned by scripture, and the Left stressing our responsibilities to protect the land--if only for
our children to enjoy--while believing the scientific reporting as less biased.  Yet for so long have
the two sides been squaring off that the meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” have flip-
flopped:  Conservation is conservative, you see, whereas it’s liberal to be free to do what you
want, any old time.  Or else that’s “libertarian” which means the same thing, but is opposite of
“liberal” the symbol on the environment and other (but not all) issues.

       Like many others, the issue of the environment breaks down into a myriad of smaller issues,
variously aligned with the basic philosophical dispute (nature vs. jobs), to the nitty-gritty (meaning
substantive) details on which they actually turn.  The dumping or venting of any one of thousands
of substances requires a separate policy decision based on scientific analysis of the effects of
contamination on people or the ecosystem.  Much of the time the results of a study or an incident
make it a no-brainer, but when the harm done is invisible, long-term, or largely theoretical, as in
ozone depletion or global warming, findings are challenged by those concerned about the costs
(substantive so far) and those who pluck them from their tree of symbolic associations.  Species
extinction is definitely a substantive issue to the extent that each species play a vital role in the
ecosystem/food chain, but is protecting small surviving populations that are no longer vital cogs
more symbolic?  Perhaps the question should be, is it moral?  Surely to extinctify an entire animal
species is a sin of the highest magnitude, along with anything else that permanently breaks part
of the planet.  But what does the small population of snail darters constitute besides the fish
themselves and their unique but minimally significant DNA?  It’s tempting to make exceptions in
such cases where non-vital species of small size are holding up significant economic activity, but
that could be a slippery slope.  The degree of morality in cases like these may be compared to
murdering an aged invalid, or perhaps destroying a unique and priceless work of art that belongs
to someone else--only here that someone is God.  The snail darter did become a symbol after all,
though, as used by anti-environmentalists as an example of regulation run amok.  As is the
Northern spotted owl in the debate over logging the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest,
even though the entire forest ecosystem--of which the owls are the only protected part--is at
stake.  But here I am reminded of a different kind of symbol, not-so-different kind of bird:  What if
they were bald eagles living in that forest?

       But I digress.  At any rate, to recap:  The multitude of policy options under consideration by
major powers or massed individuals each have their own set of consequences, which interact with
the results of other decisions to create history.    And while lack of knowledge can breed
disagreement, persistent disputes tend to boil down to differing priorities as espoused by differing
political cultures.  Everyone’s central belief system seeks to tie together all issues with their rights
and wrongs, goods and bads through a vague array of associations substantive or symbolic.  
Deepening abstraction sharpens the perception of overarching dualism until the sense of
repulsion from them the other side is what drives the actions of extremists more so than the sense
of rectitude in their own cause.  The backlash then provokes a counter-backlash, propelling
public opinion back toward the Center.

       Once the extremes of an issue become defined is when the Center begins to take on
meaning.  On the one-dimensional Left/Right “wing”, the Center is represented by the fulcrum on
which it balances.  Multiple issues might be pictured as spokes on a wheel, each teetering about
independently to a degree, yet intersecting in a way that is complex and ultimately impossible to
understand.  Somewhere within lies the point of perfection.  An attempt to approach it from any
one direction will fall short.  At best the Center can only be straddled, such a position being a
jumping-off place to reach greater heights of understanding.  If you lean on one leg over the
other when you jump, you careen off in one direction.  I might go so far as to say that the point of
perfection is the purest representation of God:  Unattainable, utterly unadorned, favoring no one
side, yet containing all the answers within.  It is the place where symbols fear to
tread.