Ideology and eternity

The crazy thing about your ideas is that they’re invisible, to you. Spend a whole day analyzing your thoughts and what you think, but one harsh comment from an outsider is often far more useful. It’s hard to describe the box, when you’re sitting in the dark inside of it.

For example, Foreign Policy recently explained in pseudo-delicate terms how mainland Chinese citizens are being brainwashed. The article says that they couldn’t understand the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests because their language can’t even accommodate democratic ideals. The Chinese language prioritizes “the national interest, the dignity of the state, social stability, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China,” all of which is incompatible with the democracy stuff of those Hong Kong exceptionals. The article blames the Chinese government and its strategic “propaganda system… normalizing its use and injecting it into everyday discourse.” This is how the 1.335 billion people were primed to disregard the Hong Kong protesters. Of course, not all Chinese people are “brainwashed zombies,” the article relented…

While reading that article, I was finishing a book arguing the same thing about us over here in the US and UK. Entitled Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, the book explained how current pro-market policies across the Atlantic can be traced back to a thorough campaign of great PR, awesome political ads, up-and-coming think tanks, and well-framed economic theory around the 1970s. According to author Daniel Stedman Jones, this vast pro-free market communications campaign equating economic “freedom” with political freedom is the reason why “profit” and “value” today are strewn across my vocabulary even when I’m talking about something completely unrelated to money; and why my culture thinks that successful businessmen are moral figureheads; and why we think we can fix world suffering by buying something good. As with the FP article, Jones does not use “brainwashed” or “duped” on us, but it’s implied. These are ideas we’ve been taught from the top down in nothing “but an elite-driven movement” that got going about 40 years ago (337).

So maybe we’re all brainwashed with this or that ideology. One just needs bit of distance, geographically or historically, to make the accusation.

C.S. Lewis, a professor at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, saw how easy it is to get duped into a set of ideas that we think are the end-all-be-all. It was 1939, at the dawn of WWII, and Lewis was trying to explain during a sermon called “Learning in War-Time” why learning history remained important amidst the surrounding chaos:

not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion…

In other words, very few things are permanent and absolute. Our “common sense” may not be common or sensible at all. In mainland China, common sense is a form of communism. In the West, common sense is total capitalism. But in his fabulous book “Counterfeit Gods,” Tim Keller uses both ideologies to illustrate how ideologies blind us when we’re in the midst of them: “In Marxism the powerful State becomes the savior and capitalists are demonized. In conservative economic thought, free markets and competition will solve our problems, and therefore liberals and government are the obstacles to a happy society” (2009, p. 106). But you only need to ask each ideology about the other to see serious flaws in both. Neither are panacea.

Economic theories are not the only things we might bank our lives on, as one honest look at our own hearts will tell us. Keller poses that any philosophy turns into an ideology and then our idol as soon as it is “raised to the level of the final word on things,” even though it’s still probably some totally random thing that probably sprouted a hundred years ago and will be outta here in another hundred (104). Some school (Stanford? Community college?), some party (Republican? Democrat?), some career track (Social? Corporate?), or whatever new social cause under a new name. Whatever it is, it could easily lead us to hands-down demonize something that is probably not sin, and wholeheartedly love something that is probably not God. (If that means nothing to you: We might be hating something that has good points, and obsessing about something that has bad points.) We humans have a habit of blowing potentially useful ideas way out of proportion into life missions and worldviews. It is a habit of extreme ideology, where we worship the next random idol of the day. We’re all busy building our personal Church of the Here and Now.

But it’s hard to ask ourselves which ideology we’ve hidden away in our hearts, or what little-world-god we currently worship and seek fulfillment from. And even after we ask the question, it’s hard to give an honest answer. Most difficult of all might be to field the question from someone else who looks in on us and sees very clearly that our heads are in the clouds. We think: Who gave you the right to tell me what I think? You’re not the boss of me. Plus you’re totally judging me. (Especially today, the word “to disagree” has become confused with “to judge,” even though I know for sure they mean two different things.) Overall, asking someone challenging questions with real care and concern, combined with receiving criticism with careful thought – both are hard. So this is where I must link to my friend’s post about a wonderful (really wonderful!!) relationship where this intricate exchange has figured heavily.

I mentally nodded my head with The Economist‘s suggestion that “the best way to understand a system is to look at it from the point of view of people who want to subvert it.” As we well know, a Republican is far more likely to slam down a Democrat’s stupid assumptions than a fellow Democrat, and China is far more likely to highlight the U.S.’ economic meltdown patterns than American ally South Korea. The question then becomes whether we’re ready to seek out and learn from our adversary’s subversive viewpoint, or if we’re immersed in our ideology to the point that anything different is automatic foolishness. (I.e., I. Am. Right. Period.) To put it personally, maybe the best way to understand how and why we think is to respectfully ask those people who completely disagree – or think we’ve been brainwashed.

To go back to Lewis, even the most passionate of human movements are finite and limited, no matter how nicely they started. Collectivist (a bad word in American culture) economic theory was partly rooted in a humanitarian fear of repeating the 1930s poverty of the Great Depression, after crony capitalism spiraled out of control. Alternatively, current free-market thinking (now critiqued at more mainstream levels) was spurred on by the fear of oppression of communist regimes in the mid-twentieth century. Both ideological movements are still glorified as the solution of all solutions. Both have also failed their followers and leaders, as critics will gladly confirm. So what is eternal? What is eternal? 

We have created numerous ideologies out of our sciences, economics and cultures. They all seem very different, but really they point to the same exact hunger we feel for something eternal. Somehow, everyone has this inkling of something that is beyond us and irrelevant to our human history. Boy, do we crave it, because we keep attributing those godly, objective qualities to the most random ideas (at least, they look random when we look back in time and then laugh at ourselves).

An old wise man named Solomon c. 950 B.C. wrote that eternity has been “set” in the human heart, despite our inability to fathom it. We have, somehow, a knowledge of this “forever,” like a memory we can’t trace or a scent we can’t place. It has been installed inside of us. Ah, I adore Solomon’s description. It resonates. For even as people fight each other through war, debate or hatred about whatever new historical/social phase or fad, maybe we’re all seeking the same thing, in the end. We seek something that goes beyond beginnings and ends.

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