The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Essays

The Ideology of Anti-Ideology

(Plus Cartoons and Selected Short Subjects)

Donald Dewey

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939, directed by Frank Capra, Columbia Pictures; Sony Pictures.

At its best, Hollywood had audiences streaming out of theaters with a reassuring sense of communal recovery and solidarity.

Americans have always had a tough time with ideology. When they use the word at all, they tend to do so with a ready sneer that lets others know they would rather be discussing something more suitable for democratic adults. Yet the word has become unavoidable of late. As any pundit will readily tell you, the single biggest reason for the antagonisms and resultant inertia of Congress in the new millennium is not one of those things you might reasonably have considered (you know, weakening party discipline, spite, straightforward racism), but the ideological abyss that has opened between Republicans and Democrats. In tones of disapproval, disgust, and horror, we are scolded that this is not at all what the founding fathers had in mind, and certainly not what the founding mothers would have excused at the dinner table. Go wash your hands. No one is to reach for politics with fingers begrimed with ideology.

As conventional wisdom goes, this particular example is a model of self-delusion and hypocrisy on numerous levels, beginning with the belated admission that ideology might have actually existed all this time outside the walls of the Kremlin, all those McCarthy-era House subcommittees and precipitate John Wayne takes on reality notwithstanding. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, such received wisdom also flattered American cultural vanities with its presumption that the coffee table in every reasonable citizen’s living room featured a statue of the goddess Accommodation requiring regular offerings of smoldering incense. Even with that bubble burst, there has been an effort by the same sages who never saw November 2016 coming to typify the results as yet another form of ideology, “populism,” a term that has been pressed into service relentlessly to intellectualize moods spanning the ugly, the cavalier, and the passive-aggressive. If ideology were market merchandise, populism would be what has made it indiscriminately available, but at ruinous prices.

The first notable figure quoted as speaking disparagingly of ideology was Napoleon, who dismissed French philosophers antagonistic to his imperial aims as “mere ideologues.” Gradually, the term degenerated into a synonym for everything from stagnant intellectualism and overripe theorizing to despotic dogma and total lie. Outside academe, few adhered to its core meaning of a global vision enlisting philosophical projection, idealistic belief, and social arrangement for prescribing mass dynamics; that is, where there was ideology, there was a worldview. Still fewer were those who, not captive to their own schematic worldview, acknowledged the constant shift of perspective necessitated by evolving realities and foreseen in the early nineteenth century by philosopher Antoine Destutt de Tracy in proposing idéologie as a science of ideas. When ideology didn’t invite rejection as its own worst ism, in other words, it was arraigned for giving birth to dangerously obsessive offspring, many of whom adopted the custom of hurling bombs and similar decor-changing objects to hasten realization of their personal Weltanschauungen.

On occasion, the spawn haven’t even had to appear menacing to face rejection. A striking facet of American skepticism toward isms is that while it has been most conspicuously aimed at the aspirations of Europe-rooted anarchism, fascism, and communism, it has also been evident in attitudes toward the contents of the French Revolution and even the American Revolution. Symptomatically, popular American depictions of the French Revolution over the years suggest that it was little more than an eruption that began in the best of times and worst of times and that ended with people doing a far, far better thing than they had ever done before while all the time a sadistic crone did her sewing in the shadow of the guillotine. Liberté, égalité, fraternité might as well have been the cry of the Three Musketeers after another one of their tavern duels.

At a popular level at home, once past those promissory concepts of freedom and independence, our general neglect of the social and political substance of the American Revolution has pointed to a distinct discomfort with seeing it as a revolution at all. If that has changed a bit recently, it has done so only in academic studies that have taken a closer look at the history of the time, a revisionist deepening that still has not made it into most classrooms or textbooks, let alone the national consciousness. The enduring motto, it seems, is Keep It Simplistic. No doubt it has been less taxing to dwell on a colonial rebellion than on a revolution proper, since this has let us regard ourselves as emotional and instinctual, responding only to what any aggrieved innocent would respond to in such oppressive conditions. A revolution raises the specter of at least minimal calculation, and who wants to have to explain why the enthusiasm for equality somehow left all those slaves around, even up at George Washington’s place? As long as rescue is assured, an imperiled Pauline is always more becalming than a militant Rosa Luxemburg.

This non-deliberative tradition has been hard to miss, and again popular culture has been suggestive. Is it mere coincidence, for instance, that once past the singing and hoofing of 1776 and the pricey theatrical happening of Hamilton, treatment of the Revolution has been exhausted with television serials adapted from paperback bodice rippers and best-selling biographies? Doubtless abetted by the foresight that militiamen who sport powdered wigs while firing one-shot muskets are not as exciting as unkempt rebels blazing away with Colt .45s, Hollywood, Publishers Row, and other feeders of public fantasy have tended to support D.W. Griffith’s view that the Civil War, and not the War of Independence, marked the birth of the nation. And, of course, the true values of that conflict, as we have known since elementary school, were no secession and no slavery, blessed propositions requiring no more thought (least of all of the ism-ic kind) than that needed to espouse freedom and independence. Why go further into such complex issues as the industrial North’s economic grip on the South, states’ rights demands, or even the significance of the election of Abraham Lincoln? As ballplayers say, think long, think wrong.

But a dearth of insights into the Revolution has not precluded attempts to define the American character and the values that have supposedly shaped it since then; once transposed to a less ambiguous setting without powdered wigs, beribboned hair, and silk stockings, the quest has bred plenty of identity claims—from writers feeling a duty to file them, from politicians mining the discoveries of the writers, and from historians assaying the impurities in both groups.

Again, the most frequent epiphanies have been the simplest ones. Down to our day, almost a century later, a poll asking where our social-cultural beliefs have found their most explicit expression would assuredly yield as a popular reply, even in the face of recent inflammatory rhetoric, Frank Capra’s Everyman movies of the 1930s, when Mr. Smith went to Washington and Mr. Deeds to town. And what values did Capra proffer through his James Stewart and Gary Cooper protagonists? A moral righteousness combating corporate and government corruption, for one. The satisfactions of honest work in a capitalist society, for a second. The democratic right to happiness against the daily forces of unhappiness, for a third. Faith in the constancy of (ideally Christian) divine protection, for a fourth. In sum, nothing that approached the ism-ic; indeed, no principle deriving from that thar book learnin’ in the least. As Mr. Smith showed in his Senate filibuster, the one text worth heeding was the US Constitution; as Mr. Deeds insisted, the only sincere form of writing was greeting-card doggerel—a doff of the fedora to the New Testament for having been an influence on the noblest sentiments of both.

By this measure, an American’s guiding values have nothing to gain from the ideologies hatched in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, and not merely because of the distinctions imposed by geography and history. For openers, the foreign-grown ideologies would have been inconceivable without their elaboration and argumentation in books and periodicals—suspect outlets in the minds of congressmen and jingle writers. To one subtle degree or another, anarchism, fascism, and communism, the most acted-upon isms in their various derivative forms, were programmatic philosophies proposing specific steps toward specific objectives. Realization was stipulative, not reactive, predicated as much on theoretical as on social accomplishment. Indifference to them was neither here nor there. Those who didn’t subscribe to the ideology at issue were still encompassed as active or potential foes, as part of the problem when not part of the solution. From the viewpoint of the ideology, everybody was involved. A worldview meant precisely that—a vision of the world, not merely of selected islands and subscribing archipelagoes.

Overtly, there has been little patience among Americans with the vaunted comprehensiveness of these isms; societies, not to mention the individual person, cannot be wrapped up so neatly in one package, we say. But, in fact, we too have harbored an ideology expressive of all-inclusiveness—one referred to with deceptive informality as the “American way of life,” one considerably more nationalistic than those from Europe, and one (also critically different) born as a defensive credo of established authority rather than a system for replacing that authority. All these distinctions insinuate reasons for the sensitivity about the very notion of ideology on this side of the Atlantic; they also contain the seeds of why the domestic variety of ideology hasn’t always flowered at will or why on occasion it has grown out in peculiar forms. The most disquieting of these forms, as illustrated of late, has been that so-called populism.

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