How extremists cope with widespread dissent

July 28, 2011 at 3:41 am (Humans, Politics)

How do extremists continue believing what they believe? The recent attack in Norway, I think, has brought up this question in many people’s minds (helped by the fact that the perpetuator is white and blonde and thus ought to be perfectly normal). The usual response is that they must be either unintelligent or mentally disturbed. Neither, from my observations, is true. In fact, those who take a definite political position have on average a higher intelligence than the “moderates” and the politically unaffiliated, and political extremists are well-represented in the academia and in prominent professions.

The most common trait among extremists, I would say, is the ability to rationalize why others disagree with you, a trait that is usually seen by others as a form of cynicism – for example, a central tenet of Marxism is the fundamental role of ideology, or that what people believe tend to be a result of their socio-economical circumstances. A second and related trait is the belief that their beliefs are misrepresented by others to be something related and wrong, but that they themselves are in fact different. For example, Marxists are notorious for their many ideological streams, each of which criticizes and fights against the others; while the neo-Nazis take great pains to distinguish themselves from the Nazis.

For a practical demonstration, here are two excellent examples of how extremists deal with ideological insecurity, one from the Marxists and one from the neo-Nazis:

1. Badiou: On Different Streams Within French Maoism (an interview with Alain Badiou, a prominent French “philosopher” and probably the most famous Maoist in Europe)

2. Do you ever lose faith in your racist beliefs? (a thread on Stormfront, the largest neo-Nazi forum on the Internet)

I do not imply by this post that extremism itself is a bad thing. In fact, I have plenty of extreme beliefs, such as my atheism and my belief that family as a social institution ought to be abolished; and I am sure we can find in history countless examples in which an extreme minority turned out to be correct (by beliefs, I mean only falsifiable beliefs, not opinions relating to moral values, although these two are often confused with each other).

However, most beliefs held by an extreme minority are probably false, and this is especially true for those that have been out of favor for years – in the above two cases, the Maoist beliefs about class struggle and the viability of central planning; and the fascist belief that race is a fundamental determinant of personality.


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American media and oppressor narratives

July 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm (Mass media, Politics)

About six weeks ago, a few days after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) allegations surfaced, I received my latest subscription of TIME Magazine (Asia). The cover read “Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs”. Knowing fully well what the content is about, I put it on my shelf fully wrapped and decided that I would only read it after DSK is vindicated (or proven guilty – but I thought that would be extremely unlikely).

Today, as DSK’s accuser is expected to be charged with perjury after admitting to lying under oath, I finally unwrapped the magazine and read the cover article. There is not much that I can say, besides my sincere and unrealistic hope that the author loses her job; frankly there is not much that I was surprised by. Here are a few quotations from the article:

“How can it be, in this ostensibly enlightened age…that anyone with so little judgment, so little honor, could rise to such heights?”

“And so he sat in a cell at Rikers Island, a short flight but a long fall from his $4 million Georgetown home…” (emphasis mine)

“Paris lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat recalls a young woman who told him of a violent encounter with Strauss-Kahn. “She wanted to know whether I thought what I heard would form the basis for a solid legal case,” Pierrat says. “I told her I did.” In the end she decided to drop the complaint, fearing the media circus, the very good chance she’d be accused of being a liar or worse.(emphasis mine)

“the political challenge facing DSK was less his lechery than his lifestyle; it’s hard to be a Socialist icon living the life of a plutocrat. Photographs of him climbing into a friend’s $142,000 Porsche caused a furor…”

“conspiracy theorists were quick to suspect a setup…they argued…Admirers were more likely to throw themselves at him…”

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July 1st in Hong Kong

July 2, 2011 at 8:19 am (History, Personal experiences, Politics)

July 1st is an important date in Hong Kong for two main reasons: it is the day when the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, thus leading to the creation of the Hong Kong SAR government; and it also happens to be the day when the the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921.

During July 1st, the pan-democracy camp in Hong Kong organizes a march to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong; while the pro-Beijing camp celebrates the anniversary of the CPC. Every year on this date an interesting sign of social division occurs: the sons and daughters of every family leave to march on the streets, while their grandparents stay in their homes humming along with the red anthems on TV.

Yesterday, I joined half a dozen of my ex-schoolmates in the annual march, which turned out to be one of the largest that Hong Kong has ever seen. According to the organizers, around 218,000 people turned out at Victoria Park in the afternoon; the police claim that the number is closer to 54,000. At any rate, this is the largest march Hong Kong has seen since 2003-2004, during the last two years of the extremely unpopular Tung Chee Hwa administration.

The 2011 July 1st march in Hong Kong, at the front

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Signs of Power

June 22, 2011 at 3:02 am (History, Politics)

In history and in international relations, one commonly speaks in terms of the power of a particular country, institution, or group of peopleIt is an intuitive concept that is not meant to be defined clearly, and academics have came up with numerous ways to “measure” power: economic strength, military might, diplomatic relations, and so on. It is very often in dispute which of these criteria are important or relevant; one particular problem is that the process from which we decide these criteria is tainted by power as well.

There are some trivial things like naming and symbolism which, I think, can serve as relatively neutral indicators of the balance of power. Here is an example: There are three common names for the nation that we refer to in English as “Korea”: Chosen/Joseon (朝鮮)[1], Han (韓), and Goguryeo/Goryeo (高句麗/高麗). None of these three are considered standard. This is quite unusual. – for example, while the Chinese ethnicity refer to themselves by various names such as Tang (唐) and Hua (華), the name Han (漢) is generally considered standard. There is no such agreement for the Korean name, however.

This eventually became a problem: For various historical, geographic and political reasons, after the Second World War and the division of Korea, North Korea decided to name itself after Chosen, as 「朝鮮民主主義人民共和國」 (Chosen Democratic People’s Republic, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea); while South Korea decided to name itself after Han, as 「大韓民國」 (Great Han Republic, officially known as the Republic of Korea).[2]
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June 19, 2011 at 3:53 am (Humans, Politics)

I’ve been involved in the Chinese democratic movement in Hong Kong for quite a while. In fact, I’m a registered member of the League of Social Democrats (whose leaders are mostly famous for throwing bananas at government officials and accusing others of being Communists while wearing Che Guevara shirts themselves[1]). I’ve been to speeches, rallies and gatherings and I’ve had the chance to see almost all of the pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. Then when I tell my friends that I have absolutely nothing against the Communist Party maintaining their rule and I think they are one of the most competent governments since the history of human civilization, I am always met with blank stares.

Why? I’ve never really understood why most people find it unimaginable to support people who they might disagree with, or the other way round. When I think of whether to support the Communist Party, what I am thinking of is what my support could possibly do to the rest of society. In particular, I wonder whether it would increase the chance of having a better government in China if I did not support the Communist Party. My answer right now is an uncertain no. I do not think a regime change or a transfer of power in China in the next twenty years is likely to benefit society as a whole, and hence I support the Communist Party (or rather, do not actively try to challenge it).
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Wikipedia wars

June 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm (Information, Politics)

“Palin’s supporters abuse Wikipedia to justify Paul Revere gaffe” (this is heavy!).  Check out the edit history.

The unfortunate fact is that “edit wars” like this go on every day in thousands of articles about recent events and contentious political issues. Very few people seem to realize how utterly incapable Wikipedia is at dealing with these agenda-based edits. The editing process (any user – even without an account – can edit almost any page at any time) might have been great for the first four years or so of Wikipedia’s history, when there was a lack of quantity, not quality. Today it is a main obstacle to achieving the high standard of quality that traditional encyclopedias had. Every hick in the streets seems to think that he knows everything about Global warming, Taiwan independence, Deontology, real analysis, and the fact that human relationships exist in communist countries.

To be fair, Wikipedia does have its share of well-written articles, and in particular the ones on mathematics are often fabulous. But even in these highly technical subjects, long-term editors have been leaving for projects with more sensible rules such as PlanetMath. The dispute-resolution process is hopelessly cumbersome, and the lack of respect for academic writings is prevalent even among many of the administrators.

(The funny thing is that the whole Wikipedia thing got started because an Ayn Rand fan misread “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.)

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June 4th in Hong Kong

June 5, 2011 at 1:40 am (Personal experiences, Politics)

Over 150,000 people came out today in Hong Kong to mourn the victims of the incident on June 4thMay 35th, 1989 at Tian’anmen Square where absolutely nothing happened.

More on this later.

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How NOT to be an environmentalist

May 31, 2011 at 11:57 am (Politics, Price theory)

Germany plans to completely abolish nuclear power in a decade. As always, the Greens have managed to do the single thing that will most contribute to global warming and pollute the environment at the same time. When the German industry can no longer rely on electricity generated by nuclear fission, they will turn to the second best option: coal. Note that nuclear power has not killed a single person for over two decades. Coal, on the other hand, claims the lives of tens of thousands of people in China every year, through mining incidents and lung disease. The problem, of course, is that Western countries only care about Third World livelihood when the unions tell them to.

As a few case studies have shown us, the problem with nuclear power is mostly an illusory one. When the leaders of a country have the sufficient courage and commitment to develop nuclear energy, its citizens eventually see that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Hence why the French (who have relied almost exclusively on nuclear power for three decades) are still highly favorable towards nuclear energy, despite years of incessant propaganda from competitors in the energy sector. Let me end with one of my favorite quotes from Professor Steven Landsburg:

“…I am frankly a lot more worried about my daughter’s becoming an environmentalist than about her becoming a Christian…we face no current threat of having Christianity imposed on us by petty tyrants; the same can not be said of environmentalism. My county government never tried to send me a New Testament, but it did send me a recycling bin…”

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Weekly news: 2011-05-29

May 25, 2011 at 7:10 pm (Politics, Rochester, Weekly news)

1. In Tuesday’s special election in the NY 26th Congressional District, Democrat Kathy Hochul won against Republican Jane Corwin by a 47.1-42.6 margin in a district previously held by Republicans since 1970. The whining ensues. The “Tea Party” candidate Jack Davis, a protectionist who was previously registered as a Democrat and before then a Republican, received 9.2% of the vote.

Recent polls have shown Democrats regaining a slight lead for the generic congressional ballot in 2012. They will likely win the Senate vote by a larger percentage if the public opinion remains constant, since the states up for election favor Democrats. However it is likely that they will still lose several seats, since 2006 (the last time the seats were up for election) was an extremely favorable year for Democrats. The House races are basically a toss-up at this stage.

2. A case study of the problem with American journalism. Excerpts below:

The first Bush-Gore debate, according to Frank Bruni in his personal memoir:

“By any objective analysis, Bush was at best mediocre in the first debate, in Boston. … in all of [the debates], he was vague. A stutter sometimes crept into his voice. An eerie blankness occasionally spread across his features. He made a few ridiculous statements…”

The very same debate, according to Frank Bruni in the New York Times:

“It was not enough for Vice President Al Gore to venture a crisp pronunciation of Milosevic, as in Slobodan, the Yugoslav president who refuses to be pried from power. … Mr. Gore had to go a step further, volunteering the name of Mr. Milosevic’s challenger, Vojislav Kostunica. … as Mr. Gore loped effortlessly through the Balkans, barely able to suppress his self-satisfied grin, it became ever clearer that the point of all the thickets of consonants and proper nouns was not a geopolitical lesson. … it was more like oratorical intimidation…”

3. Breitbarts’ “TwitterHoax” – An illustrative guide to how the right-wing manufactures scandals. Excerpt:

“[She] said she was harassed for weeks online after she started following Weiner on Twitter and the congressman added her to the list of about 200 people he follows. Her harrasser “started posting about me, saying, ‘Oh, the congressman is following school girls,’ tweeting it over and over. It was very annoying,” [she] told the Daily News. When the crotch shot appeared online, she said the same Twitter user was the first to comment on it.

“Since I had dealt with this person and his cohorts before, I assumed that the tweet and the picture were their latest attempts at defaming the congressman and harassing his supporters,” she said. “Annoyed, I responded with something along the lines of ‘are you f***ing kidding me?’ and ‘I’ve never seen this. You people are sick,'” she said.”

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