Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bad Policy Kills

It’s estimated that Soviet Russia’s government killed at least 20 million of its own citizens. Higher estimates are triple that around 60 million, lower estimates are around 7 million. 6 million Jews are thought to have died in the holocaust, and yet holocaust victims are given infinitely more memorials and museums than Soviet Russia’s. Part of this is in response to the sheer idea of the planned genocide of a whole race – no doubt one of the ugliest marks on Western civilization. Post World War II saw dramatic improvements but only in some areas: US and England experienced one of their largest growth eras. And yet in the decade after the war, Russia saw around a quarter to a third of those mass Russian deaths.

We tuck away in history the bits and pieces that we want to ignore while other bits and pieces continue to have meaning today. Modern-day Nazi’s are despised as murderous racists while communists are simply considered harmless liberal extremes. But “it works in theory” I hear from some of my friends. Yet so does Nazism, which is as steeped in its own ideas as any other ideology. Any theory works in theory; if it didn't it would cease to be a theory and then it would be something else. To advocate communism without addressing areas in which its lead to widespread starvation and death - Russia being just one example - is like advocating Nazism without addressing the holocaust.

The extremes of where an idea have gone wrong are often most telling, but you have to look within extremes as well: Extremist ideas, many have argued, aren't always categorically different from their watered down counterparts. Consider
  • Communism in the extreme has led to mass starvation, but in the less extreme it's bad health care.
  • Nazism in the extreme was the holocaust, but in the less extreme it was Kristallnacht.
  • Discrimination in the extreme led to lynchings, while in the less extreme it led to segregation.
  • Religious fanaticism in the extreme is seen as terrorism, while in the less extreme it's evangelical Christianity.
Moderate ideas from one culture sound radical to another. While the outcomes of such extremist movements are alarming, we are doing ourselves a disservice by separating ourselves from them, rather than trying to discern historically where they came from. The holocaust was terrible, but Nazi's are people too. What part of human nature - the very same human nature that yes we all share - had gone wrong? Looking at the roots of many extremist movements in the world, we can see many of our own commonly held moderate ideas, and their drawn out implications.

Not to sound polarizing, it’s just surprising how we cling so readily to some atrocities while completely disregarding others. Europe circa WWII is a very concrete example, as both Nazi and Soviet atrocities occurred in the same era and in the same part of the world. And this is by no means a mere abstract question, we’re dealing with two independent events responsible each for over 6 million deaths. Yet how often do you hear, "Remember the Soviet Union and its millions of victims"? My suspicion is that we’re less likely to recall the deaths in Soviet Russia because communism, moreso than Nazism, is somewhat accepted in America, particularly among liberals.

People cling to their opinions as their personal identity. As Tocqueville pointed out, this is a natural byproduct of democracy and freedom of speech. Ideas suddenly separate people, and they have concrete manifestations. Opinionated as I may seem, I really try to hold them at an arm’s length from my mind.

Sometimes I’ll go to social events with “intellectual conversations” where people will say things like “I believe that all people should earn equal incomes” or “I think education is important”, note with the emphasis more on the first person than on the opinion itself. It’s indeed correct that the first person, I, deserves emphasis, it is more important than the opinion itself. But unfortunately the manifest content of the discussion is inevitably on the issue being discussed not the person talking. And in this context, something like “I think education is important” is one of the the weakest arguments. What people fail to realize – I think sometimes to a fault – is that opinions are easy. They’re cheap. And granted this is just my opinion as well, but they’re often fairly meaningless.

Opinions again can be very personal while the real world is anything but. To get the one confused for the other is a very confusing state indeed. Should I ever come across such concrete evidence as to truly undermine my own opinions about the world, then I hope that I have the strength and peace of mind to change how I view the world.

Some people say that the best politics is always personal. But I just don’t buy it. Because the personal is referring to you - how you feel - and the politics is reflected in reality. It's like saying that physics should always be personal - a colossal confusion between the subjective and objective. And no it's not that politics deals with things that are more personal than physics, as I'm sure some physicists would tell you that physics is more personal. It's that reality abides by laws - such as economics laws - much sooner than it abides by our personal preferences. Contrary to the notion of personal politics, passion and fury when it's coming from a politician is ultimately no more persuasive than when it's coming from a crazy scientist. Distinguishment for the most passionate and fiery politician might very well go to Hitler with his unmatched ability to rile crowds and to gather a whole nation behind him. Personal politics isn’t necessarily opposite of good politics, but they are often placed at odds. The disconnect between personal politics and good politics is like that between the short-term solution and the long-term solution; between the irrational and the rational; between a rash emotional decision and a carefully thought out one. Which isn’t to say that good politics can’t be personal – ultimately all these distinctions are artificial – but it is to say that that which is personal isn’t categorically better. Often it’s worse.

When reality doesn’t match people’s opinions, they often think that it’s the world that has to change. Anything but.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) CCCP, 04/07/2008, by MrOmega; (2) At the Temple, 02/05/2007, by Pete4Ducks; (3) She's made up her mind, 10/12/2008, by bobster1985; (4) Del Martin, 1966, 10/20/2008, also by bobster1985; (5) Hong Kong in Motion, 09/16/2006, by Steve Webel.

Video: (1) Tv Theme World At War, 10/05/2008, tvtestcard's channel from the 1973/1974 documentary series World at War.
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