Ideology as Platonism


English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I was responding to a Facebook post regarding same-sex marriage. As usual, I was irenic, I presented the classic natural law arguments against that practice, and since the person to whom I was responding was Christian, I presented the arguments from Holy Scripture and from Catholic tradition. Instead of engaging in a reasonable discussion over an important societal issue, my respondent (who is homosexual) proceeded to say I was demeaning her, that made her feel less than a person, that she despised people like me. In other words, she resorted to an abusive ad hominem attack instead of rationally responding to my arguments.

The homosexual rights movement is one of many ideologies that came out of the 1960s and early 1970s. Feminism is another and womanism still another. All these ideologies shared a Marxist interpretation of reality in which the group advocates represented was the oppressed and society at large was the oppressor. Recently, homosexual advocates have begun labeling those who disagree with their lifestyle “haters.” Now this is a characteristic of an ideology–no matter how much compassion I show for homosexuals who are “advocates” (note that not all homosexuals agree with their “representatives”), I am, by definition, labeled as a “hater.” It does not matter that I do not hate homosexuals–the ideology accepts the following syllogism:

All persons who believe that homosexual activity is morally wrong are haters.

This person holds that homosexual activity is morally wrong.

Therefore, this person is a hater.

Given my respondent’s ideology, she had no other way to respond.

All ideologies are Platonic in the sense that they propose overarching visions of reality and apply them from at top-down perspective. That is, like rationalism in general, they do not look to sense experience for justification. The only justification is in terms of the axioms of their system, which are taken to be self-evident. Thus if one axiom says that “Anyone who believes that homosexuality is morally wrong hates homosexuals,” then that axiom applies by definition to all people in that class and cannot be questioned. As is the case with Plato’s transcendent Forms, Descartes’ Cogito, or Leibniz’s monads, reality is forced into the mold of theory instead of the theory being checked by reality.

Some versions (not all) of feminism function the same way. If, by definition, all classic literary works reflect male dominance, then scholars needing publications for tenure can search through texts for code words and sentences that reflect such male domination. In the case of Marxist ideology concerning the economic system, those who are in the bourgeois are, by definition, exploiting the proletariat. Mr. Obama’s use of class warfare recognizes the power of such a position (even though he has been more of a Chinese-style “state capitalist” than a dogmatic Communist). Envy is a powerful emotion, and if it can be justified by definition, then government should “make the rich pay their fair share” (whatever that might be).

Platonic political philosophy supports a top-down view of government–the same government is best for all people–the rule of philosopher kings (and queens). Such a position is held by Neoconservative and social democratic ideologues who desire to “spread democracy to the entire world.” The geography, history, and culture of a particular state is ignored in a naive attempt to mold the state into the pattern preferred by the Neocons or social democratic hawks.

Ideology has a convenient way of resorting to ad hominem arguments when its basic principles are attacked. After all, if they are self-evident, the person who does not recognize them is, at the very least, ignorant–and possibly reprobate as well. This position cuts the ground from under rational discussion of important societal issues and dangerously divides people into hostile groups. Ideology is, as Nietzsche recognized, a form of the “will to power,” and in a society only filled with ideologues the fundamental ethic becomes “might makes right.” This is a prescription for societal chaos. If people feel forced into a corner because of ideological labeling, and rational discussion is out of the question, what is left but assertion of raw physical force?

Aristotle recognized, in theory at least, that understanding the world requires a bottom-up approach. While all observation is “theory laden,” this does not abrogate the fact that knowledge of reality arises from the senses. Thus, unlike Plato, Aristotle placed forms in things, and held that states should follow the system that best suits their history and culture.

As Alasdair MacIntyre recognized, the only way for communities with different values can rationally discuss issues is by having the person in one community “put himself in the shoes” of someone in another community to understand that community’s values. Once that occurs (and it must be a mutual process), then rational discussion can take place. Agreement may not be reached, but there should remain a feeling of mutual respect.

Russell Kirk famously said that conservatism is not an ideology, meaning that the form that conservatism takes in a particular state will depend on the history and culture of that state. Conserving key societal values is not a matter of imposing them, Platonic-Formlike, from above–most likely one will only come up with one’s own a priori values to apply to everyone. Rather, conservatism should have a deep respect for the way things are in the actual world. There may be need for change, but this is done slowly and with appropriate concern for the history of a people.

God forbid that American society melt into a soup of competing ideologies. The end of the United States as we currently know it (what’s left of it, at least) will most likely result.

“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Hill of Slane ruins

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?

The Fundamentalist Left, Social Engineering, and School Busing

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A photograph of a school bus with its stop arm...

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Like the European left, the American left is obsessed with social engineering. The chief difference is that the American left couches its attempts to use government power to enforce social ideals in moralistic terms. This secularization of New England Puritanism gives many movements of the left an evangelical tone that call to mind Fundamentalist Christian revivals. Like Fundamentalist Christians, many leftists prefer emotional screeds to rational argumentation and will not listen to any evidence contrary to their position. An example of this is the issue of school busing that has recently become an issue in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The use of school busing to promote “racial balance” is clearly one of the failed experiments of the American left. I am from Rutherford County, Tennessee, just to the south of Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County. When busing was introduced into Davidson County Schools in 1970, many children, even small children, had to get up at four a.m. in order to be bussed across town. Many white families fled to adjoining counties such as Rutherford or Williamson. Private schools sprang up like wheat as wealthier families rushed to pull their children out of the public school system. Over the years, Davidson County Schools became re-segregated, and this scenario has repeated itself in other places where school busing has been tried—in some cases children were bused across county and school district lines. None of these decisions to bus children had popular support; rather, they were imposed by the federal judiciary, which in effect acted as a dictatorship to force a reorganization of society according to its will. The attempt failed, just as earlier attempts to force racial segregation failed.

What the left fails to understand is the organic nature of human communities. Normally a community is born when individuals voluntarily settle into an area. Over the years the community changes as people are born, die, move, and others move in. Overly rapid change tends to disrupt community harmony—arguably, the extreme mobility of American society is not good for stable communities. Although a community is more than the sum of the individuals that make it up, and the traditions a community develops over time help hold it together (as traditional conservatives recognize), the decision to join a community is ultimately a free and voluntary choice (as libertarians recognize). To interfere with such choice by forced resettlement (as the Soviet Union tried, especially under Stalin) or by forced busing, upsets the order of the community and can only lead to conflict or the ultimate destruction of the community.

I was blessed to have gone through the Smyrna, Tennessee school system for twelve years. There are high school classmates I knew all those twelve years. For a child, such stability is important, as is seeing familiar sites on the ride to and from school every day. This is true for children of all races. Neighborhood schools promote a sense of community, and left-wing attempts to destroy neighborhood schools in the name of some abstraction such as “racial balance” is bad for children from every race and cultural background.

The voters of Raleigh recognized this when they voted in a school board that supports neighborhood schools. But the Fundamentalist Left, led by the NAACP, has led an emotional protest claiming that the plan promoting neighborhood schools is “immoral” and “evil.” These leftists support school busing to promote “racial balance.” They have not learned from the failures of school busing and other attempts at social engineering from the past. They are like Christian Fundamentalists, who, confronted with scientific evidence for biological evolution, state that that evidence must be invalid because evolution is evil. Both leftist social reformers and Christian Fundamentalists can only resort to angry, emotional appeals rather than putting their ideas to the bar of reason and experience. Such appeals are really attempts to intimidate. The predominately leftist news media publicizes the protests of a few hundred people and ignores the will of the vast majority of the voters of Raleigh. Those who support neighborhood schools should not reply in kind, but continue to appeal to reason and experience. But they should be willing to speak up and not allow intimidation tactics by the left to silence their voices.