John F.Burns, a distinguished foreign correspondent for the New York Times tells us what has guided him these past forty years. It was a wise piece of advice he received when he started out. “It is not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back” that counts. His latest essay is titled, “Things I Carried Back.” (New York Times, April 11, 2015)
What did he bring back? “What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was a abiding revulsion for ideology in all its guises.”
“From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from 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 Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.”
For me, a sociologist, this raises questions: Why are ideologies so powerful? Why do they have such ardent followers? Why do they appeal to very different people? Just what are ideologies? Do they tap into something fundamental about human nature?
From my effort to understand “how we cope in social space” (the subtitle of a book of mine) the answer to these questions is something like this:
Ideologies give individuals — from the mildly disgruntled to the profoundly alienated — a sense of access to an “Ultimate”, all-powerful entity that supplies unimpeachable solution to every conceivable problem. Ideologies are such Ultimates. Here, from my book, is an introduction to Ultimates:
* “Amid coping (with daily life) we sometimes experience a vague sense of something larger than ourselves that bears on our life, giving us a glimpse of some sort of an Ultimate Reality.
* On occasion an Ultimate Reality become compellingly real. And most compellingly, then, comes the conviction that we actually have access to that Ultimate Reality. From this we transcend all the shortcomings, all the failings, all the pain in our here and now. The Utimate is transforming our life. Our access to the Ultimate feels to be the greatest gift we can imagine.”
* I illustrate Ultimates in action from
**** a dying inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp suddenly finding sublime meaning in her life;
****cults, producing sublime bliss for their followers — where mass suicide is an entirely acceptable option;
****Hitler as false messiah, promising to lead Germany to unimaginable grandeur.
IDEOLOGIES ARE SUCH ULTIMATES. THEY APPEAL TO A GREAT MANY PERSONS.
THEY DO SO BECAUSE THEY CLAIM OF HAVE DEFINITIVE ANSWERS TO EVERY QUESTION, AND SOLUTIONS TO EVERY PROBLEM. ALL OF THESE ARE THERE FOR YOU, IF YOU WILL SIGN ON TO THEIR VISION.