Kevin T. Keith

The problem with ideologues is that they take ideology seriously. It's all very well to have a commitment to principle, or even to proselytize one's beliefs, but there is a kind of social lubrication afforded by the genteel hypocrisy that enables true believers to maintain their place and privilege in a world of differing opinions while denying that they do so. (Not everyone wants an office Christmas party, but every office has one. Dissenters are tolerated in their absence, but it's not their party.)

Ideologues, though, refuse to accommodate hypocrisy. And in a country that does have, at least to some degree, the rule of law and freedom of speech, the enterprising non-conformist can make a surprising amount of trouble for the favored powers, those who have always enjoyed the benefits of the inconsistent interpretation of "equality" within the legal and social systems.

That partly explains the anger engendered by the "New Atheism" – the outspoken, science-inspired and confrontational anti-religion ferment churned up by provocative writers and scholars and the burgeoning "skeptics" movement. Where once the science/atheism schism took its most familiar form in tired legal clashes over the teaching of evolution and prayer in schools, today's iconoclasts are seeking to broaden their base, making the skeptical view of religion one of the standard options among the general range of public opinion, rather than the province of fringe obsessives. The arrogance of assuming the right to be heard is why even the most risible deviations from social expectation, like saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" at the seasonal nexus of many social communities' times of celebration, spark such outrage from those who are invested in having their privileges remain unexamined.

The most ideological act is to assert your own ideology – that is, to act as if you expect that your beliefs and principles have a place in the public sphere. Obviously it's no threat to the social influence of omnipresent American Christianity to have people say "Happy Holidays"; what it threatens is the unchallenged assumption that you can choose not to be ostentatiously Christian. The New Atheism has meant little so far for the general balance of religious tensions in the legal/political sphere, but it has shaken up social complacency regarding religion (Christianity especially) as a social default. And it comes at a time when unexamined social verities of all descriptions are traduced with increasing frequency and a gleeful defiance.

Gay marriage – an issue given political salience by Republicans as a marker of sexual radicalism to hang on Democrats – took wing on the logical force of its own appeal to fairness. But – as Republicans also predicted – it brought with it the ideological inevitability of queer liberty in many other guises, including polyamory, transgenderism, flamboyant sexual ambiguity in music and pop art, and more, all of which are bolder, more visible, more assertively unapologetic than ever before, and all of which have staked a place in the public eye that utterly fails to wither under the disapproving glare of the prudish norm.

The Occupy movement put a finger in the eye of the upper classes; the uncomprehending shock it provoked spoke not to how politically influential the movement was (still hard to gauge) but how unthinkable it was that the upper class could be publicly disparaged. Ideological uppitiness is not confined to one part of the political spectrum: the Tea Party drew strength from its posturing as a radical and iconoclastic movement (even as it championed the most tired and reactionary clichés of the right wing); libertarians and Objectivists are newly proud, too, and newly visible in the government roles they had infiltrated so stealthily hitherto; the loudest denunciations of the Pope and his Princes come from Catholics who believe they have the right to a voice in their own church.

Whether religious, or economic, or sexual, or social, the demand for one's place in the sun has become more common and, most importantly, less possible to squelch through the overbearing weight of tradition and conformity. It is not clear where this moment in political history will take us. What does seem clear is that the assumptions of privilege – that it is self-justifying, that it defines normalcy, that the life represented by the exercise of privilege, and the values and ways of being it presumes, is the life everyone aspires to – have been repudiated. The future will be livelier and more ideologically diverse, likely more conflicted, than the past, because the belief that one can take one's own ideology seriously – can live by one's own values, wear one's own clothes, have one's own kind of life and loves and sex – has been asserted so boldly and so widely that heterodoxy has become orthodoxy.

What the New Ideologues have given us is not just a movement for freethinking, or gay rights, or any other specific logos. It is the death of ideological complacency. The cultural flowering of the 1960s has receded, and the right-wing backlash has fought viciously to reimpose the stultifying conformity of acceptable thought and behavior that had been thereby challenged. It almost succeeded. But, even if much changed for the worse during the backlash years, a sea change in expectation has taken place: the privilege of the entrenched classes is hardly dead, but it can no longer be assumed that that privilege defines US culture in its entirety.

Minorities – ethnic, sexual, religious, ideological – are no less embattled than before, but they are no longer negligible, and much less shy about asserting themselves. In every arena of cultural conflict, the default now is a plurality of ideologies refusing to cede pride of place. That by itself diminishes majority creeds simply because they are no longer inevitable. And that is the radicalism of taking ideology seriously: that it endorses the expectation that one can no longer declare beliefs or values or programs out of bounds by sheer dismissive fiat.

For that, we have the New Atheists, and a lot of angry queers, and even some right-wing fringe to thank. The result will be two-fold: public discourse will be noisier and less univocal, and the idea of dominant voices commanding assent is now forever a dead letter. There was never a world of consensual ideological homogeneity; there was only a world in which certain opinions and values – leftism, gay identity, non-traditional marriages, minority religions, sexual freedom, women's independence – were punished into silence. Those opinions and values have been freed by ideologues who insisted on being heard, and now they and so many others will be heard, and they are not going to be silenced again.