The Power of Ideas

by Dr. David Aikman
December 14, 2010
 

A friend of mine who has an entry about himself on Wikipedia was complaining to me a few weeks ago that the entry kept being "edited" by anonymous activists in ways apparently calculated to undermine his credibility.
 
My friend is a strong champion of traditional marriage, so he understandably suspected that gay activists were behind the "guerrilla editing" forays.  In fact, Wikipedia has frequently been criticized by conservative critics for allegedly being more sympathetic to liberal views of the world than conservative ones.
 
That, however, is what happens when you informally invite everyone in the world to edit your writing.  People with strong, and sometimes angry, views tend to leap into the fray, and that may be why Wikipedia has been phenomenally successful.  It is reputedly the fifth-most popular website in the world, and it caused TIME Magazine in 2006 to name its co-founder, Jimmy Wales, one of the most influential people on the planet.
 
Wales is obviously a gifted Internet entrepreneur.  It is interesting that he describes himself as an "objectivist," a person who -- quoting Wikipedia -- holds that "the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness."  Objectivists take their philosophy from the late writer Ayn Rand, an atheist whose two important books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were wildly popular among college students in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s.
 
It is also interesting that if the preponderant editorial leaning of Wikipedia is indeed in a political and philosophically liberal direction, the encyclopedia is in the tradition of the Encyclopédie of the French Enlightenment (approximately 1751-1780), a massive attempt to outline all knowledge under the direction of the French atheistic philosophe Denis Diderot.  The French Encyclopedists had an enormous influence on many of the ideas that surfaced during the French Revolution of 1789-1799.  In short, the organized pursuit of knowledge can have profound, and sometimes permanently, bad consequences.
 
Conservatives sometimes have only themselves to blame when liberals seize the initiative in the realm of knowledge.  There is a website called Conservapedia.com which offers some helpful criticisms of Wikipedia.  Yet it's unlikely that many people who are not already conservatives would be attracted to such a site; the name sounds too obviously opinionated to be a neutral source of knowledge.  Christian conservatives are often not taken seriously in the academic world because they largely abandoned this professional arena to agnostics and political liberals in the 60s and because conservatives have often disdained ideas in general as not "practical."
 
Yet ideas, however "impractical" when first sketched out, have a way of coming into their own in due course.  The economist John Maynard Keynes (1843-1946) famously wrote: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.  Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler a few years back."  Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who certainly grabbed some powerful and dangerous ideas from "scribbler" Karl Marx, knew better than most the power of ideas.  He said: "Ideas are more powerful than guns.  We would not let our enemies have guns.  Why should they have ideas?"
 
There are some powerful ideas out there that most Americans instinctively agree with, but which have seldom in recent years been skillfully articulated.  They include the notions that:

Oh yes, and there is the idea -- still pretty exciting -- that, for all its well-documented faults, the United States has been politically freer than any previous society in history and has made available to its people more opportunity for self-advancement than any other country in the world.
 
If approximately 70 percent of Americans believe this, the question is, why did an overwhelming majority of young voters (28-34 in age) say that they have a positive impression of socialism and actually vote left in the 2008 presidential election?  The answer may be that the American informational elite -- academics, teachers, Hollywood, and the media -- is very largely, and some would say overwhelmingly, left-leaning.  They don't like business people or corporations and they think that to reduce poverty all you have to do is tax rich people heavily and then -- to quote Barack Obama from his 2008 election campaign -- "spread the wealth around." The idea that capitalism and free enterprise create jobs far more efficiently than government generally escapes them.  (Why some capitalist billionaire hasn't paid for them all to spend two weeks in North Korea baffles me.  It would surely cure them of this insanity for life.)
 
Until that unlikely event occurs, those with conservative and traditional ideas will have to take back all the elite fortresses of public opinion one castle at a time.  It's an extremely challenging task, but it has to be attempted if the world of ideas -- and shortly afterwards, the world of reality -- is not to become permanently in thrall to the "scribblers" of the left.

A version of this column appeared originally at OneNewsNow.com.

For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum.