Think of this as Volume 14, Number 24 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
When I was a kid I found those words stirring. Many people, like my own father, felt them as important a statement as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream."
What history has taught me since is that few more dangerous or wrongheaded words were ever spoken by an American statesman. The sentiments are fine, but the implications are monstrous.
No matter how benign the motive, no matter how universal the idea, the same thing happens as any set of principles becomes an ideology.
They excuse madness.
Who can really argue with the words of Jesus Christ, or the messenger Mohammad, with the lessons of Israel, with the Buddha or the Hindu Vedas? Yet every religion born of these great ideas has blood on its hands. Men, inherently fallible, have declared each of these great belief systems infallible, and they have committed murder in their name.
They are doing so today. Those who justify such brutality are practicing ideology, and who can argue? All religion is ideology. Once you claim to have the one "truth," absolute and for all time, you have in fact become a madman. Wise religious leaders will temper this with love, but with powerlessness — the most common human excuse — even a wise leader can urge violence. Few can resist, and those who do are often murdered by the passions they have unleashed.
Why should America be immune? We follow the greatest principles self-government has ever produced — democracy, freedom, and markets. How can that not be the heart of a winning ideology?
Of course, how could equality not be such a heart? How could nationalism not be such a heart? I've just described Communism and Nazism.
The reason is that ideology is always a loser.
Why should America be immune from this human condition of ideology? We're not. It's the telltale heart of the cyclical pattern our history has followed. A set of principles, forged to deal with the impossible problems of their time, become a quasi-ideology and are applied to problems they were never meant to address.
Any President, no matter their personal qualities, can fall prey. You build a career following certain ideas, which have been validated time-and-again throughout your life. How can they fail? Yet Jacksonism failed Buchanan, industrialism failed Cleveland, progressivism failed Hoover, liberalism failed Johnson and conservatism failed George W. Bush.
When you let your ideals do the thinking for you, when you put principle in opposition to the facts, failure becomes inevitable. Not just for a leader, but for their followers.
This is why in the face of every American failure movements have doubled-down on what had been proven crazy. Democrats couldn't fathom the Civil War, nor could Cleveland fathom McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. Hoover went to his grave fighting FDR, while liberals kept invoking him in the teeth of Reaganism.
Followers of the Tea Party, of Palinetology and Paulite ideology, love to invoke images of an imaginary history. But the original tea party had nothing to do with taxes — it was taxation without representation they were protesting. The complaint that the current elected Administration, which has lowered taxes, is engaged in the depredations of Lord North does not pass the laugh test.
The same is true for the nonsense told by religious-inspired leaders like Palin, who turn a diverse, human collection of Founders into Christian absolutists, and whose inspiration in any case is religion-as-ideology, the same force that is killing people right now all around the world.
And then we have Rand Paul. He was named for Ayn Rand, one of the craziest aunts ever to grace an American attic. Objectivism was meant to proclaim the glory of the individual over the collective, but even The Fountainhead is inconsistent. The architect requires a patron, and an army of workers to follow his dream.
No one ever threatened that ideal, even in Rand's own day. Clean lines weren't being butchered with fililgre in the 1950s, they were being left clean, and the resulting boxes, while attractive individually, collectively create their own oppression, as any visitor to Albany, New York will tell you. The era in which Rand worked was filled with great individual dreamers like Robert Moses dreaming great dreams like urban renewal that resulted in hellish conditions for those forced into the resulting high-rise slums.
Yet ideology remains attractive. Idealism is fantastically attractive, because idealism simplifies everything. You don't have to think for yourself when you let your ideals think for you. If your ideals tell you that civil rights or oilpatch regulation are intrusive, they're intrusive. Don't let history or facts dissuade you.
This is where history's monsters come from. All of them. Letting your ideals get in the way of common sense, or practical problem solving, and of necessary compromise is the way to personal and civil madness.
Once again, in 2010, history is teaching us this simple lesson. How much more blood will be spilled before we catch on?