Ignorance, Ideology, Sovietology and Provisional Politics at Home
In dipping into a series of essays on ideology and totalitarianism, I’ve been reminded of the ludicrous ways in which Soviet Communism was conceptualized, explained and assessed throughout the twentieth century, from 1917 until the fall of the system in 1991, and perhaps beyond. This is a classic study of how insufficient information, when combined with more than ample prejudice, cripples human perception, theorizing and prognostication.
Sovietology, which in the West was fueled by both academic interests and the Cold War, was a sort of combination of sociology, political science, area studies and history, all designed to explain the Soviet experience to us, and predict how it would develop in the future. The resulting analysis and predictions were very frequently—no, usually—wrong. The lesson is an important one.
A Checkered History
Who, for example, can forget the love affair that American and even European intellectuals so often had with Communism, stretching back at least to the 1930s. Socialism has always had a strong appeal to the professorial left, which has typically been willing to overlook reports of barbarism as either necessary evils or exaggerations designed to thwart the advent of the workers’ paradise—all this from snobbish types who would never recognize a real worker as a colleague. In many ways this bias continued to flourish in academia up until the fall of the Soviet system, crushed as it was under its own appalling weight.
Then, of course, there was immense (and sometimes willful) ignorance. People would visit the Soviet Union, go exactly where they were taken and see exactly what they were supposed to see, and then return home with glowing reports of Soviet progress and contentment. Rumors of the gulag were fairly effectively filtered out, except in religious and conservative circles, until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn burst upon the scene in the 1960s, leading to The Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s. Then, at last, the full horror of the Soviet labor camps became known and captured the popular and even the academic imagination.
Most of my readers may also remember perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the 1980’s, as Mikhail Gorbachev attempted gradually to reform a heavily encrusted system which was unlikely ever to function without an ideology to hold it together and command obedience. When it all came tumbling down in 1991, Boris Yeltsin was left in power over the new Russian Federation, promising a transformation from socialism to capitalism along with far greater freedom. Yeltsin was only the second democratically-elected leader in Russian history, and where we might have expected some sort of coup to bring Yeltsin to power, it was actually the hardline Communists who revolted, though unsuccessfully, against a confused and confusing future.
Western journalists had almost no ability to interpret these events, to figure out who was who, what was at stake, or whom to support. After the fall, Western politicians and technocrats busied themselves in traveling to Russia to instruct Russian leaders on Western models for reviving this or that aspect of their economy, often without realizing that the entire infrastructure necessary for any sort of national economy was utterly destroyed, or that the lack of cooperation with central authority was extreme. Or that the Western world was soon to be engulfed in its own economic chaos.
My particular point in all this, once again, is that Sovietology and its successor studies have pretty much always been caught between ignorance and prejudice, thereby becoming incapable of shedding significant light. But my more universal point is that this should not surprise us. In fact, to varying degrees, things are the same everywhere.
Caught Between Ignorance and Prejudice
Fast forward to the United States. This exercise can easily apply to any country or culture, but we Americans are, after all, gearing up for a run to the Presidency over the next ten months. This means that the various candidates, all their supporters, and all their detractors are deep into the business of making broad assertions about major complex issues: the economy, immigration, foreign relations, public health, the national debt, the political process, the meaning of the Constitution, and so on.
One would think it obvious by now that few of the candidates know very much about these things, that no candidate knows nearly enough about all of them, and that the electorate (at least in most cases) knows even less than the candidates. I make no secret of the fact that I do not understand how the American economy works in terms of the interaction between free enterprise, international markets, government controls, and the interventions of the Federal Reserve. Nor, for example, do I know how to sort out all the problems connected with immigration, though there at least I understand the various issues at stake.
Lamentably, neither do I know enough about what is going on in various regions of the world to know for certain what America’s role should be, if any, in each region. I’d like to see the role of government scaled back dramatically for many reasons, not the least of them economic and philosophical, both at home and abroad, but I have no idea how we might achieve a consensus on this issue. And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg of my own ignorance.
But there is one thing I do know: Everybody else, including every self-proclaimed public policy expert, also operates in at least a relative sea of ignorance. Modern societies are extremely complex, most of their operations are highly compartmentalized and removed from our personal experience, and all the factors which both complicate them and enable them to function are understood fully by precisely nobody. This is, I suppose, an argument for progressive simplification. But even if a given person does know a great deal about one factor, he or she is often woefully ignorant of others.
We must add to this ignorance all the many competing theories, each of which purports to properly explain all relevant causes and effects. Finally, we must add the almost inescapable weight of what “people on our side are supposed to believe”, or what we may instinctively want to believe, given our overall value system.
A Modest Lesson in Good Politics
This is not a pretty picture. Because we can still be certain of a few absolute moral principles, vouchsafed to us either through Revelation or the Natural Law, we have access to a rough guide which ought to govern our deliberations about all the rest. But a great deal of public policy is shrouded in ignorance, adopted through prejudice or ideology, or motivated by simple self-interest masquerading as the public good.
As a test of how well the media we rely on can really help us to grasp these complexities, I recommend finding coverage of some development in a particular field we ourselves know well. In nearly every case, we will notice significant errors, even howlers. We can learn, if we are cautious and discerning, from almost anyone, but why would we place blind trust in these same outlets when they pontificate on matters which are otherwise beyond our ken? In nearly every straightforward and emphatic presentation, if we scratch the surface, we will find carelessness, ignorance, prejudice, ideology, preconceptions and just plain stupidity at work. Again, this is not a pretty picture.
But it is reality, and it is the reason I keep reminding everyone that politics is and must be inescapably provisional. To make progress, we must be willing to listen and to study before we make pronouncements. Even as we assess the ideas of others, we must reevaluate our own assumptions and mental tendencies, both in light of more certain principles and according to what we honestly do and do not know. Then we must try something, see if it works, and learn from that.
This is my recipe for doing politics in 2012. The good political cook starts with a large measure of humility, and then mixes a very few absolute principles into a froth of confusion. Finally, he cautiously draws out one or two provisional solutions at a time, and watches carefully as they are baked in the fire of human experience. Or, to use another metaphor, we cannot see clearly now. The rain isn’t gone, and the fog is not likely to clear while we walk on God’s earth. Ignorance, ideology and prejudice are monsters in the haze, always partially hidden from view.
It is imporant to note that good politics is not at all cowardly, or we would never act at all. Sometimes political action must be both decisive and bold. But we all have a tendency to be loose cannons when the silly season—the political season—comes upon us. We insist on affirming and condemning for reasons which are very often shrouded in personal and collective mystery. This is something Catholics, who ought to know the difference between the Divine and the human, should make every effort to avoid. The best political solutions are honestly conceived, carefully planned, justly limited—and provisional.
Although this is not a review, and I have no recommendation to make, the book that occasioned these thoughts was the anthology of writings about ideology and totalitarianism, entitled The Great Lie and offered below.
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