Ideological Paralysis; Lessons from Americans

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The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has elicited outpourings of grief and bewilderment, prompting many to question the culture and conditions of a society in which something so terrible could be allowed to happen.

26 people dead, 20 of whom were children in what were supposed to be the most innocent and secure years of their lives. The perpetrator was an allegedly mentally troubled young man who committed this twisted act using an AR-15 automatic assault rifle. A President wept, and a nation came to a fleeting standstill, thrown into an uncomfortable process of soul-searching.

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A brief solemnity passed, and then the usual mill began to turn. Unsurprisingly, the polemic erupted over the ever-contentious issue of gun control reforms. Both sides of the divide came out in full force. Those advocating gun laws reforms reasonably called for greater barriers to gun access, with emphasis on limiting the availability of assault rifles which are surplus to the requirement of self-defense.

The gun lobby however, responded in a manner which by now is completely unsurprising. The usual rhetoric of how guns are but a neutral tool, how limiting legal gun access will not deter criminals and would be psychopaths from obtaining them illegally, and how the state is encroaching on a fundamentally civil liberty, were all trotted and rehashed. In the most twisted response to the Newtown shootings yet, Larry Pratt from Gun Owners of America lobby group declared that gun control advocates “have the blood of little children on their hands” for blocking the usage of guns in schools.

This article will not legitimise that statement by delving into the notion of guns in schools. This article will not try to wade into the entire gun control debate either, for there is little that can be said here which has not been said better elsewhere.

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Something this article will attempt to do however, is to analyse the knee-jerk reactions of ideologues and examine how they limit their opinion-forming and decision making process to the rigid outlines of their beliefs, often in the face of evidence and reason. We will further explore the relationship of ideology with unique cultural identities, and assess the implications of such behaviour on governance and policy-making.

Many societies around the world are divided along partisan, sectarian and ideological lines. However, few are as pronounced in their divisiveness in recent years as the self-declared vanguard of democracy, the USA.

This assertion is founded upon the arguments on gun control, the fiscal cliff, tax structures, women’s rights and foreign interventionism which are all steeped in ideological clashes. At risk of criminal oversimplification, a brief survey of American history may provide insight to these battles of creed.

The USA, founded following a declaration of independence from the British following the American Revolution, aspired itself to achieving a republican form of government in which individual freedoms were enshrined. The perceived treachery of the British coupled by a rejection of the aristocratic excesses of mainland Europe resulted in vigilance against the evils of an authoritarian government, manifested through excessive intervention in all areas of life and any attempt to restrict individual liberties.

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The Constitution, especially the 2nd Amendment, enshrined this mindset. Central to this was the right to bear arms, seen as a crucial firewall against a potentially despotic regime, as it proved against the British. This sentiment was further enforced during the American Civil War in the Southern Confederation, where the proposed abolishment of slavery was touted as a “violation of constitutional rights”.

The right wing dogma was further entrenched during the Cold War, as capitalism and libertarianism became bywords for the American way of life, and stood in staunch opposition to the threat posed by Soviet socialism. Again it is worth stressing that the aforementioned are simplifications of the evolution of a dynamic and diverse national consciousness, but for the purposes of our discussion these developments, alongside religion, capture the major inputs which lend to American right wing ideology as it exists today.

Why does all of this matter?

For a start, this conditioning has become ingrained in conservative American culture and is subscribed to by a large proportion of the population. The prevalence of the Tea Party movement hinges upon these values. And in the context of present issues such as gun control and tax reforms, the ideology is crucial in shaping reactions and opinions. So pervasive is the conditioning of the American right wing that they fall back automatically on these creeds as a compass for political discernment. At this juncture it is worth mentioning that powerful lobby groups and the industrial-complex also play a critical role in determining policies.

However, much of their strategies and efforts hinge upon and appeal to the prevailing ideological framework. As a result, it is impossible to engage in discourse on any issue of national interest in an objective and purely rational manner, as the ideologues will turn to outdated and contextually inapt measures and principles to govern judgement. Therefore, you have people defending guns and calling for more guns, and people in the middle class brackets demanding tax cuts for the rich. For the sake of ideology, rationality and efficacious policies are sacrificed.

In all fairness, the left wing can be accused of doing the same thing on a number of occasions, but rarely in the blatantly crass, self-defeating and harmful manner the right is prone to. A critical example would be the decision by the Clinton administration to lower mortgage rates in order to encourage home-buying for the lower income groups. At first glance, it may seem like a sound decision by a caring government. But when examined through the lens of Americana ideological divide, it is an excessive form of government intervention in the economy, and instance of the government over-reaching and being “too big”. More crucially however, examined from an objective macro-economic perspective, the decision caused excessive lending to those who did not necessarily have the credit status to take on such loans, and inadvertently led to the housing bubble which culminated in the 2008 financial crisis.

Having looked at how ideologies shape and affect the opinion-forming and decision-making process of both the population and the government in the USA, we can safely conclude that such structures and frameworks of thought are highly counter-productive to national discourse and impair a sound decision making process.

The deadlock over handling the fiscal deficit of America is the epitome of all that is wrong with partisan thinking. Of course, there are more serious flaws in the democratic process and fiscal structures, namely the existence of a military-industrial complex and an urge to project an economically unsustainable empire abroad, but these structural issues are not in the direct hand of the everyday citizen.

National discourse is the answer and the lens through which people analyse issues are up to their own choosing. If people wish to continue living in delusion and hold on to ancient words which do not capture the nuances of a globalised and unstable world, then it is their hole to dig.

The same applies to people the world over, particularly in an increasingly divided Malaysia. All issues must be analysed objectively on the basis of evidence and sound reason, not through racial and political lines. And as always, it takes two to tango. May the lessons from an empire in decline serve to illuminate our journey, as the region rides the waves of Eastern ascent.

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