Ideology, History and Religion
June 9, 2006
"In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go."
- Denis Diderot
The history of the West has progressed toward a post-ideological tolerance that enables "liberal democracies" to actualize their greatest potential pluralism in fact, and not just in name.
The United States was very fortunate until 9/11 not to have directly felt the destruction that always accompanies a true clash of ideologies. But the other Western democracies all tasted that destruction on their own territory a long time ago, and more than once. They have found through hard experience that perceptions of "right" and "good" are fluid, even when adherents of a doctrine precede those terms with the word "absolute". Once a culture has been around long enough to watch how claimed absolutes are always and observably relative to the science, economics and philosophies etc. of the time, no single political perspective can ever again have the same power. The Europeans awakened to this after the second world war: they seemed to have missed it the first time around.
Historical perspective is a necessary basis for any cultural self-examination. As a European, I find myself giving increasing credence to the idea of cultural maturity ... and that America is still adolescent. Like a teenager, a country cannot be blamed for growing powerful before it understands its own strength or the long-term consequences of all of its actions.
Bush's recent push to make a constitutional amendment out of defining marriage is just one example of the cultural ascendancy of the social right wing. It is only a historical perspective that allows us to recognize the similarities between many of the American right's arguments against homosexual marriage and those against interracial marriage two or three generations ago, based, so obviously, on the same source of authority: it is a difficult cognitive maneuver to have such a perspective and be simultaneously pro-interracial marriage and anti gay-marriage. History's saving power is in highlighting such culturally destructive inconsistencies.
A survey of Watching America over a few months will reveal that many of the comments by the current American President that are most referred to by the foreign press are those that appeal to religion. (See this recent piece from Pakistan, this from the usually sympathetic Poland, or the opening of this piece from Bogata.) They cause non-Americans in secular societies everywhere to raise their collective eyebrows: History doesn't show a lot of good results from leaders and cultures that have justified their actions ultimately by appeal to ideology or some divine doctrine. Europe is far from anti-religious, but Europeans tend to ask the questions that any ideology inevitably begs. For example, what is the moral calculus - based on an explicitly "pro-life" ideology regarding the killing of human beings in a war to tackle a problem that has resulted in the deaths of many fewer human beings? When does a life that is sacred at conception cease to be sacred during the commission of a crime, justifying death as a punishment?
If the questions in the last paragraph seem like "liberal" questions, that surely only proves the point. Outside the theocracies, principles or doctrines are met with questions to determine whether their implications are reasonable and mutually consistent, and to learn from the results of any past application. In determining the veracity of a position, questions must be asked without the questioner's being seen as taking any position at all. It is America's apparent failure seriously to ask questions not its failure to deliver the right answers that is responsible for the resistive tones of the world's press.
The institution most importantly charged with asking questions is the media. We'll deal with them in the next entry ...