Everything in moderation

The heating-up of a certain nearby Comments section raises the question of why some people espouse political opinions that are extreme, offbeat, offensive, inflammatory, irrational or otherwise wacky by community standards.

One obvious reason is to shock, offend or flatter – in other words, to get noticed. I was at a tedious business lunch a few years ago at which the Australian regional manager of a financial services multinational cheerfully told the known pro-Beijing Hong Kong figure sitting opposite that he thought democracy was a load of rubbish and his own country was much the worse for it. I was too polite to ask him what sort of absolute monarchy, Nazi dictatorship, Stalinist totalitarianism or Singaporean auto-gerontocracy he would prefer in Canberra. Rejecting Locke, Madison, Mill and the principle of representative government with disgust because a democratic country has some crime and poverty is illogical; it reminds me of the believers in mysticism (alien-made crop circles, Atlantis, reflexology, etc, etc) for whom the fact that “science doesn’t know everything” is some sort of evidence.

Another reason people voice fringe (or indeed middle-of-the-road) views is as a means of self-identity, like clothing or conspicuous lifestyle choices – like the radical chic mocked by Tom Wolfe. Hating Israel is as symbolically important for some people as opposing abortion is for others. Many people would say that Israeli military action is often excessive, counterproductive, senseless and inhumane. But it is trendy for some to go to the Nth degree: the one country in the Middle East that has democracy, a free press and rule of law should vanish, they insist, and an Arab country without these features (of which there are 19 already*) should take its place. That’s irrational (as is the idea that a constitutional amendment or law against murdering the unborn will prevent women from terminating pregnancies if they want to). It’s an ideological fashion statement.

Finally, there is the possibility that some people actually believe what they are saying. Typically, we are talking about an outsider of some sort who latches on to extreme views in order to feel in-the-know, thus in some way an ‘insider’ and superior to the unquestioning dimwitted masses who swallow the mainstream line. This is the same reason people believe in conspiracy theories (JFK, the Bilderbergers, 9-11, etc), which is what many unorthodox political opinions are. The starting point is to question, not unreasonably, where power lies and to what extent campaign finance, hidden business elites and media manipulation reduce the exercise of the popular vote to a sham. It’s a short slippery slope down to creepy invisible government and The Matrix if you take it too seriously. In a YouTube video I saw, radical journalist John Pilger maintained that Barack Obama is (in essence) just a re-packaged George W Bush clone-puppet, regardless of the ranting anti-Fed Tea Party types out to ‘Impeach the Kenyan’. At one stage, he told his hushed audience of socialist admirers that, after graduating in the 1980s, Obama worked at a particular, obscure company. My ears pricked up: I worked for the same firm, though in a different city. It was, Pilger revealed with a perfectly straight face, a CIA front. I burst out laughing and switched over to an old Absolutely Fabulous episode. Of course, that’s what they want us to do.

*Twenty if you include Palestine.  Lebanon – 40% Christian – arguably manages to be semi-democratic.

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