George Walford: Editorial Notes (36)


The power of a theology lies in its capacity to offer believers a knowledge of God and so to make possible an escape from the corrupted earth and a transcendental communion. The power of a philosophy (at least in the traditional sense of that word) lies in its capacity to explain to its students the world and human society as they are and must be and so to win for them that freedom which consists in an acknowledgment of necessity. The power of an ideology, on the other hand, lies in its capacity to activate its adherents and to change the world. (Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints; a Study in the Origins of Radical Politics. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1966, p. 27).

Unfortunately Walzer does not mean all he seems to be saying. Distinguishing between his use of ‘ideology’ and the Marxist one, in which it indicates the role of ideas in veiling and justifying concrete group interests, he still does not recognise that there are ideologies making for acceptance, agreement and affirmation; he asserts that the content of one ‘is necessarily a description of contemporary experience as unacceptable and unnecessary… ‘ But the vast numbers of people who find their lives acceptable (IC34 quoted a Mori poll reporting 74% of British people as very or fairly satisfied with their standard of living) are also expressing their ideologies and actively engaged in changing the world in a multitude of ways; every action changes the world. The difference lies between those who do, and those who do not, seek to change the deep structure of their society.

THE NATIONAL Maori Council of New Zealand has managed to prevent the auction in London of a tattooed Maori head. The affair produced a good deal of comment, the Times cartoonist presenting a Maori head tattooed with £ signs and Bernard Levin asking what people would think of a proposal to auction lampshades made under the Nazis from flayed Jewish skin. Christies cancelled a proposed sale of non-Maori heads.

It is good to see renewed evidence that commerce does not have everything its own way, but if we begin to think of laying down exact rules as to what may and what may not be sold, difficulties arise. Some of the Christie heads were models, using a skull only as a base, and we can hardly specify that no object may be sold which contains anything that was ever part of a human body. After all: ‘Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay… ‘

IN 1901 there were about 1.6 billion people in the world; by 1999 (at the current accelerating rate of increase) there will be over 6 billion. The population has doubled since 1950. Most of the growth takes place among the 75% who live in agricultural countries, where the level of literacy is low; where literacy among women increases the population gi.owth nearly always goes down.

That comes from a report by Katharine Whitehorn. (Observer, 1 May 88) She goes on to speak of other dangers: growing dependence upon nuclear power and the danger that increasing consumption of oil, gas and coal will lead to greater concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, overheating the planet. Most of these things have been pointed out before, some of them many times. Whitehorn breaks out of the rut by realising the limits of intellectual persuasion:

I do not believe that you will ever get people to change the way they live by intellectually persuading them that they must live in cooler rooms, stop eating beef, walk and not take the car;

She suggests that something carrying the irrational power of a religion is needed, and she has a point. Since the French Revolution, at least, the reformist and revolutionary intellectuals have been trying to spread their beliefs and attitudes by means of intellectual persuasion and after two hundred years of it they remain a protesting minority.

AN INNOVATIVE Eskimo, tired of being cold while out in his kayak, took a whale-oil lamp with him, putting it down inside where it would warm his feet. But it burnt through the skin covering, and he sank. The moral of the story is that you can’t have your kayak and heat it.

from Ideological Commentary 36, November 1988.