On questioning authority

A couple years ago, my friend who won high honors at the Intel Science Talent Search told me that he was talking this guy who created some app that allows you to schedule a Uber ride for later, who was also at/near the top of the same science competition, who is extraordinarily versatile and prolific. I watched a little of a video of a TED talk he gave, wherein he explained what one can learn from ancient Hebraic texts. Overall, I wasn’t terribly terribly impressed by it, though it was quite eloquently delivered. Mostly because with those types of things, one is too free to interpret and thus, the lessons/messages given were overly generic so as to make them almost meaningless, one of which was how the Bible teaches the importance of questioning authority, with reference to the refusal to bow to the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as an exemplary.

Here, Joshua like many from the same cultural root portrays questioning authority as a pillar of the Jewish moral and intellectual spirit. I would say that this has already gotten to the point of cliche. There is also, again, that people have different ideas of what it means to question authority.

First of all, what is an authority? An authority can manifest itself in many forms. It can be a political authority. It can be a government, especially a “dictatorship,” as much as I hate the usage of that word. It can be a boss at work. It can be a distinguished professor. It can be an adult when you’re a child. It can be an official or not moral, religious, or political code/ideology, or commonly accepted versions of history and its verdicts, by which I mean judgments of history as opposed to hard facts more or less incontrovertible, such as what exactly happened on X day with documentation abound. It can be the tradition we are all taught to abide by growing up with little question of their rationale and relevance, especially as times pass and change.

A corollary of my last paragraph is that to talk about questioning authority alone is almost utterly meaningless. You absolutely need some context, and Joshua did provide some. In the specific example of his I regurgitated, it is standing up against a dictator, and I’ll elaborate my thoughts on that.

Growing up in America, in my social studies classes and in the media, the mantra of dictatorship vs democracy with the latter morally superior and in many cases with its defense by virtually any means justified was heard again and again that it has itself become an authority taboo to challenge by our political norms. First of all, I want to clarify that here by democracy I am referring to a political system where elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body. There is another form of more general democracy where the government does what is, or is at least perceived as, in the best interest of the entire nation or populace. What American political culture fails to discuss sufficiently is the vital matter of to what extent the former democracy implies the latter one, with the latter’s being, hopefully, the end goal.

In contrast, dictatorships are portrayed as one lone, usually brutal dictator having absolute power, being able to order virtually anything, and thus, leading often to genocidal regimes with mass murderers such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. This image may be tempting to many but it is in reality rather ridiculous. Yes, a dictator has enormous power and stays at the top often for decades, in contrast to the four year term system in America, which is very frowned upon in our culture, but surely, a dictator is not politically omnipotent. He has plenty of people underneath that he needs to satisfy, and though he may have a cult of personality within the propaganda, people are basically free to ignore him and go about their own business. He is also a human too, just like you, with very human interests, though sure, he may be a psychopath of some sort. There is also a vital point that almost always for a dictator to come to power, he must have a high degree of support from a large number of people, and thus, dictators in practice have little incentive to work against people’s interests, with getting people to like him being largely in his interest. Ironically, dictatorships can be very good at motivating people to achieve great things and providing certain continuity and long-term perspective difficult within a system where the people can easily choose to elect a new leader. In fact, if I have someone pressuring or forcing me when I don’t want to to do what is good for me (like waking up early on a weekend) and good for the society at large (like not being a parasite), I consider that to be a very positive thing. On this note, talking with someone in China recently, that guy was like: China now has 10 year terms for leaders, and maybe it should be gotten rid of, because it’s too little time for a leader to do anything serious, as he would have to pass the torch before he can be finished. Maybe Xi Jinping should try to extend his presidency past his 10 year term. Even in America, during WWII, Roosevelt was president for 16 years.

I personally love reading and watching controversial and sensitive material that most people dare not to. I’ve read plenty of material in Chinese banned in the mainland (but of course, still easily obtainable there if one really wants), most memorable of which was the very well-written, of high literary quality, autobiography by 巫宁坤 (Wu Ningkun). I’ve watched an anti-Semitic Nazi movie and also a North Korean movie out of sheer curiosity of certain places so smeared by our media. I also think that Soviet music is some of the most beautiful music out there. I have also, not surprisingly, watched some PRC (propaganda) movies from the 50s and 60s, which I felt were very well-made. The scariest and most grotesque movie I watched was one on the WWII Japanese human experimentation camp, Unit 731. A few weeks ago, I also had the pleasure of watching Saving Private Ryan, which I also much enjoyed, though surely it’s, as a Hollywood movie, more or less well-accepted here on our soil, unlike some of the previous ones, for which many would think I’m crazy, which I’m obviously not, for watching. I would say that this is out of a combination of my political intellectual curiosity and a distaste for certain oppressive, intolerant mainstream views and norms in America. Shaped by these explorations, I am of the belief that people should be more tolerant of differences and more politically and culturally open-minded. Be emotionally insensitive and let others be who they are. Also, be reasonable, precise, and stick to the facts. This is a concrete and substantive characterization of how throughout my life, I have challenged and questioned authority in the political intellectual domain.

Joshua is obviously promoting his own Jewish culture in that TED talk. On this, I’ve come to note that Jews in America are for the most part entirely unashamed, if not eager, to display and extol their culture. This is in contrast to Chinese who grow up here, many of whom try to distance themselves from their roots. Well, I guess there are self-hating Jews (like Bobby Fischer, who I feel I can understand much more now, with where he’s coming from) as well, but overall, they seem far less conspicuous. I believe the latter is out of a combination of their lack of self-confidence, the gross bastardization of Chinese culture in America, and the difficulty of learning the Chinese language in an American environment even when parents speak it at home, especially the written aspect.

There is the cliche saying that Chinese people in general, due to certain elements deep-rooted in Chinese culture, are very deferential to authority, which stifles creativity and innovation. I’ve surely thought about this and my views have evolved over time the more I’ve learned and seen. It is obviously too simplistic a notion presented by those of meager and often incorrect understanding. I do believe that Confucianism had and still has a strong element of the phenomenon described, but so did Christianity, just of a very different character.

Personally, I have to say that the more I learn, the more impressed I am with the fearless and pure spirit Chinese people have displayed in questioning and challenging authority, especially in the 20th century. I have written here before that I believe China has the richest revolutionary history of the 20th century of any nation or culture, with that of course much owing to the circumstances. China in the 20th century, being in deep trouble, had a dire need for revolutionaries, martyrs, and heroes. With this, the Chinese led by the communists essentially created a new Chinese culture on top of the traditional Chinese culture that had Confucianism as the guiding ideology. There is now a rich tradition and culture of Chinese communism, especially in military and social science, that has become holy in some sense, as is Jerusalem, which became so also out of certain formational historical events, that is very revolutionary in its essential spirit. However, the Chinese being materialists view all this as a force of nature rather than a force of God, a key contrast to holiness in the Abrahamic religions.

Another essential difference is that while Jews have more or less based themselves upon the Western system, having taken great advantage for themselves of the Western imperialism that came out of the discovery of modern science in the West, which they are also in service to politically, with reliance on it, the Chinese have more or less created an independent system from the West without kowtowing to pressures to conform, which has proven to be a correct decision, one that took much political courage and belief in oneself. The foundation for modern China was built largely in the 50s and 60s with little direct exchange with the West, if one excludes the Soviet Union from that, and in certain cases direct confrontation, with the freeze in relations owing to that in the Korean War, the Chinese challenged the Western authority successfully in a military setting in a way unimaginably shocking. It is only now very much in hindsight that while that inability to trade with the West for a few decades very much delayed China’s economic growth in certain respects, it brought about the creation of a very distinctive political culture and system deeply embedded that remains distanced from the mainstream in spite of reform and opening up, of a nature that may well be an advantage for China in the long term if not already. In this respect, Chinese culture has produced a feat and tradition of questioning authority that will forever live in our historical memory.

Another that I have noticed is the upright dedication to truth exhibited at large by Chinese scholars in the often corrupt and political social sciences that become authoritative, relative to those in the West. It is a reflection of good judgment of the Chinese people on who to promote in that arena. It does have much to do that China has in modern times been humbled by and learned so much from the West, the source of the most unprecedentedly radical and explosive growth in human history, but I also dare say that it is an indicator of very high moral character of Chinese civilization. In Chinese intellectual and media circles, bullshitting and falsifying history for political motives seems much more frowned upon. I believe that in this respect, history will eventually look at what the West led by America, that is heavily influenced by Jews in the social sciences, has done with utter disgrace, with various facades unlikely to continue indefinitely.

Speaking of truth, in terms of scientific truth, Chinese civilization has, however, contributed very little in comparison, though surely, Chinese produced a good number of revolutionary scientific breakthroughs in the 20th century, especially later in it. I find it somewhat odd how it is seldom said directly in the West that modern science is a product almost entirely of Western civilization with Greek roots and later Islamic preservation and expansion. Because scientific achievement requires so much in the way of the quality that is the subject matter of this article, surely the Confucianism based Chinese civilization has experienced a dearth of it of a nature that was only learned from the West later on. Now, Chinese are indeed quite relieved and also proud that in STEM, they have been increasingly successful and are now on the verge of reaching a world leading position, with much more to contribute to the world.

I’ll conclude with the following message. If Jews value questioning authority so much, they should let their authorities in media in America be freely and openly challenged. They should let their majority representation among Ivy League presidents and senior administrators be questioned too. In anything that is not terribly meritocratic and more connections and reputation based, their gross overrepresentation often well over 30%, so long as is objectively there, ought to be seriously questioned.