November 6, 2014

QotD: Political iconoclasts in modern society

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

People in ancient societies thought their societies were obviously great. The imperial Chinese thought nothing could beat imperial China, the medieval Spaniards thought medieval Spain was a singularly impressive example of perfection, and Communist Soviets were pretty big on Soviet Communism. Meanwhile, we think 21st-century Western civilization, with its democracy, secularism, and ethnic tolerance is pretty neat. Since the first three examples now seem laughably wrong, we should be suspicious of the hypothesis that we finally live in the one era whose claim to have gotten political philosophy right is totally justified.

But it seems like we have an advantage they don’t. Speak out against the Chinese Empire and you lose your head. Speak out against the King of Spain and you face the Inquisition. Speak out against Comrade Stalin and you get sent to Siberia. The great thing about western liberal democracy is that it has a free marketplace of ideas. Everybody criticizes some aspect of our society. Noam Chomsky made a career of criticizing our society and became rich and famous and got a cushy professorship. So our advantage is that we admit our society’s imperfections, reward those who point them out, and so keep inching closer and closer to this ideal of perfect government.

Okay, back up. Suppose you went back to Stalinist Russia and you said “You know, people just don’t respect Comrade Stalin enough. There isn’t enough Stalinism in this country! I say we need two Stalins! No, fifty Stalins!”

Congratulations. You have found a way to criticize the government in Stalinist Russia and totally get away with it. Who knows, you might even get that cushy professorship.

If you “criticize” society by telling it to keep doing exactly what it’s doing only much much more so, society recognizes you as an ally and rewards you for being a “bold iconoclast” or “having brave and revolutionary new ideas” or whatever. It’s only when you tell them something they actually don’t want to hear that you get in trouble.

Western society has been moving gradually further to the left for the past several hundred years at least. It went from divine right of kings to constutitional monarchy to libertarian democracy to federal democracy to New Deal democracy through the civil rights movement to social democracy to ???. If you catch up to society as it’s pushing leftward and say “Hey guys, I think we should go leftward even faster! Two times faster! No, fifty times faster!”, society will call you a bold revolutionary iconoclast and give you a professorship.

If you start suggesting maybe it should switch directions and move the direction opposite the one the engine is pointed, then you might have a bad time.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

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