Pragmatism more effective than ideology

| January 29, 2012 | 1 Comment

Respectful argument is impossible between individuals who share no common philosophy

Troy Media – by Mike Robinson

More and more our national print media are describing “The Stephen Harper Government” as ideological, controlling, tactical and message-bound, which we, as citizens, are expected to relate to these values with either pleasure or disgust.

Are these values right and necessary for our times of economic frailty and unpredictable ‘Arab Springs,’ or are they corruptions of the duty of elected governments: namely to represent the combined will of the citizens, be accountable, and be subservient to the electoral process?

“Shared” definitions assumed

I think that somehow in all of the current editorializing, some basic definitions are assumed to be shared, but in fact are not. ‘Ideology’ is defined in political terms as doctrinal thinking, symbol and myth bound, in the cause of a social movement. Closely examined, it offers a blueprint and set of means to attain a given social order.

For instance, key means to a conservative social order are: smaller government, lower taxes, fewer regulations, a laissez-faire attitude to business, support for specific belief systems, suspicion of critical intellectuals (especially in NGOs), respect for tradition, and above all, the maintenance of law and order.

The operating assumption is that ideology provides the means to chosen political ends. Quite often, however, the means are explicit and the ends are difficult to discern.

I think that a lot of ‘ideologists’ never think beyond means. As Tom Lehrer famously sang of atomic rocket scientist Werner von Braun in the 1960s, “I just make them go up; who cares where they come down. That’s not my department, sang Werner von Braun . . .”

So who is in charge of the department of hidden political ends? I think we all must be. They are too important to be left hidden, forgotten or lost by ideology. We need to pay attention to “where they come down.”

By way of example, let us boldly examine the means of “suspicion of critical intellectuals.” And let us assume that some of these critics are scientists. Critical scientists have been quite successful in angering doctrinaire conservatives lately, for instance, by articulating the case for climate change. The means of “fewer regulations,” and “a laissez-faire attitude to business,” often conflict with the growing body of evidence that unrestricted production and escapement of climate change gases into the earth’s atmosphere will eventually end much of life as we know it.

Here, ideology confronts science directly. Here, a systematic enterprise that builds knowledge from testable explanations and predictions, science, confronts the means of “belief.” The scientific means of “controlled experiment” yields the end of “systematic and testable prediction.”

Simply put, the lost end of climate change is species death. This inconvenient truth is borne by the defined means, critical intellectuals. And the ideological response is frequently to shoot the messenger when the end is unpalatable.

A recent example is the Prime Minister’s televised complaint targeting certain NGO interveners at the Northern Gateway Pipeline project’s National Energy Board review: “Some Americans want to turn Canada into a giant national park . . ” Frankly, some well-organized environmental NGOs are simply expressing international environmental concern about climate change. They are acting as global citizens at a public hearing.

In my prior career as a university research institute director and professor, and chair of two national environmental NGOs, I have attended my share of cocktail parties to meet senior politicians, their spouses and aides. On one notable occasion a decade ago in Ottawa’s elegant suburb of Rockcliffe Park, I was cornered at a summer garden party by two ‘A list’ guests, and asked if I “believed in climate change?”

Somewhat flabbergasted by the question and the questioners, I began by stating that, “For me this is a not a question of belief, but of science.” I launched into a narrative of ice coring for Tropospheric climate records on Yukon’s Mount Logan, ‘hockey stick’ temperature graphs, and comparisons with core data from Greenland, Russia and China . . . only to look up and see that my audience had left.

As soon as I realized my dilemma, I began to wonder how I might have made the science more interesting, injected more humour or perhaps gentle self-deprecation, and maybe maintained my elite garden audience? I still wonder about this lost opportunity. But 10 years later, in retrospect, the audience didn’t want to waste any more time once it became evident that my means was science and not belief. Respectful argument is inherently impossible between individuals who share no common philosophy.

So where does this leave us today, as we increasingly dwell in an ideological Canada, where the ‘minority majority’ continues to deploy very strategic and controlling means that may sometimes hide or obscure ends? I think the duty of the citizen is to focus on the scientific study of cause and effect. We need to think about practical relationships as opposed to idealism. We need to expect pragmatic policy from those we elect.

The great irony of our times may just be that pragmatic policy is more effective and less costly than ideological policy.

Mike Robinson is CEO Bill Reid Trust and President, Bill Reid Foundation.

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Category: Politics

About the Author (Author Profile)

Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.

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