Rediscovering Critique in a Time of Apologetics
By Conrad Jacober
István Mészáros, philosophy professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, characterizes one type of ideology as that which “supports the given order with uncritical attitude, adopting and glorifying the immediacy of the dominant system—no matter how problematical and full of contradictions—as the absolute horizon of social life itself.” This is the type of ideology most profuse in the world today and the one with which this essay is concerned.
In his article, Murica and Other Fallacies (The Kenyon Observer, January 31st, 2013), Ryan Baker characterizes the United States as a country where “you can be what you want to be.” He continues, “this kind of individual freedom is the premise that our country was founded upon.” If we understand “‘Murica” to be representative of extreme patriotism, then the title of Baker’s essay suggests otherwise. Far from a fallacy, the ideology of patriotism, characterized by an “uncritical attitude, adopting and glorifying” the country, is exactly what pervades Baker’s essay. Individual freedom forms the ideological foundations of our country; the truly existing structures of our American society are far from embodying any notion of freedom. As Ville Lampi puts it in his response to Baker’s article (February 15th, 2013), “many high schools do not have qualified teachers, some school districts cannot afford books.” If by freedom one means freedom to precarious poverty, an exploitiative and stratified justice system, poor access to good education and healthcare and a purchased political system, then by all means we are a nation of individual freedom.
If one does not accept this notion of freedom, then the idea that we are a nation of individual freedom whereby one can become what one wishes is more of an ideological defense of injustice than a statement of our true national character. This patriotic ideology pervades our society. In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama stated, “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” The sad truth is that she does not have the same chance to succeed as a child born into extravagant wealth. She is not born free. She is not born equal. If faced with the actual statistics regarding the socioeconomic mobility of the poorest in comparison to the wealthiest, President Obama would have no choice but to retract his statement or admit to pure ideological rhetoric.
The idea that the children of the poor and the wealthy have the same chance to succeed in life is a purely ideological masking of what is really the cold hard reality: where one ends up in life is inextricably tied to the luck of one’s birth. It does not have to be this way, but it is the uncritical and self-aggrandizing attitude of this ideology that aims to dissolve, mask and obscure the harsh realities of American society: that we are not free, we are not great, we are a class society, we are riddled with inequalities, we are more stratified in wealth disparity than ever before and more than any other Western societies. We are a sputtering empire that cannot manage to muster the most basic of social securities for its peoples because of the purchased and ideological nature that constitutes what most still call our “liberal democracy.”
We are well apprised of the terminology that most often constitutes the ideological defense of our American society: personal freedom, liberty, equality, individual choice, opportunity, etc. These terms have all become contentless concepts, cannon-fired into the minds of every citizen, privileged and nonprivileged alike, to justify what in reality are their exact opposites. This patriotic ideology halts most criticism, and the criticism that remains accepts the fundamental ideological assumptions about the nature of this nation. It struggles at the surface level and fails to delve into any critique of underlying structures, such as an economic system fundamentally characterized by exploitation, profiteering, and destruction.
The result of this ideology is that those who benefit from the structures of inequality and wealth stratification continue to benefit, while those who suffer and falter under those structures do so while simultaneously upholding them, whether explicitly or implicitly. This ideology has many casualties. When Osama bin Laden died, most of the nation cheered. What was not seen and had not been seen for all the years of that manhunt was any lamenting for the thousands of innocents killed and hundreds of thousands more destroyed and displaced in the path of utter destruction, torture and disembodiment. Not to mention that there was no attempt to understand why such a figure as Osama bin Laden would exist, let alone have any support of locals. What we would find is that his existence and that of much of the terrorism in the Middle East stems directly from the intervention of the United States and other Western nations in the great drive of economic interests, such as the opening of markets and privatization of natural resources, under the ideological guise of instituting freedom and democracy. There is no defense of the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government, whose only “mistake” was the 1951 nationalization of their oil industry and the threat it posed to Western domination and economic interests. Of course, the reason President Eisenhower and company gave for the coup d’etat was the existence of a “communist danger.”
A more contemporary example, the LAPD manhunt for Christopher Dorner, a recently fired cop accused of four murders, saw the LAPD open fire on and injure innocent bystanders on multiple occasions. The focus of the manhunt reporting was centered around elements of madness in Dorner’s manifesto. What went largely unreported were his cries of racism, excessive force and severe injustice in the LAPD, cries that many have given for decades. Dorner is dead, and the story is largely over, but there is an element of truth in the Onion’s satirical reporting which stated, “Los Angeles residents are reportedly on edge today following reports that hundreds of armed and extremely dangerous LAPD officers are resuming regular patrolling duties after the conclusion of Tuesday’s manhunt.” The problem of police abuse and unaccountability which plagues many large cities was neither the focus nor a minor element of the reporting, despite the fact that it was evident in the very manhunt itself. What we find yet again is the pervasiveness of ideology in the form of police force righteousness and an uncritical attitude towards abuse, the understanding of which could bring light to injustices that ought to be righted.
We must recognize the totalizing nature of ideology to more fully understand injustice and its defenders. As Mészáros says, “it is a question of understanding how the fundamental structural characteristics of a determinate social order assert themselves on the relevant scale and circumscribe the alternative modes of conceptualization of all the major practical issues.” An understanding of the power of ideology must be employed to grasp the ways in which it shapes and impresses itself upon all discourse, ideas, and our daily lives. This will lead us to an understanding of why certain alternative conceptions are ignored and often not taken seriously at all. A rediscovery of a critical mind, keyed towards the recognition of certain structures of society that enforce dominance, exploitation, and power, will lead to an understanding of society, the alternatives, and what must be done to achieve a world that embodies the true content of the concepts most often used as ideological weaponry: freedom, liberty, equality, justice, and equal opportunity. To do otherwise is to unquestioningly accept the casualties of ideology, the reality that what exists is the exact opposite of those enlightenment ideals.