A young friend was telling me the other night about a political science professor at UW who walked his class through several political dogmas. Each was presented as impressive, compelling and correct. And at the end, he explained that exposing people to a series of convincing arguments like this was a good way to prevent people from simply accepting the first dogma they encounter and becoming a fanatic. I was very impressed by the wisdom of that teacher.

As a young person at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s, I took some classes from a young communist history professor who indoctrinated us in Maoist philosophy and guerilla war tactics. She was a far cry from that UW professor. By the early 1980s, I was working a little with TechNica — a project to help support the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua — and some of my friends at Bell Labs secretly travelled there via Mexico, helping to build computer infrastructure and establish university courses. I’m not saying that was bad, but we definitely had a very strong political viewpoint and bias.

Luckily for me, there is something contrary in my nature, a nagging skepticism when a beloved theory starts to show holes, a healthy amount of cynicism about power and altruism. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, a landscape of toxic industrial pollution and stifled human spirit was revealed. Around the same time, an orgy of free market capitalism was creating microelectronics, the personal computer and internet culture; bursting beyond the decades of relatively dull academic tinkering with the ARPANET. In 1994, I dropped out of graduate school (for the second time) and went to Microsoft, because I really felt that was were the action was.

I used to think that Marx had it right, that economics and injustice were the forces behind history. Eric Hoffer (author of The True Believer) opened my eyes to the fact that what was really driving human history is monkey politics — one asshole after another who wanted power — and Marx was just one of those assholes. The formula for success — create a compelling and impressive dogma that vilifies the status quo and extols some semi-logical explanation for why you will be a superior person if join his movement. People fall for this in droves, both the stupid and the intelligent, in droves. Racial purity, political correctness, born again in Jesus, running Linux on your PC — from grand ideas to petty — people love a story that tells them they are better than those who are more successful or more talented. One should not strive for the Self, unless of course you are one of the movement’s leaders, in which case you will likely be rich and have groupies in your bed every night.

It’s hard to corner anyone long enough to do what that fine teacher at UW did, and walk them through a long series of political or religious ideologies. To teach them to search for Truth, but not get stuck in a locally optimum system of beliefs. And I suspect it works best on young open minds like my friend. Personally, I cannot resist the temptation to be contrary, to point people at some embarrassing flaw in a popular dogma, or some annoying piece of evidence in favor of an unpopular theory. You have to explore and question and encounter surprises. I’d even go so far as to say that to get out of a locally optimum belief, you may occasionally believe something that is completely wrong, and a week later you will be red faced with embarrassment as you correct yourself. True Believers never experience those little mistakes, because they are trapped in a life of devotion to some great stupid idea.

Advertisements