I’M A BAD CATHOLIC, even though I’m a convert. I only register Democrat so that I won’t be excluded from voting in California’s closed presidential primaries. I guess you could say that I have a version of the Groucho Marx disease: I don’t want to be part of any club that’ll have me as a member.
It’s not that I don’t believe in the basic goodness of certain groups, individuals or causes. I do. It’s just that I find it hard to see most of the institutions organized to further an idea or a hero as a clear embodiment of that goodness. As with most human inventions, in one way or another the things we believe in and the way we believe in them end, to become tragically compromised by self-interest or prejudice.
I reserve my greatest disdain for rigid political ideologies and ideologues, mostly because they demonize their enemies and call incessantly for absolute discipline for “the cause.”
I feel sorry for people who worship politicians, for the simple reason that the best politicians are the best liars. While I am aware that they perform good and necessary deeds, I also know what sorts of dastardly things they have to do to gain power in the first place.
Despite the pretense of high-mindedness among ideologues, I believe that their loyalties are socially rather than intellectually driven. I’m reminded of the time an L.A. ideologue challenged me to a debate and stipulated that each of us could bring as many supporters as we wanted. That summed it up: Beneath most ideological struggles is a turf war between rival cliques. (I didn’t take the challenge. Maybe I was just scared my side of the auditorium would have been empty.)
A friend recently dragged me to the re-release of Bernardo Bertollucci’s 1970 film “The Conformist” at the Nuart in West L.A. I once understood the movie to be an indictment of Italian fascism. But this time, in the final scenes, when Mussolini falls and the fascist protagonist denounces his former co-conspirators in order to gain legitimacy under the new regime, it struck me as a broader observation on the craven self-interest of political ideologues the world over.
Here in Central Europe, throughout the former communist states, it’s not hard to find former high-ranking communist officials who have become successful capitalists or who now work as bureaucrats sworn to uphold the laws of democratic states. Once communism was thrown onto the ash heap of history, they employed whatever wealth or skills they had attained via one system to gain status in the next. Their adherence to a cruel and oppressive system only ceased when they had no other choice.
I first visited Berlin as a 20-year-old college student, at a time when the city was still divided. It was here I learned my distrust of fervent ideological loyalty. If visiting the memorials to the horrors of Nazism wasn’t enough, all I had to do was cross into East Berlin and totalitarian East Germany to feel the weight of oppressive ideology. It was also on that trip that I met Helmuth Wippich at a party in the Moabit district of West Berlin. His story forever changed the way I looked at politics.
HELMUTH, WHO WAS then a barrel-chested janitor at the Free University in West Berlin with shoulder-length blond hair, told me that he had been thrown in prison at 16 in East Germany for writing protest poems and discussing his desire to flee to the West. In 1975, the government of West Germany bought Helmuth’s freedom in one of its periodic ransoms of the East’s political dissidents.
He told me he would never forget the exhilaration he felt when he crossed over into the West. The advantages of living in a democracy had long been clear to him. All he wanted was to live his life as he chose and have the freedom to complain when he thought the government was wrong.
Yet while he proclaimed the evils of communism, Helmuth wasn’t blind to the inequities inherent in capitalism. His disdain for one system didn’t render him unaware of the problems of the other. Two years as a hotel plumber had taught him how dismally bosses could treat their employees. He was also disappointed to learn that an obsession with the bottom line could translate into lowest-common-denominator popular culture and undermine the feeling of community in the West. While clearly considering democratic capitalism superior to totalitarian socialism, Helmuth nonetheless never felt that he truly fit into either system.
Last week, I visited Helmuth for the first time in nearly two decades. Despite having suffered years of post-traumatic stress and other prison-induced ailments, Helmuth was in fine form.
Over dinner in a Latin American restaurant on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, I thanked him for giving me my hearty skepticism of political ideology. He seemed amused to learn how much he had influenced me over the years. While still reluctant to pigeonhole himself ideologically, he does freely say he is “one of the few real democrats” and admits to supporting candidates from Germany’s mainstream liberal party.
He reminded me that fear and rigid ideology are the enemies of freedom. “Democratic capitalism can sometimes leave people feeling extremely insecure,” he said. “But freedom and democracy are always more important than the temptation to have more security.” Particularly in these days, he thought, Americans need to remember that.