“Ideology” is a word with a number of meanings, but the most useful, I think, was put forward by Eric Voegelin. In his thought, “ideology” signifies the attempt to create an abstract “second reality” that somehow seems preferable to the real world for the ideologue. The ideologue then attempts to live in that constructed reality, and to force others to do so as well.
The attempt will, of course, fail, since we can only live in the real world. But that does not mean that a lot of damage won’t be done along the way. Let us begin by looking at a case (mostly) from the past, to gain a clearer picture of this conception of ideology apart from current concerns.
In the real world, many of the material bases for human life are scarce. There is only so much prime agricultural land, there is only so much good pasturage, there are only so many navigable rivers, only so many good ocean ports, only so many trees, only so much gold and iron and aluminum and oil, and so on. Whether this is the doing of God or blind nature, it is the reality that we as humans find ourselves living in. It is mere wishful thinking to imagine that all these things exist in such abundance that everyone can have as much of all of them as he or she would desire.
It is one thing to acknowledge this fact, and still propose some scheme under which access to or possession of these scarce resources is more fairly distributed than it is at present. But rather than do that, Karl Marx devised a second reality in which this fact of the real world is imagined out of existence. (He actually despised policies, such as those of the moderate socialists, that simply attempted to give some people a fairer share.) In the dream world of the communist utopia, scarcity would be absent. (Marx did acknowledge scarcity to some extent, but only so far as it had been created, and existed in his time, due to the evil machinations of capitalists, and not as a basic fact about reality.) And by wishing this fact out of existence, Marx could simply ignore the need for coming to terms with it. He did not need to make any concrete proposals for how the ideal communist society would handle the distribution of goods, since in the imaginary world where nothing is scarce, there simply is no problem of distribution.
Now, of course, actual communists had to rule communist societies that existed in the actual world, not in the world of Marx’s imagination. And so they could not avoid dealing with the reality of scarcity. (It should surprise no realist that, in fact, the way they dealt with it was that the rulers, and a handful of star athletes, chess players, mathematicians, and scientists, got all of the best stuff, and everyone else had to scrape by with the leftovers.) But given that the rule of the communists depended upon belief in Marx’s second reality, the fact of scarcity could never be admitted. Instead, the continual failure of the communist utopia to actually emerge had to be blamed on capitalists, Kulaks, intellectuals, reactionaries, and so on… and thus these people were imprisoned and slaughtered by the millions. And while these horrors were obvious for anyone willing to look, many, many people in communist countries went along with the charade, for to dissent was to risk being labeled a “reactionary” oneself, and to experience, at best, social ostracism, or very often “re-education” or even death. But what is worse is that many in the West did so as well, where the only penalty they faced was being ridiculed for being on “the wrong side of history.”
Today, of course, communism has mostly faded away, except in some few, scattered corners of academia. But a new ideology is rapidly gaining acceptance all around us: the ideology of the self-created individual. If we were to try to capture the essence of this ideology in a single slogan, it might be: “you can be whoever or whatever you can imagine yourself to be.”
It matters little, in evaluating this ideology, whether one is the most mystical of theists or the most hardheaded of materialists. Whether you think it was divine intention or the blind turning of the gears of evolution that made us what we are, one thing should be clear to anyone even loosely in touch with reality: we humans did not create ourselves. Furthermore, we cannot “be whoever we imagine we can.” Whether or not one believes in God, so long as one has some grip on reality, it is obvious that none of us can be God, either because we are simply a part of material reality, and not its source, or because there already is one God, and no room for a second. We also cannot be an oak tree or an earthworm.
But even within the realm of human possibility, not every person can be anything that any human might become. A person born with dwarfism is not going to become an NBA basketball player. A person born with severe Down syndrome is not going to become a top theoretical physicist. And if they imagine they might, it is not “positive thinking” to encourage that belief, but more like playing a cruel prank on them. The realist answer to the “self-creationists’” ideological slogan might be put, “Accept who you are, and be the best version of that person possible.”
But, as with the communists, the acolytes of the ideology of the self-created individual want, not to accept reality, but to replace reality with their dreamworld. They reject the simple fact that we, as created beings (whether created by God or nature), cannot be whoever we want to be, but must deal with the hand we have been dealt by our creator as best we can. While any decent person wants those born with disabilities, such as blindness or non-functioning limbs, to have the opportunity for the most fulfilling life possible, the ideologues of the self-created individual try to deny that naturally occurring disabilities even exist: “The only disability I have is your attitude” is a slogan I have seen on posters in university hallways. It as though the only reason a blind person has trouble driving in rush-hour traffic is bad attitudes on the part of other drivers, or the difficulty a paraplegic has in climbing a mountain is due to insufficiently enlightened rocks. Thus, the ideologues of the self-created individual are like Marx in this respect also: they admit there are limits on individual self-creation, but only because “haters” create those limits.
Which brings us to Bruce Jenner. One of the hands that God or evolution has dealt us is our sex. And, in most wisdom traditions, accepting who you are is a huge step on the road to happiness. The ancient Greeks inscribed “Know thyself” on the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Ten Commandments advise us not to envy what others have but we don’t. Buddhism teaches that it is the desire to be other than what we are that causes suffering. Taoism tells us that the way to inner peace is to become one with the natural order of things. And much more recently, Freud recommended extensive self-examination, and not superficial transformations of one’s body parts, as the path to psychological equilibrium. But the ideology of the self-created individual stands in stark opposition to all of those traditions: rather than understanding and accepting who we are, our only real problem is that reactionary others stand in the way of our transforming ourselves into whatever we imagine we might be instead.
Now, I have no wish to outlaw sex-change operations. And when a mature adult like Jenner decides to undergo such a process, I wish him the best, although I suspect that reading Dante, or Buddha or Freud or Jung, would have done more for him than the course he has chosen. But to hold him up as a “hero,” and to suggest he is an exemplar for “troubled youth struggling with their identity” (as I recently saw argued on social media), is a triumph of ideology over any concern for the well-being of actual people.
For the human animal, the teen years are a difficult time, as new demands of adult responsibility combine with surging hormones to buffet the individual’s psyche this way and that. To suggest to individuals going through such a tempest that the route to calm weather is as simple as altering one’s genitals is a cruel joke. I suggest that the number of teens for whom their primary psychological problem is that they have a penis instead of a vagina, or vice-versa, is very close to zero. But many struggling teens—and how few teens aren’t struggling in some way?—will feel the lure of this easy answer, especially when they are told that they will be “heroes” if they act on the idea.
There is compelling evidence that sex-change operations do not improve the well being of those who have undergone them, and that the primary cause of gender confusion is psychological, not biological. As Dr. Jon Meyer, a psychiatrist involved in pioneering work in this area, put it, “To say that this type of surgery cures psychiatric disturbance is incorrect. We now have objective evidence that there is no real difference in the transsexual’s adjustment to life in terms of jobs, educational attainment, marital adjustment and social stability.” Another pioneer in the field reported: “There is too much unhappiness among people who have had the surgery … Too many end in suicide.” In fact, the suicide rate of those who have had such surgery is a shocking 20 times above that of the “non-transgendered.” But when I recently noted these facts in an online discussion, a “self-created individual” ideologue told me the cause of these suicides is… people like me! The parallel to Marxists blaming “reactionaries” for the continual failure of their schemes to achieve utopia should be obvious. As Voegelin noted in The New Science of Politics, “The gap between intended and real effect [of utopian schemes] will be imputed not to the [ideological] immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should according to the dream conception of cause and effect.”
Unfortunately, as in the case of Marxism, secondary realities exist only in the ideologue’s mind, and all of us must actually live in primary reality. The victims of this particular second reality will be those young people who buy into the falsehood that they are “self-created heroes” if they try to change their natural sex, and then find, a couple of years down the road, that not only are all the real problems with which they were grappling still with them, but beyond that, they are now dealing with a radically altered body which they no longer want. As psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh says, “Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.” Like communism, reality will catch up with this ideology too, and it will fade away as all such insanities must, but, in the meantime, the cost in human happiness may be very large indeed.
Gene Callahan teaches computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.