Ideological Thinking: The Scourge of Humanity

Reflecting on the years he spent in conflict zones all over the globe, John F. Burns declared, “What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises. From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from the Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban to the repression of apartheid-era South Africa, I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology, and no perfidy that cannot be justified by manipulating the precepts of a Mao or a Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.” Many of us who have studied ethnic/religious conflict have come to the same conclusion.

But the lesson goes beyond the violent and oppressive regimes encountered by Burns. As Walter G. Moss notes in his article on this topic (“Why Learning from History Means Saying No to Rigid Ideologies” HNN), “the growth of a rigid U.S. political conservativism” has been harmful as well, even if less deadly.

If ideologies are so destructive, can we eradicate them? Moss believes that we don’t need to completely reject “all isms or embracing an unprincipled opportunism. We can, for example, prefer conservatism or liberalism in our approach to politics, as long as we let our individual values and judgments and not some party platform (see, e.g., here for that of the tea party) determine our political decisions.” I agree, but this still leaves the problem of persuading individuals to let go of their cherished world views.

Ideologies are so pervasive because they are comforting and often intoxicating. They give us meaning, certainties, identities, and a sense of self-worth. The best weapon against ideological thinking is education with a healthy dose of the humanities. The study of history in particular could potentially inculcate students against the temptations of ideologies. If students learn how to critically evaluate evidence, make analytic comparisons, and learn to appreciate complexities and ambiguities they will be less likely to fall for the distorted views of ideologies. And any exposure to the long train of human misery caused by ideological rigidity might make them think twice before they fall under the spell of any ideology. I don’t believe that we’ll ever completely eradicate ideological thinking, but we must try to at least limit its appeal.

For now, we as individuals must take responsibility for our own beliefs, and the behaviors that flow from those beliefs. And here Moss’s advice is apt: “Political wisdom requires a proper mix of idealism and realism and other virtues or values such as the love, kindness, and humility mentioned by Pope Francis, as well as compassion, empathy, tolerance, a sense of humor, creativity, temperance, self-discipline, passion, courage, and prudence. The trick is finding the proper combination of such values to apply to any concrete, unique political situation in order to further the common good.”

The Things I Carried Back –

Rituals For the Perpetuation of False Ideologies

“Rituals For the Perpetuation of False Ideologies” by Jeremy Eskin at

The Magna Carta Myth – The New Yorker

The Magna Carta has reached sacred status in the U.S., but its status has been built upon mythic foundations. The purposes it has served have generally been positive, illustrating that not all myth making is bad.  Jill Lepore explores this history in The New Yorker. She observes that “[i]t would not be quite right to say that Magna Carta has withstood the ravages of time. It would be fairer to say that, like much else that is very old, it is on occasion taken out of the closet, dusted off, and put on display to answer a need. Such needs are generally political. They are very often profound.” Read the entire story here:

The Magna Carta Myth – The New Yorker.

King John at Runnymede (1215) signing the Magna Carta

King John at Runnymede (1215) signing the Magna Carta

“Austrian Economics: Made in the USA” | History News Network

Janek Wasserman explains how Austrian economics was reduced to a simplified ideology as it was popularized in the U.S. “While the US trip did wonders for Hayek’s public profile, his long-time Austrian friends and colleagues had misgivings about Hayek Lite. The condensedversion—about which Hayek initially had some reservations but ultimately appreciated—lost most of the book’s nuance, becoming a dogmatic defense of free markets and an ill-defined liberty.” Read the entire article here:

History News Network | Austrian Economics: Made in the USA.


“The”Two Obstacles Ministers Had to Overcome Before They Could Turn Lincoln into a Saint” | History News Network

According to the historian Gary Scott Smithis the two obstacles to making Lincoln a saint were: “first, that he was fatally shot in a theater, an embarrassingly unsanctified place for a savior during the Victorian era. The clergy rationalized his attendance at Ford Theater, arguing that he had gone reluctantly to please his wife and gratify others. The second, larger difficulty these pastors encountered was that Lincoln had never explicitly testified to his faith in Christ. While some pastors bitterly regretted that he did not publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord, others countered that his actions demonstrated his faith or that he had accepted Christ as his savior in response to his son Willie’s death in 1862, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or at some other unknown time.” For further examination of Lincoln’s religious sentiments and the difficulties in making him an American saint read the entire article:

History News Network | The Two Obstacles Ministers Had to Overcome Before They Could Turn Lincoln into a Saint.