Thursday, May 19, 2011

The telltale sign of an ideologue

I'm after a general point, but I'll start with an example. Take someone who constantly criticizes Barack Obama. Economic proposals, immigration policy, Supreme Court nominees: one failure after another.  Especially lacking, our critic tells us, was his approach to the "war on terrorism." If Obama weren't such a professorial wimp, he'd do more to get Bin Laden. Or so our critic repeatedly suggests, in conversation and a barrage of forwarded e-mails.

But then, the world learns that Barack launched and supervised a plan that issued in Osama's death. For two weeks, the e-mails stop. Our critic is silent.

What should we call such a critic—that is, one who constantly speaks against a person or cause, but then says nothing when the person or cause achieves something that is worthy by the critic's own standards? I suggest the "critic-gone-silent."

The critic-gone-silent has a close cousin. Call him the "booster-gone-silent." For months and years, we can count on our booster to tell us (for example) just how wonderful the Catholic Church is. Its liturgy is incomparable, its saints inspiring, its culture unsurpassed, its theology the best. It puts other expressions of Christian faith to shame.

But then, news of the latest scandal breaks. The deeds are unspeakable, the cover-up deplorable. For two weeks, we hear nothing about the Church. Our booster is silent.

In such cases, our commentator (whether critic or booster) exposes his character less by what he says, than by what he does not say, and (perhaps most importantly) when he does not say it. What shows him to be an inveterate ideologue, indeed a fanatic, is precisely his silence. Our critic-gone-silent is not interested in judging accurately when Obama falls short, and when he gets something right. Our booster-gone-silent does not care about honestly assessing the glories of the Catholic Church (and they are many) and weighing them against its failures (and they are many). Whether critic or booster, the silence of each, and particularly its timing, is no less revealing than anything said.

Given the sheer number of voices that compete for our attention, I have a modest proposal. Simply ignore, or at least do not prioritize, anyone whose timed silence reveals him to be an ideologue or fanatic. Rather than waste time on somebody who cannot say anything positive about Obama, why not prefer the critic who points out Obama's errors when necessary, but is unafraid to give him credit when he deserves it? If you want truthful information about the Catholic Church, should you really listen to an apologist whose primary interest lies in convincing you to join the Church? Someone who speaks learnedly about the Church's virtues, but suddenly falls silent when the latest scandal breaks, is a propagandist, not to be taken seriously about matters ecclesial.

My examples are drawn from religion and politics. (N.B. I might just as easily have picked on fanatical anti-Republicans and rabid secularists.) But the principle extends well beyond these domains. To take an example from my own field: once I spoke to a prominent academic who expressed a strong opinion on a recent book about Heidegger. After hearing my interlocutor's criticisms, I said, "That's very persuasive." (It was, in fact.) "But what of the book's good points?" He looked at me as though I had said something quite unreasonable. I pressed: "I happen to have read another book by this author. Not everything he does is wrong, I'm sure. Please tell me one good thing about the book." His spoken reply: "The typeface." His substantive reply: silence.

The point has wide application. Perhaps it can be formulated as a general rule: Invariable silence about the defects of a cause that one treasures, as well as persistent silence about the good points of a cause that one detests, are telltale signs of ideology. By ideology, I mean a mode of chatter that might entertain us now and then, perhaps even instruct us, but that we should not confuse with actual thinking. 


  1. I like this very much. I agree with the particular as well as the more general application.


  2. What about shame?

  3. Say, "This is shameful!"