29 December 2009

Political note

I generally avoid political commentary when I'm sober, but I found the quote below (written by a former managing director from UBS turned mathematician and lecturer) one of the most highly illuminating descriptions of the mechanics of political psychology that I've read. In particular, it brings into view the self-contradictory nature that generally pervades states that grant people the so-called right of "self-rule."

" If you want to see what I mean by the arbitrariness of categories, check the situation of polarized politics. The next time a Martian visits earth, try to explain to him why those who favor allowing the elimination of a fetus in the mother's womb also oppose capital punishment. Or try to explain to him why those who accept abortion are supposed to be favorable to high taxation but against a strong military. Why do those who prefer sexual freedom need to be against individual economic liberty?

I noticed the absurdity of clustering when I was quite young. By some farcical turn of events, in that civil war of Lebanon, Christians became pro-free market and the capitalistic system—i.e., what a journalist would call "the Right"—and the Islamists became socialists, getting support
from Communist regimes (Pravda, the organ of the Communist regime, called them "oppression fighters," though subsequently when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, it was the Americans who sought association with bin Laden and his Moslem peers).

The best way to prove the arbitrary character of these categories, and the contagion effect they produce, is to remember how frequently these clusters reverse in history. Today's alliance between Christian fundamentalists and the Israeli lobby would certainly seem puzzling to a nineteenth century intellectual—Christians used to be anti-Semites and Moslems were the protectors of the Jews, whom they preferred to Christians. Libertarians used to be left-wing. What is interesting to me as a probabilist is that some random event makes one group that initially supports an issue thus causing the ally itself with another group that supports another issue, thus causing the two items to fuse and unify . . . until the surprise of the separation. "

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, page 16

I would recommend anyone who takes an active interest in politics to contemplate this passage and see to what extent their own political passions are controlled by the powerful force being described by Mr. Taleb. It may help one realize more precisely the extent to which politics is radically unreal, a realization that has a tremendously freeing effect on the soul.

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