The Politics of Irrational Ideology

Posted: Nov 19, 2007 12:01 AM
The Politics of Irrational Ideology

Hitler kissed babies and romped playfully with children at their birthday parties. He married his mistress to make her an honest woman just before the two took poison together to avoid capture by the Russians. For an ever so brief moment, the devil wore a human face.

Now we hear that Saddam Hussein cried like a baby when his FBI interrogator, whom he thought was a friend, bid him farewell. After a year of tough questioning in which Saddam confessed to the slaughter of thousands of Kurd civilians, the dictator experienced a twinge of loss for the man for whom he felt a bond. "When we were saying goodbye he started to tear up," FBI Special Agent George Piro tells journalist Ronald Kessler for his new book, "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack." Imagine.

In the German movie "The Lives of Others," based on research about the Stasi secret police in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, an agent learned how to discern the difference between those telling the truth to interrogators and those trying to tell successful lies. The truth tellers get angry over false accusations. The liars, who have much to hide, cry. It shouldn't surprise anyone that cowards cry when they get caught.

But even the devil occasionally lets down his guard. That's how Milton saw it in "Paradise Lost." When Satan for the first time beheld the beauty of Eve, his evil intelligence evaporated for one brief moment. He felt rapture in her presence. Milton wrote that Satan stood "stupidly good."

For many humans, however, the interplay of good and evil isn't as clear as it could be and is often clouded by an intellectual arrogance that keeps otherwise intelligent men and women from seeing what's right in front of their eyes. This was certainly true for the fellow travelers among us during the Stalin years. No matter how many men and women were tortured into false confessions behind the Iron Curtain, no matter how many men and women simply disappeared from life and history, Marxist apologists dismissed the brutality as an aberration, and besides, it was still preferable to bourgeois individualism. Similar irrational defenses are made on behalf of the Islamists in the Middle East who brutalize women, plot the obliteration of Israel and who deprive their own people of the freedoms of speech and movement.

In Tom Stoppard's new play on Broadway, "Rock and Roll," a character named Max, a professor at Cambridge University in 1968, remains an unreconstructed old-school communist. In his review in the New York Sun, Nicholas Wapshott compares him to our own intellectuals blinded today by tunnel-vision ideology, "trapped in their entrenched positions, too proud to admit a mistake, too closed in their minds to appraise the mounting evidence against their case."

In modern times, such blindness proliferates among so-called intellectuals who insist on blaming America first and George W. Bush foremost for everything that goes wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hating the president is as old as the presidency itself, possibly excepting the first one. Blamemongering is particularly virulent today, often preventing rational discussion. "Bush hatred compels its progressive victims -- who pride themselves on their sophistication and sensitivity to nuance -- to reduce complicated events and multilayered issues to simple matters of good and evil," writes Peter Berkowitz, professor at George Mason University School of Law, in the Wall Street Journal. "Like all hatred in politics, Bush-hatred blinds to the other sides of the argument, and constrains the hater to see a monster instead of a political opponent."

Politics often resonates in polarities, but today the polarities are infused with fanatical loathing that distorts everything, enabling moral preening. Hatred becomes the handmaiden of illogical argument and impairs both judgment and the pursuit of creative solutions. It clouds our humanity.

In a transformative scene in the movie "The Lives of Others," an evil Stasi agent shares an elevator with a little boy. Just as the door closes, the boy's soccer ball rolls between them. As the boy picks it up, he asks the agent if he is a member of Stasi: "My dad says you're a bad man who throws people in jail." The agent replies with a question: "What is the name of . . . " The audience tenses, waiting for the agent to finish the sentence. Like Satan confronting Eve, the agent is suddenly disarmed by the boy's purity and innocence. Like Satan confronting Eve, he stands "stupidly good." Then he finishes the sentence with a surprise that lacks malevolence. "What is the name of your ball?" Illumination can learn to wear a human face, too.