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“In 1959, the BBC asked [Bertrand] Russell, [public intellectual, historian, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate] what advice he would give future generations. He answered: ‘When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at the facts.’ -from Humankind, A Hopeful History, by Roger Bregman, p. 253
This advice from Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s most prominent progressive intellectuals, toward the end of his long life is very sound. It resonated with me when I recently read it. I’ve been thinking for a while about how and why intelligent, well-meaning people sometimes hold onto beliefs or a particular ideology even when new information, or just the basic facts, should lead to a different view of things.
Unfortunately, my life experience has led me to realize that though most people do generally agree that an approach of facts and the truth of things, actual reality, must always come before ideology, this is too often not the way some human beings function, particularly when it comes to politics. And this very big problem transcends political ideology. It’s true on the political right, center and left and always has been.
As far as progressives, the biggest, most recent example is the Covid-19 anti-vaccination campaigns—not just individual points of view but public campaigns–of people like Robert Kennedy, Jr., Gary Null and others. Despite over a year of successful experience with vaccines dramatically reducing deaths, hospitalizations and total cases of the virus, these vaccine deniers, not just clinging to their general anti-vaccine ideology but actively campaigning against people getting vaccinated, have almost certainly increased the numbers in all three categories. It is shameful.
Then there’s the public political position of the national Green Party—which I was a part of for many years, though no longer—that there was no difference between Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016 or between Joe Biden and Trump in 2020. Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins, the GP Presidential candidates, took that position over and over, which turned out to be very unpopular on the left. Most people on the left did the right thing and put facts over ideology: Stein got 1.1% of the vote and Hawkins got about 0.4%.
I am fully aware that on too many issues, particularly the appalling US military budget, US foreign policy and acceptance of corporate/big money domination of our society, there are similar approaches between Republicans and the usually dominant corporate wing of the Democratic Party. But if you think that overt racism, denial of women’s and lgbtq rights, denial of labor rights, poverty and neo-fascism are very big issues, the common sense approach to take when voting for President under the existing US electoral system (it needs to be changed!), particularly if you are in a swing state where the vote is usually very close, is to vote for, yes, the lesser evil. Practically, that makes sense.
We’re seeing a similar thing right now as far as the political left and the Ukraine war. Despite the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face reality that this war is happening because Putin invaded Ukraine with 150,000 or so well-armed troops, with no provocation by Ukraine, a small percentage of those on the left who see themselves as part of the US peace movement are letting their particular brand of leftist ideology guide the positions they take on this huge issue.
The primary example is the United National Antiwar Coalition. What are their main demands, as listed on their website? No War With Russia. No to NATO. No Sanctions.
Contrast this with the demands of Code Pink, one of the leading organizations on the left organizing mass demonstrations against the war: Stop the War in Ukraine. Russian Troops Out. No to NATO Expansion.
Both agree that NATO’s expansion over the last few decades, since the Soviet Union dissolved, is an underlying reason why Putin took the action that he did. From a geo-politics standpoint, it is understandable why not just Putin but many Russians would be upset about having NATO military bases and missiles 100 miles or so from their western border, just as the United States 60 years ago was upset about having Soviet bases and missiles 90 miles away in Cuba.
Code Pink, however, in its first two demands, addresses the fact that the reason for this war is Putin/the Russian government’s unprovoked decision to invade Ukraine militarily, and Russian troops must leave if there is to be peace and national self-determination for Ukraine.
UNAC’s “No War With Russia” demand completely obfuscates the fact of who started this war. There’s nothing about Ukraine. Indeed, if you look at their three demands in their totality, there’s nothing there that Putin disagrees with. He doesn’t want the US or European countries to get involved in this war, he wants Ukrainians and their supporters to stand down or be defeated so he can sieze their land. He’s obviously against NATO. And he obviously doesn’t want any sanctions on anybody in Russia, in general or on the oligarchs.
Ideology is not a bad thing. It’s of value, very important really. Each of us as individuals should have a fact-based and justice-seeking worldview which guides us as we go through life, day by day. But when that worldview doesn’t fit with the facts, as history and our lives develop, it’s time to make some practical and ideological adjustments, look at things more closely. Ideology grounded in facts, not blind ideology, is what we must strive for.
Ted Glick works with Beyond Extreme Energy and is president of 350NJ-Rockland. Past writings and other information, including about Burglar for Peace and 21st Century Revolution, two books published by him in 2020 and 2021, can be found at https://tedglick.com. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.