03 February 2010

Ideologue of the Week: Jonah Goldberg

From conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg this week comes a defense of ideology, generally speaking, against criticism from self-proclaimed pragmatists like the present President. Goldberg simply refuses to believe that Obama isn't an ideologue, which means that the President can't win with this guy. If he is an ideologue, then Goldberg clearly disagrees with whatever he takes Obama's ideology to be. If he isn't, then Goldberg sics Bertrand Russell on him. The British philosopher and mathematician wrote that "ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth" is pragmatism prevailed everywhere. I googled the phrase and found it in one of Russell's Philosophical Essays in which he criticizes the pragmatism of philosophers like William James. That is, Russell wasn't attacking an approach to policy based on simple practicality but a belief that there exists no extra-human or extra-social objective standard that determines the truth of metaphysical claims. Russell's relevance to Goldberg's attempted opposition of ideology and pragmatism is questionable His usefulness to Goldberg is open to further question when you consider that Russell was an atheist whom some readers may yet remember from the 1960s as a harsh critic of American imperialism in his old age.

If it's unclear what Goldberg means by pragmatism, what does he mean by ideology? He wants to challenge the notion that ideology is at some level an "unthinking" response to political challenges. He describes ideology as a "bundle" or "values, customs, traditions and principles" that can "help you prioritize what you are going to do with the facts." He also proposes a paradox: "Indeed, the very question of deciding what to be pragmatic about -- this but not that -- requires applying an ideological test." Goldberg stretches the definition until it's too broad to be meaningful and too benign to be recognizable." Why is it "ideology" rather than "values?" Many conservatives, after all, would deny being ideologues as vehemently as the President does -- which goes to show that there are many kinds of conservatives. Goldberg appears to be one of the conservatives who believes in the irrepressible ideological conflict against "liberalism," and that belief apparently compels him to defend his right to be an ideologue.

Wikipedia defines ideology in the plural as "systems of abstract thought ... applied to public matters." The editors support Goldberg's position somewhat by arguing that "Implicitly every political tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought." But it seems like we should be able to narrow the definition to exclude some people from the taint of ideology. The reference site's definition of Political Ideology clarifies things a bit by describing "a certain ethical set of ideals, principles, doctrines,... that explains how society should work, and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order." Ideology is an attempt to reduce subjects for political deliberation to unquestionable normative rules. Its tendency is to moralize subjects that aren't really moral, and its typical expression is to denounce certain policy proposals as inherently "wrong." Ideological thinking is all done in the keys of "always" and "never." Some policies are never right, while others always work.While ideologues may go through the motions of proving these assertions through appeals to history, their reasoning is usually ahistorical at heart and thus resists practical (or "pragmatic") appeals for innovation, on one hand, or retrenchment, on the other. Marxists remain the archetypal ideologues of modern history but American entrepreneurial conservatives may be the best contemporary examples of ideologues at work because they define themselves so completely in opposition to Marxism. Jonah Goldberg is such an ideologue, and it's his prerogative to be unapologetic about it. It's also his prerogative both to question my definition of ideology in general (and his in particular) and to attribute it to an unacknowledged ideology of my own. Most likely, ideologues assume that everyone's an ideologue...or a barbarian. But based on how I understand ideologues, I really hope I'm not one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In reading Goldgerg's use of this quote in "China Syndrome Liberalism", it seems to me that he used it exactly in the way that you have described Russel as having used it. That is, "Russell’s point was that there’s nothing within pragmatism to delineate the proper and just limits of pragmatism. We must look outside pragmatism for truly meaningful definitions of the greater good."
That Russel would possibly disagree with Goldberg's ideas in general is utterly unimportant. (besides, to assume that Russel's philosophical beliefs would not have been significantly affected by the subsequent events of the 20th century, making comparisons between his beliefs almost a hundred years ago and a present day writer pretty much irrelevant.