America finds it easy to pile on the poor

People have ideas all the time without worrying about their validity, factuality, or “truthiness.” However, when it comes to other people, the effects of ideas can have negative consequences and cause harm.

The idea that “the poor deserve their laziness” is a potentially harmful idea when taken as public wisdom that leads to harmful public policy toward the poor. But is it true (another troublesome idea) that poverty results from laziness? Truth is a tricky idea. In philosophy, pragmatists tell the truth or value of a proposition, idea, concept, or theory by the effects that result when it is put into action. Following this precedent, it is useful to consider ideas as hypotheses that need to be tested in action or that need to be thought of in terms of likely factual results. If you see poor people working hard, the theory (idea) about laziness is contradicted by fact, and it is time to look for another cause if you must.

Ideas also travel over time and place easily as memes. A meme is an “idea, belief, or practice that spreads from person to person in a way analogous to the transmission of genes” (Collins Dictionary). That means, first, you have no idea where some of your ideas come from and, second, whether they are useful to hold. Many will come from family (religion), friends, community, education, and the media. Others will have been preached by politicians who, one wonders, may not know much about alternative ideas (Have they ever worked with the poor?). The memes underlying political parties are based on history, and language and ideas have changed so much that originalism often doesn’t work in the modern world, We are always at risk from ideas that attach themselves to us often without our knowledge or consent, e.g., maleness vs. feminism.

Another form of problematic ideas comes with ideologies. Ideologies, at best, are groups of ideas that, taken together, can be useful in their potential effects, such as democracy. Others, like fascism, are decidedly negative if only considering their historical track record with Naziism. Neo-Nazis have inherited the meme and made it their own and operate their accelerationism — the ideology of promoting social unrest to quicken the fall of society and government as we know them and replace them with fascism — with its premise of national socialism, though I doubt they know what that idea entails.

However, considered socially, ideologies are also the values and practices of one dominant group that are held to be superior and true for all other groups, whether others agree (e.g., neo-liberalism and capitalism that creates rich vs. poor). These kinds of ideologies annoy “nonbelievers” and cause all manner of social strife (e.g., neoliberalism vs. democratic socialism’s “safety net”).

Political parties are emphatically ideological in nature, with a few callouts that members use to recognize each other and set themselves against other political parties. Interestingly, a few politicians today speak of running without a party label, just on the issues and without the abundance of ideas inherited ideologically and as memes, like the GOP favoring “small government “ for reasons usually taken for granted. Imagine an election without political ideologies and inherited memes that dealt instead with the needs and issues of the day. Why must the country be divided into two party ideologies as the basis for voting for candidates who first have given allegiance to a party and then spout their party’s ideology?

Ideologies are themselves tricky since adherents often don’t know or agree with the premises of the ideology and others don’t accept one-size-fits-all politics and social practices. Could you pass an ideology test to belong to your party? What are we to make of “RINOs”–Republicans in name only– who have strayed to the left or right of the central GOP ideology? What if we were all independents who just voted on the issues after considering our conservative or liberal ideology?

And what of the MAGA ideology? What exactly does it stand for? What exactly are the needs at stake in making America great again? If these cannot be articulated, or only spouted by Mr. Trump’s intransigence, they are an empty ideology of accelerationism positing only the destruction of America as we have known it. MAGA is a perfect lesson of the vagaries of ideas and of the results of accepting an ideological creed without knowing exactly what it stands for.

The solution? Think about any idea you hold. Especially as proposed for society and in politics and think of all consequences. Be informed about competing ideas and their rival consequences and separate yourself from the crowd following memes and ideologies that they don’t really understand. Put your ideas to work against those you are sure are negative and know why you vote for an alternative. Voting the party line amounts to mindlessness and failure of civic responsibility. Don’t accept candidates who follow the same old ruts passed on forever over time as memes and ideologies. Think for yourself and join a small intelligent electorate that avoids political ideology; and guard against being owned by your ideologically inherited ideas and memes.

Thomas A. Regelski, formerly of Brocton, is an emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to tom.regelski@helsinki.fi.


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