April 3, 2011


The ideological ape

I was in a somewhat philosophical mood the last days, as witnessed by my entries in Nederlog, and yesterday did some programming, that I rarely can do for lacking the energy and the cognitive clarity to do it well for any length of time, which is the main reason there was no Nederlog yesterday.

Today there is more philosophy - practical philosophy, as I use the term: See "Multatuli en de filosofie", which is Dutch, but has clear tabular definitions that clarify my meanings and distinctions - that also relates to Searle's ideas about the university and education, that I treated a few days ago in On an interview with John Searle and that I intend to write more about, namely as appearing in

  • The Storm Over The University

I linked it here so that you may consider it if you are interested in the subject, as I also intend to discuss some of it in Nederlog later. It is from 1990, which is no setback, but rather an advantage, that gives some perspective readers of 1990 did not and could not have, also known as 'the benefit of hindsight'.

But to do that I decided first to translate the last of the regular columns in Spiegeloog that I published in 1988 and 1989, that were for the most part about the decline of the universities and indeed the decline of civilization, that then were going on in Holland since about 1970, and are still going on and were discussed publicly by me e.g. here

Here follows my translation of the last regular column that I then published monthly, over the course of the academic year 1988-1989. It was published in December 1989 and was written in the days the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain (<- Wikipedia) came down.

I have added 25 notes in square brackets that link to the texts of the notes that follow the essay, and some links to my Philosophical Dictionary, for those who want to see how I understand the terms I use:

The ideological ape

As I write this, it seems as if one of the greatest social revolutions is taking place that humanity has ever known. [1] Today a demonstration of at least 250.000 people is expected in Prague. Yesterday, for the second time in two weeks, the whole central committee of the East German party [2] has stepped down, and at the same time has been accused of fargoing corruption. In Hungary some ten days ago the communist party has been abolished. In Poland a government that consists mostly of non-communists is in power. In Bulgaria the leader of the party has been ousted and made subject of legal prosecutions. Last week the Iron Curtain has been opened. In Russia, for the first time in 70 years, it is possibly to speak honestly of political or religious ideas without having to fear for sanctions like 10 or 20 years of concentration camp. [3]

And so on, and so on, and so on: Within some few weeks or months the complete social system that ruled the lives of over a billion human beings seems to be collapsing. The consequences can hardly be foreseen at present. [4] The only thing that is certain now is that the world will be radically different in the coming ten or twenty years from what seemed to be the case until some weeks ago.

What interests me about this right now, apart from noting the fact that you and I are living at a time that in terms of social changes can only be compared with the decline of the Roman empire [5], is to indicate a - very schematic - explanation.

The social system that we call "socialism" (to settle on a term [6]) is, like earlier social systems, the product of a combination of war and revolution; the ideas of a philosopher; the acts of a few handfuls of revolutionaries misled by eschatological illusions [7]; the dictatorial aspirations of so called humanitarian revolutionary leaders [8]; the normal corruption, incompetence and egoism of those in power, whoever, wherever, whenever [9]; and blind historical chance. [10]

Socialism (<- Wikipedia) (as we know it [11]) is a totalitarian system both in political and intellectual terms. Politically, all power is in the hands of a very small elite that governs by means of coercion and terror. Intellectually, each citizen has been educated in an ideology in which truth, beauty and goodness [12] depend for their contents and meanings on the decisions of the central committee of the Party.

What is psychologically amazing about this [13] and in need of an explanation may be expressed by questions as follow:

Why did so many millions of human beings, including very many prominent intellectuals [14], against all factual evidence, believe that the existing socialist state formed for the most part an admirable social system? What is the reason that literally tens of millions, and possibly hundreds of millions, of human beings believed that dictators like Stalin and Mao, each responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million human beings [15], were the greates geniuses and benefactors mankind had ever known? What motivates human beings to believe that evidently megalomaniac dictators are the very best of humankind, and to experience their police states as the utopias that humankind has longed for ever since it became conscious?

The fundamental reason is this: Human beings are ideological apes. [16] An ideology is a system of beliefs about what reality is like and what it should be like. An ideology consists of a set of presupposed facts and values: Thus is the world; such are human beings; and those are our ends and norms. [17]

Just like each animal is born with instincts that it needs to orient itself, so human beings, as members of the rationalizing animal species, need an ideology, a worldview: A system of ideas, ideals and idols to interpret and evaluate the world. [18]

The need for an ideology is next to the linguistic ability one of the most typical human properties. Religions are ideologies. Political systems of ideas are ideologies. Most popular philosophies are ideologies. [19] Every social system is carried by an ideology in which human ideals (brotherhood, wealth, justice ...) are embedded in ideas (human society is the product of: God, capitalist exploiters, Jewish plutocrats ...) and attached to idols (mahatma Gandhi, comrade Stalin, the Great Helmsman Mao...). [20]

Because ideologies are especially used as inspiration and social cement they are rarely reasonable and always founded on emotions:

Ideologies express desires and values in the first place, and the contents of the worldview of an ideology normally is subservient to its desires and values.

Each popular ideology is based on the ideological fallacy aka wishful thinking: "A statement is true if and only if it is desirable". [21] This also is the reason that real science cannot be made subservient to ideology, although it may be abused for ideological ends and may be travestied: Real science is too much committed to truth and logic to be useful as ideology.

The ideological fallacy is the psychological basis of most of the ideas of the followers of an ideology: True is what should be the case according to their ideology ("There are no concentration camps in the Soviet Union, because socialism is a humanism" [22]; "The pope is infallible" [23]); false is what should not be the case according to their ideology.

So far, human history has been mostly a history of human incompetence; a history of stupidity and hypocrisy in the service of the egoistic ends of small corrupt elite [23]: Every one and a half year in the last 2000 years there was 'a major war' somewhere; everywhere those who have dissident ideas or who do not look like the majority does have been persecuted; in this century alone more people have been murdered than in all of the rest of human history [24]. And this century has known the most horrific police states that ever existed - police states that were founded by believers in an ideology that promised freedom, equality and justice, and was kept going by torture chambers, concentration camps and terrorism by completely phony dictators who were revered as if they were semi-divinities who acted in the name of the highest human ideals.

Now that system is collapsing. The consequences cannot be foreseen and mainly depend on the humane that is the moral, intellectual and artistic gifts of the leaders that are taking over. [25]

Right now the world seems a lot better than it did a month ago. In any case, it is a quite different world, even though it may not seem like if from Holland: The world after 1989 will be a fundamentally different one than the one before 1989.


[1] This seems to me still correct, and whoever believes something like "1989 is long ago - 22 years have passed" forgets that while 22 years is around a third of a human being's time of life, in historical terms it is not long, and forgets, does  not see, or disagrees that in the former socialist countries that were under the aegis of the Soviet Union it still is mostly a mess.

Also, if one takes the trouble to look at some maps and statistics, one will find that Soviet socialism occupied a lot of earthly territory, and comprised more than 1000 million human beings. This is more than the Roman Empire, both in territory and in population.

[2] This was not called "Communist Party" (generally abbreviated as "CP") but "SED", mainly for propagandistic reasons. For background see the article East Germany in Wikipedia.

[3] I wrote this in November 1989, as the things mentioned in this paragraph happened. There seems to have been rather good press coverage of much that happened, though when I wrote the present essay in Dutch most journalists and political commentators were still trying to be not committed, and were waiting  for definite outcomes to choose sides.

[4] The reason I wrote this is that many who did write about the changes of 1989 as they happened, in November and December of 1989 as well as in the early 1990ies, were quite certain about what had been achieved and what should be done: In brief, a return to proper democracy and proper market capitalism, to be funded the first years by the West, so that all would turn allright real soon.

I regarded that already then as wishful thinking and very probably false, because whole states fell apart in a very short time, while their populations had lived under dictators all their lives. See e.g. my On Zinoviev's Theory of (Soviet) Man.

[5] The link - the decline of the Roman empire - is to a useful edition of Edward Gibbon's monumental series of books "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (<- Wikipedia). These books, plus those of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Burckhardt seem the best introduction to history I know of.

[6] The term "socialism" dates back to Robert Owen or his followers, in the 1820ies. It has a quite vague or ambiguous meaning, and there have been nominal socialists of many kinds, from Hitler, Stalin and Lenin to pacifistic vegetarian anarchists, with folks like Tony Blair and other European "democratic socialists" inbetween.

[7] Revolutionary movements tend to be eschatological movements i.e. concerned with the final end of man, the world, God, or whatever. Alternative terms with similar meaning for this type of movement are millenarianism aka millenialism.

[8] Especially socialist leaders - Lenin, Stalin, Mao - were revered by many millions as if they were superhumans. In fact, it seems to me, at least the last two, and possibly the first as well, were more in the nature of persons with a considerable talent for mafia-boss, who invested that talent in politics. See e.g. Montefiore's "Stalin - The Court of the Red Tsar" and my Dutch review of it: Stalin in boekvorm.

[9] I think "the normal corruption, incompetence and egoism of those in power, whoever, wherever, whenever" is quite true, with few exceptions: "All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." (Lord Acton) Also, almost all political leaders, whatever their public stances, seem to be in politics because they have a deeply felt personal concern to exercise power over others. (It can't be that they are interested in a pleasant life or the acquisition of much knowledge or civilization, for then they are in the wrong place in politics.)

[10] There are such things in nature and in politics and social developments as chance events, or so I think. Much of what seems design in real fact was muddling through misunderstood events and grasping at coincidences.

[11] With "Socialism (<- Wikipedia) as we know it" I mean especially to refer here to the Soviet Union and the nominally socialist countries under its aegis. See also [6].

[12] Truth, beauty and goodness are fundamental in a human's life, since so much is done, believed, desired or not done, disbelieved and not desired by reference to these categories.

[13] Note that I was writing, in the Dutch original, for students and lecturers and professors of psychology.

[14] Many prominent intellectuals of many kinds in the 20th century were socialists, communists, anarchists, fellow-travellers, progressives or at least liberals, and considered themselves to be politically on the left. This also often had respectable moral reasons, relating to the economical crisis of the 1930ies; the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, and the Spanish civil war and World War II; the practices of the Nazis in concentration camps and with Jews; the injustice in the division of the social product and of necessary work; and later the Vietnam War. The problem, at least with the many who did not become leaders, is not so much with their morality as with the intellectual foundations of their political positions, that generally were poor and mostly prejudice. (It is more or less the same in the middle and on the right of the political spectrum: Politics as practised is wishful thinking and propaganda rather than rational thinking and science.)

[15] That dictators like Stalin and Mao were each responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million human beings is very probably a rather gross understatement: 40 millions murdered under the aegis of each seems more in line with the facts, though indeed part of these deaths were not caused by mortal violence but by starvation or mistreatment. See e.g. the statistics of Rummel, that I give here: Opening of "On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"".

[16] The phrase and the idea do not originate with me: I know it from F.J. Thieme's "De ideologische aap". Then again, much of it can be found in Machiavelli and the Machiavellians.

[17] Again this is typically human, and also what makes human groups and societies possible: Groupthinking, conformism, cooperation. It does not need to be bad or do harm: The problem is mostly that the great majority of human beings are not capable to understand the issues they judge, and tend to follow the leaders in their social groups, and tend to believe, much like other social animals, that their own local group, local leaders, local ideals, ideas and idols, "must" be the best there are, and that everybody who disagrees is not moral or hardly human (in the excellent ways of their own group and kind). See also: Goffman reveals all (nearly) - Groups & Groupthinking

[18] Note that one of my points is that ideologies are necessary for social animals like human beings, who are too intelligent to be led by innate instincts only, and therefore need a worldview and some code of moral laws, if only to be able to cooperate.

[19] Meanwhile, this follows by such definitions as I have used or presupposed. One important consequence is that most ideologies and religions are mostly propaganda by and for interest groups, rather than rational belief or science, even though many political and religious groups insist their beliefs are rational and scientific, somehow.

[20] The combination of ideas, ideals and idols does belong together in ideologies, whether political or religious: They all have them, generally without much real rational concern for the rational tenability of the ideas, nor for the practicability of the ideals, nor indeed for the real morals or competence of the idols.

What matters in practice for the members of an ideological group are faith, emotion, propaganda, and what comes with it as a matter of course: prejudice, wishful thinking, bias, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and doubletalk, all normally not only exonerated in political groups, but required and desired: "Who is not with us, is against us."

Also, in the end nearly all followers tend to be the willing dupes of their leaders, who tend to leaders not for the reasons they publish, but because they want power, wealth and status.

[21] The ideological fallacy aka wishful thinking: "A statement is true if and only if it is desirable" is the main tool of thought, of conformism, and of propaganda of all ideological - religious, political - group: In the end the presumption is that the present leaders, or at least the founders of the movement, party, faith or religion, have some unerring insight into the way things and human beings are. This manner of belief is irrational about anyone born as a human being, but none the less common among the faithful followers of leaders of all kinds - and I quote my Philosophical Dictionary on the subject:

It is a curious and important fact about the human animal that most men follow leaders, and are conformists and followers. In part this seems due to humans being social animals; in part to the fact that relatively few are intelligent, independent, or strong; and in part to the fact that every human being spends the first 15 or 25 years of his life as a weak dependent of stronger and larger adults.

[22] A quite (in)famous statement of fellow-traveller Jean-Paul Sartre, and an excellent example of the fallacies wishful thinkers fall prey to, or indeed abuse (for Sartre was not so naive as he liked to present himself: he probably lied knowingly, and seemed to have conceived of The Revolution as a convenient way into the bed of attractive you women). 

[23] The infallibility of the pope is not older than 1871 A.D/C.E., when the first Vatican Council honestly and rationally agreed on it, with only 2 votes against.

[24] By "this century" I meant in 1989 the 20th century, for which see e.g. the statistics of Rummel, that I give here: Opening of "On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"". Of course, there also were vastly more human beings in that century than in previous centuries. Being not a great optimist, it is my belief the present 21st century is likely to be more bloody than the 20st: All the reasons for conflict, war, and persecution are still there, to which are now added new ones, like depleted minerals, sources of energy, and potable water; former socialist countries still mostly messed up; an economical crisis that keeps festering on; and hardly any competent political or religious leader in sight.

[25] As you may have noted, I am quite careful and not very optimistic, and "the moral, intellectual and artistic gifts of the leaders that are taking over", or indeed of almost any political or religious leader that I know of, are not great - which is one main reason these persons are political or religious leaders: More intelligent and less moral than most, they know how to mislead and manipulate the masses, but not the few, which they generally don't mind, since the few with good minds and good morals rarely make it as political or religious leaders, and are easily arrested and silenced by those in power.

The notes and translation are today's; the Dutch original was written in the last days of November 1989.

I see no reason to believe that I was in any major way mistaken, but agree that this does not inspire me with much confidence that political and religious leaders and their followers will be any less irrational or any more reasonable than the religious leaders and their followers of The Century of War (*), in the second half of which I lived.

(*) Title of a book by Raymond Aron.

P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

6. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7. Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)

Short descriptions:

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
   "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence".
7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.

    "Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven's ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!
     - (Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound") 

    "It was from this time that I developed my way of judging the Chinese by dividing them into two kinds: one humane and one not. "
     - (Jung Chang)


See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources

Maarten Maartensz (M.A. psy, B.A. phi)

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