Where ideas are considered dangerous

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was praised for rising above ideology

Ryan Remiorz/CP

“Mr. Layton charged the Conservatives’ economic plan was following “some rigid ideology,” as opposed to dealing with the reality of relatively high unemploy­ment.”—Financial Post, Sept. 16

“Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe also took aim at Harper over the gun registry, accusing him of adopting an “ideological” stance to please his political base in the West.”—Montreal Gazette, Sept. 21

“First and foremost, we need to take ourselves seriously again, to pursue an active foreign policy informed by facts and compassion, rather than by ideology.”—Paul Heinbecker, Globe and Mail, Sept. 24

There is no more serious accusation in Canadian politics than that of having an ideology. Politicians would confess to killing their own grandmother rather than own up to such a thing: what the dictionary defines as “a body of ideas.” Possession of cocaine is a charge you can probably survive. But possession of ideas is career-ending.

Rather, practical men that they are, politicians prefer to say they live in the real world, guided, as Ambassador Heinbecker says, by facts, not ideology. “I’m not ideological,” many will say. “I just do what works.”

As a practical matter, this amounts to saying: I am insane. Everyone has an ideology, or at any rate everyone certainly should. It is simply not possible to comprehend the world around us without some sort of interpretive filter, some mental scaffolding on which to hang events. To say that you “just do what works” presumes that we can define “what works” without reference to some vision of the society we are trying to create—that is, an ideology.

In Canada, this acquires a peculiarly nationalist dimension. America, we tell ourselves, is the land of ideology. Therefore, on the principle that we must in all cases define ourselves in opposition to them, we can have none. But that principle, of nationalist differentiation, is itself an ideology. As is the idea that we should have no ideology.

It would surprise many people to hear that Jack Layton did not have an ideology. When he expresses concern that the government might be following “some rigid ideology,” he means an ideology other than his own. When others say, likewise, that Canada has no ideology, they mean none that they are aware of, because they are unaware that they have one, or more precisely that others might have another. The term, then, is almost exclusively used to refer to a set of ideas one does not like.

An extraordinary example was the admiring profile of Jim Flaherty that appeared recently in Report on Business magazine. At several points we are reassured that he is “not ideological.” Oh, sure, he might once have been described that way, but since then he “has risen above it.” This isn’t just empty boasting: “friends back him up” on it. And when the writer says he’s a “dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist,” he means in a good way.

Later, however, the article turns more critical. When Flaherty cut the GST from seven per cent to five per cent, he was said to have “put politics ahead of economics.” Every economist in the country could tell you that cutting the GST was a stupid idea: far better to cut income taxes, which do more harm to the economy. Why didn’t he listen to them?

Because he was being a pragmatist. Only now this is a bad thing, because in this case the writer agrees with the economists, and their—what’s that word—ideology. That the same economists would also recommend most of the free-market ideology he, and Flaherty, had earlier disdained, does not seem to occur to him.

It’s possible that this is merely a case of incorrect usage: when people say they are not “ideological,” they really mean “doctrinaire” or “dogmatic.” An ideology that is inconsistent with the facts is not an indictment of all ideological thinking: it just means you need a better ideology. Only if you persist in believing a false ideology are you being doctrinaire.

But I think there’s something else at work here. When a politician declares himself to be free of ideology, he does not merely mean he is not dogmatic. He means to free himself from any principled tethering whatever. He means to convert what would normally be seen as evidence of a character defect—opportunism, expediency, general slippery behaviour—into a virtue.

What others mean by it will vary with the situation. A supporter of aerospace subsidies, for example, will grandly dismiss all opposition as “ideological”—we can’t be the boy scouts of the world, everyone else is doing it, etc.—unaware that he is, in fact, in thrall to the ideology that Canada must be in aerospace.

Most often, however, and to most journalists, it means that which is radical. (Radicals have ideologies, while moderates are simply pragmatists.) And since most journalists define the “moderate” course as being whatever happens to be the status quo, that tends to mean new ideas of any kind. Anyone who proposes to change anything is thus automatically suspected, not just of radicalism, but “ideology.”

Of course, some ideologues are radicals, and some radicals are dogmatists. But the terms are not interchangeable. A person who comes to a radical point of view by a process of mature reflection is to be distinguished from a slogan-spouting crank.

What is it, for example, that makes the Tea Party grouping within the Republican party so objectionable? It is not, as supporters and opponents alike seem to believe, because they are radicals. It’s because—and here I will introduce another, more technical term—they’re yahoos.

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