No secular ideal, no matter how lofty and shining, should be taken on faith, much less worshipped.
Idealism is best reserved for the church or its typological equivalents in other religions. Everything else, including such glorious things as democracy and free markets, should be subjected to merciless, dispassionate analysis based on concrete factors, not generalisations.
Even cracking the door ajar to let political idealism in leads to appalling errors of judgement, sometimes to disasters. However, as I write this, I realise how alien this line of thought is even to Europeans, not to mention Americans.
By way of a personal aside, when I was leaving the Soviet Union for the US, I was bogged down in a quagmire of bureaucratic snags holding me back. One was having to have my university diploma copied and notarised, which wasn’t easy in Moscow at the time. Nothing was, come to that.
Yet I persevered, feeling my survival in the West depended on my educational credentials. And you know what? In the 50 subsequent years never once have I been asked to show my diploma. Not in America, not in Europe, not in a single personnel department. Even those responsible for recruitment policy would simply take me at my word, spoken or written in the CV.
Such credulity is obviously appealing, but just as obvious is its potential for abuse. At the micro level of someone claiming to have a degree he never earned, that potential is trivial. At the macro level of a country’s foreign policy, it could come to fruition as a catastrophe.
Western politicians often profess devotion to realpolitik, but it’s nearly always mitigated by their latent idealism. Thus every American politician I’ve observed over the past half-century genuinely believed in the redemptive value of political democracy and economic freedom.
Some of them have taken practical steps towards jeopardising such ideals even domestically, but that happened because they made specific mistakes, not because they abandoned their secular faith. The faith persevered, as strong as it was misplaced.
Political pluralism is good, and economic freedom is a sine qua non of national prosperity. Yet countries practise political pluralism and economic freedom because they are essentially good. They don’t become essentially good because they practise pluralism and freedom.
Belief that they may, especially if it’s not subject to constant verification, doesn’t create goodwill in the world. It creates monsters.
I can prove this point in three words: Iraq, Russia, China. These are the arenas in which the West, especially America, has paraded its naïve idolatry most recently and disastrously.
Neoconservative agitation for the 2003 attack on Iraq focused on the noble goal of nation-building and introducing democracy to the Middle East, complete with bicameral parliaments, division of power and general elections.
That proceeded from the faulty causality I mentioned above. The neocons (and a population all too eager to accept their message) actually believed that, once Saddam was ousted, and the Iraqis formed a beeline for the voting booths, the country would instantly become a heaven inhabited by angels.
What followed was a horrendous, and still ongoing, bloodbath in the Middle East, accompanied by an upsurge in global terrorism, the migration of millions of cultural aliens to the civilised parts of the world, and a growing power of such evil states as Russia and China.
That power has also been to a large extent fostered by misplaced – and hence, in geopolitics, criminal – idealism on the part of the West. Starting with Russia, she became a giant extrapolation of a dishonest applicant finagling a job on false pretences.
Coming into play there was Western formalism, that ubiquitous feature of modernity. When served up an attractive form, today’s Westerners often can’t be bothered to look for any real substance behind it. Show them the outer paraphernalia of their own ideals at work elsewhere, and their triumphant shouts will muffle any words of caution.
In fact, that much vaunted collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent ascent to the heaven of democracy and free enterprise amounted to nothing but a transfer of power from the Communist Party to a unique blend of secret services and organised crime. But the West didn’t see that because it didn’t want to.
All it saw was the outer shell of elections, private companies popping up like mushrooms after an autumn rain, and statues of communist ghouls publicly pulled down. Hats were being thrown up into the air all over North America and Europe, followed by corks exploding out of champagne bottles.
The most intoxicated dupe among the neocons even wrote a book claiming that the first general election in Russia ended history. Democracy had triumphed, all debates had ended, there was nothing else to talk about. Having realised the error of its ways, the whole world would now follow suit.
The public bought that gibberish because it chimed with its own innermost belief in the redemptive power of democracy. Few people realised that political pluralism has to be nurtured by centuries of moral, religious, philosophical and political finetuning. If it isn’t, it’s almost guaranteed to be stillborn.
For the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union vindicated the wisdom of Nixon’s (more appropriately, Kissinger’s) détente. The Russians had been led to goodness by trade with the West and an injection of Western capital and technology. Now they could become just like us because, at base, they already were.
Coming into play there was another delusion, one of a slightly different origin. By then, the West had become utterly philistine, with all the self-satisfied smugness that entailed. A philistine sees himself as the acme of creation. His ways aren’t just the best, but the only ones possible. Hence those whose ways are different are simply lost lambs, desperate to reach philistine virtue. All they need is a little help.
The West was effectively turned into that personnel manager hiring a fraud. Its unshakable faith in the universal virtue of its own values encouraged it to nurture an evil, cynical regime that knew how to capitalise on idealism. Ukrainians are now paying for that naivety with their blood, and the long-term consequences are as unpredictable as they are probably grim.
China is another case in point. There, her evil rulers refused to serve up even the outer shell of democracy, but the West was duped anyway. China now has at least a semblance of free enterprise, doesn’t she? That’s it then. Everything else will follow with the certainty of summer following spring. And if you don’t believe that, you inveterate cynic you, read your Mises, Hayek and Friedman. They’ll tell you.
China became the West’s manufacturing base and its vital trading partner. She has also become, as a direct result, the fulcrum of a new evil axis out to dominate the world. If in the past the West could have prevented that axis from appearing by a simple exercise of rational prudence, now the choice may well come down to either surrender or nuclear holocaust.
Idealism, though an important factor in such developments, wasn’t the only factor. Also playing a role was a quest for a material pay-off coupled with fear of confrontation. Yet in life metaphysics comes before physics, not after it as do the eponymous chapters in Aristotle’s book.
There is nothing wrong with ideals – in fact, they give life a meaning, a teleological aspect. But there is plenty wrong with idealism, especially when it serves as a substitute for historical understanding, dispassionate analysis and a hardnosed calculation of odds.
6 thoughts on “Wrong gods to worship”
I fail to see why a line should be drawn between religious ideals and secular idealism. The latter being an echo of the former.
It’s hard to say what might have happened had Operation Iraqi Freedom (Operation Telic if you’re British) not gone ahead. Perhaps Saddam would have acquired WMD’s, perhaps the Saudis would have covertly sanctioned another major attack on US soil. Perhaps Russia and China might have, sensing weakness, pounced upon US assets around the globe.
What makes Western support for Ukraine any less ideological than the Bush administrations middle eastern campaigns?
The fear that, if Putin isn’t stopped there, he’ll press on. That’s stark realism, not ideology. The belief that Eastern lives should be lost to make sure every tribal society on earth has a bicameral parliament, on the other hand, is sheer ideology. There would have been nothing wrong with invading Iraq if realpolitik considerations demanded it. But they didn’t, this side of the what-if school of geopolitics. Attacks on US soil can easily be prevented by the credible threat, say, to occupy all the oil fields or perhaps to blow up a major Middle Eastern city. Nothing ideological, just business.
That makes sense.
“In the 50 subsequent years never once have I been asked to show my diploma. Not in America, not in Europe, not in a single personnel department.”
And the higher the position you aspire to the less you are questioned and the more you are trusted.
Think of President Obama and there were you born in the USA controversy I guess the idea is it nobody ever thought it would be even remotely possible for somebody who might be questioned about your eligibility to be president. It seems it’s a no-brainer and a slam dunk item, but it turned out to be, didn’t it
One (ignorant/incompetent/insane) man, one vote and nothing else will do! How has the governing of Great Britain improved since the House of Lords was reformed to include elected members? I’m sure the vast difference has been noted and the electorate happier than ever before!