Achieving (which?) goals by “putting ideology aside”


On February 27th a very lengthy article appeared on the front page of the New York Times with the headline, “Hints at Change, but Cuba Remains Wary.” The first two paragraphs came complete with a bit of mythology that is very widely-held in the United States. So widely-held, in fact, that I doubt most people reading it even noticed it. Here are the two paragraphs; see if you can notice the very bizarre myth that is assumed by the writer to be true:

Opinion: Achieving (Which?) Goals by “Putting Ideology Aside”

“In his first state reception as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro met Tuesday not with leftist Latin American leaders like Hugo Chavez and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, nor with Chinese officials, but with the secretary of state of the Vatican, a traditional enemy of Communism and a critic of Cuba’s record on human rights.

“Mr. Castro’s decision to begin his tenure by meeting the Vatican’s top diplomat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a possible go-between with the United States and Europe, reflects his practical, no-nonsense style as well as his greater willingness to put ideology aside to achieve his goals than his brother often showed.”

The mythology to which I refer is that last point, the one about “putting ideology aside to achieve his goals.”

To see why this is a myth, first we have to understand the word “ideology.” What is “ideology”? There are varying definitions, but I have referred to it as a “set of ideas” or a “way of thinking.” A dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “ideology” means “A systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics or society, or to the conduct of a class or group, and regarded as justifying actions…”

The Powerful Myth

The mythology that is apparently believed by the Times—or at least that is passed on by the Times, whether they believe it or not—is the idea that political “goals” can exist apart from “ideology.” How bizarre! What would such a “goal” look like? And how would one set a “goal” without a “systematic scheme of ideas” to help prioritize and organize one’s complex choices about goodness, worthiness, importance, needs, and values? Such organizing ideas are the essence of “ideology.” A goal, after all, is itself an idea, connected to other ideas like these.

Such bizarre thinking is not new at the Times. Early in the last presidential campaign, in 2003, the Times covered a debate among the Democratic candidates. Their headline was: “Pragmatism Meets Ideology: Democrats Draw Battle Lines.” The “pragmatic” candidates were the ones who “stressed positions that are decidedly more moderate than those of many Democratic primary voters.” The “ideological” candidates, in contrast, were “trying to tap into [a] deep anger” that was “stoked by the conservative policies Mr. Bush has embraced.”

Get it? It’s “pragmatic” to be “moderate” and it’s “ideological” to be upset.

The word “pragmatic,” according to Oxford, means “aiming at what is achievable rather than ideal.” Another word for this is “practical.” The Times considers this to be in opposition to “ideological,” which simply means “having to do with ideas.”

It’s entirely possible that writers for the Times don’t know what these words mean. While that’s a serious problem for a writer, for our purposes let’s assume that they do know the meaning of the words they are using. The Times is saying here—and it’s simply assumed, not up for debate—that “moderate” positions in politics are “achievable” and stronger positions, ones having to do with ideas, are not.

From a propaganda point of view, the most important thing to notice here is the implied notion that “moderate” positions do not have to do with ideas. They are simply “pragmatic.”

A propaganda system is successful when the people within the system accept existing conditions—including the prevailing ideology—so totally that they cannot imagine things being any other way. I’m reminded, once again, of my ill-fated attempt at getting a college education. (I lasted only one quarter.) I took a class at a major university called “Principles of Macroeconomics.” It soon became clear that the class would only discuss capitalist economics, yet I appeared to be the only student who noticed not only that capitalism is but one particular ideology with particular “principles,” but that something—anything—was missing from this introductory course. An “honors” course, no less! That’s evidence of a successful propaganda system working where it matters most, in the minds of the educated classes.

It was once famously said in a Star Trek episode that “Resistance Is Futile.” If a propaganda system can get people to believe that, then few people will bother to resist. But it is even better, in propaganda terms, if people can’t even imagine any real alternatives to the existing system. Then resistance goes from being futile to being unthinkable.

The Myth Is Conservative

The myth that we can have goals without having ideas is not simply weird. It’s also fundamentally conservative, which Webster’s defines as “disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.”

In order to change things, one must be able to imagine things being a different way. That is, one must have a “set of ideas” about what a different world might look like. To maintain things as they are, in contrast, requires no particular “ideology.” Passivity will do.

The mythology at the Times—and in the U.S. as a whole, to some extent—is that conservative or moderate positions are not “ideological,” since they do little or nothing to change what already exists. Such a decision to leave things as they are can seem like “no decision,” but in fact it is highly ideological, since it amounts to a choice to support the existing order, which is not neutral.

Small tinkering with things is widely seen as “achievable” in the U.S. political context. Politicians can thus talk about such things as more or less regulation, slightly higher or lower taxes, or how to require people to get insurance from existing corporations. Since many voters believe, according to the polls, that a successful politician must be able to “get things done,” it is often seen as a good thing for a candidate to be “pragmatic” by limiting his or her proposals to such tinkering. Longer-term, visionary proposals, ones that seek to change how power and wealth are distributed in society, or how resources are controlled, are “ideological,” so poll-conscious leaders learn quickly not to talk about this kind of Big Idea. Acceptable Big Ideas must be sufficiently big as to be meaningless. “Change!” “Experience!” and so forth.

When the Times, and other powerful institutions directly and indirectly reinforce the bizarre myth that the only way to “achieve goals” or to be “pragmatic” is to “put ideology aside,” they are, knowingly or unknowingly, limiting our ability to imagine a different world. That is powerful propaganda.