05/16/2009 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Perils of Ideology and the Virtue of Obama's Contextual Thinking

In the course of her efforts to comprehend the atrocities wrought by totalitarianism in the 20th century, epitomized in the horrors of Auschwitz, philosopher Hannah Arendt provided a brilliant analysis of the essence of political ideology. Such "isms," said Arendt, claim to explain all historical happenings by deducing them from a single self-evident idea or premise -- e.g., that history "progresses" through the elimination of inferior races (Nazism) or decadent classes (communism). Once established, these ironclad logical systems become, like paranoid delusions, immune to the impact of actual experience. Further, they readily devolve into systems of totalitarian terror, as they give warrant to the unbridled liquidation of anyone or anything believed to impede the historical process, including all human freedom, spontaneity, and individuality.

An ugly, dangerous "ism" took possession of the American psyche in the wake of the collective trauma of September 11, 2001. It was a vulgar form of the ancient ideology known as "Manichaeism" -- the idea that the movement of history is explained by an eternal struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Bush used Manichaean ideology to mobilize a traumatized America to embark upon a deadly and disastrous holy crusade against the forces of evil and to invade Iraq in particular.

We are always more vulnerable to the spell of destructive ideology in times, such as these, of collective trauma and crisis. It is therefore reassuring that President Obama is a leader who seems for the most part capable of resisting the coercive grip of ideology. Since his election campaign, he has shown himself to be able to transcend the false dichotomies and polarities (versions of Manichaeism) that have traditionally divided us, seeking instead the common ground that can unite us. And he makes decisions, not on the basis of allegiance to a self-evident idea or premise, but with an appreciation of context and complexity. He even demonstrates, to the chagrin of ideologues on both sides of the aisle, a refreshing capacity to change his mind (on the question of military tribunals, for example), if called for when new aspects of a particular context are brought to light. Awareness of context, particularity, and complexity is one of the best antidotes to the poisoning lure of ideology.