[W]hen it comes to ideology, I prefer to turn to someone who spent a lot of time living with it and opposing it: poet and one-time president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. “Ideology,” wrote Havel, “is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”
Thus, the only way to oppose ideology, thought Havel, was “living in the truth”: refusing to participate in the culture of lies. His famous example is the greengrocer who, if he refuses to put the “Workers of the World Unite” sign in his shop window, gets in trouble with the communist authorities, even though he is one of the workers that the “workers’ party” is supposed to be protecting!
In rejecting “ideology,” Havel was referring to the poisonous political creed of socialism that largely ruined Eastern Europe after the Soviet takeover, and by implication the “wholly different” creed of fascism that set itself up as socialism’s opponent. The Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch are assumed to know that those two creeds were really one poison with two slightly different flavorings. But what’s really interesting here is Havel’s counterposition of truth as the antidote to such toxins.
Back when we were all still swinging from the trees, I wrote:
Truth is an evaluation: a judgment that some proposition corresponds to objective reality sufficiently for men to rely upon it. The weakening of the concept of truth cuts an opening through which baldly counterfactual propositions can be thrust into serious discourse. Smith might say that proposition X is disprovable, or that it contradicts common observations of the world; Jones counters that X suits him fine, for he has dismissed the disprovers as “partisan” and prefers his own observations to those of Smith. Unless the two agree on standards for relevant evidence, pertinent reasoning, and common verification — in other words, standards for what can be accepted as sufficiently true — their argument over X will never end.
An interest group that has “put its back against the wall” as regards its central interest, and is unwilling to concede the battle regardless of the evidence and logic raised against its claims, will obfuscate, attack the motives of its opponents, and attempt to misdirect their attention with irrelevancies. When all of these have failed, its last-ditch defense is to attack the concept of truth. Once that has been undermined, the group can’t be defeated. It can stay on the ideological battlefield indefinitely, preserving the possibility of victory through attrition or fatigue among its opponents.
I’ve cited those two paragraphs many times. They’re fundamental to any attempt to understand anything. While the subject of the cited essay was politics, the core of the matter remains the willingness to perceive and the determination to respect facts.
In the political realm, an ideology is a bundle of propositions about what sort of policies will lead to a certain desired state. The desired state may be anything you can imagine: freedom, equality, national greatness, universal prosperity, Lebensraum, what have you. Some ideologies promote more than one such value, but it’s typical for an ideology to make one value supreme.
One who is concerned with fidelity to the facts will usually avoid disputing the value or the supremacy of the supreme value. He’s right to do so; arguing values with an ideologue is a quick route to madness. Rather, he’ll ask: “These propositions upon which your ideology is based: are they all true?”
Rare is the ideology that can withstand such an examination.
The combination of observable facts with the perception of developments over time leads to propositions about cause and effect. If united to some value, a bundle of such propositions can morph into an ideology. But for that ideology to be valid – i.e., to have value to those who accept the supremacy of the value it promotes – it must have two properties:
- It must concede its domain of application to be limited;
- The propositions it comprises must be true everywhere within that domain.
Note that, as in the previous segment, I avoid any debate over the value itself. An ideology that holds the extinction of Mankind as its supreme value might, despite one’s revulsion toward it, be fact-based and valid. That doesn’t mean that anyone is required to embrace it.
Therefore, the only validity test to which an ideology can meaningfully be subjected is whether cleaving to its propositions truly would bring about the supreme value. “If we were to accept your policy prescriptions,” the logician asks the ideologue, “would that bring about the state you value most?” Of course, the ideologue will somewhat indignantly reply “Of course it would!” But the follow-up question is the one that really matters: “Are you willing to accept factual evidence that testifies to the contrary?”
The test applies to any proposed policies, regardless of what value they claim to seek. “Are these propositions true? Have they been tried? Did they work? If not, why not – and does that invalidate any of your proposed policies?”
Such is the state of discourse in our time that those questions are usually asked from a safe distance.
“Live not by lies” runs the slogan. It’s a good one. (It’s also the title of a pretty good book.) One who, when faced by an ideologist, insists upon knowing what the facts are, cannot be easily deceived. The ideologist who attempts to conceal the facts dooms himself and his ideology, in the long term at the very least. Herein lies the essence of Vaclav Havel’s insistence on “living in the truth.”
Which is why for political discourse to regain its worth, its “current edition” must be flushed away and replaced with an emphasis on facts, experience, and truth.