Becoming A Political Independent In The Age Of Trump

Some might say becoming a political independent during the age of Trump is poorly timed.

I doubt there’s a good or bad time.

But why now? Why become a political independent during the Presidency of Donald Trump, and during one of the most divisive times in political memory? Let me tell you a little bit about my political evolution over the years.

Political Development

My interest in politics actually started quite young, sometime in middle school. Between those prepubescent years and now, I have held nearly every single political position in the political spectrum.

“That’s not impressive, everyone has their politics change as they get older.” True, but when I say my politics have been all over the spectrum, I mean I have been a paleoconservative, a progressive liberal, a libertarian, a technocratic utopian, a radical environmentalist, a centrist, and a dozen different flavors of socialism – not in that order, or with smooth transitions between positions.

The only thing I haven’t been is a fascist or an authoritarian communist – I plan on keeping it that way.

One thing that’s become clear: all conventional wisdom of how a person’s political beliefs are supposed to develop has utterly failed me. Conventional wisdom I’ve been told through my life holds that you’re supposed to start off really liberal, and then get more conservative as you get older. Winston Churchill (and a dozen other political thinkers) supposedly said that “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

Meanwhile (in broad terms) I started off in right wing politics, became a libertarian, entered left wing politics, and then came around more toward the political center. Maybe that puts me right on track to being an adult conservative, but for all I know I’m going to shift gears and become a Trotskyist. No, I don’t think that’s likely.

Why have I held so many political positions? I’ve been reflecting on this, and there are a lot of reasons – the process of growing older, learning more about history, encountering more ideas and thinkers, all of which are pretty normal reasons people point to in their political development. Aside from those, I think there’s a larger reason that’s stayed constant through my life.

Meeting Like-Minded People (Or Not)

Looking back, my life has been defined by realizations that the people around me that I think are like-minded don’t actually share my beliefs… or understand them very differently than I do.

I’ll meet someone, and we share a common goal or ideal. While talking to them, I’ll bring up what I think is a related goal, or a goal that comes from the same principle… only for them to start insulting me, accusing me of derailing, or not being a true [political position].

Or maybe I’ll be around friends who share my ideals, and I’ll make a seemingly simple suggestion or uncontroversial statement, maybe related to our shared politics, but maybe not. Suddenly they’ll start accusing me of everything under the sun, of secretly holding dozens of other possible views and traits based on that one suggestion… none of which are true.

Or worst of all: I’ll be talking to someone where we agree about how serious a social or political problem is, and they have a solution in mind. Hearing their solution, and noting some of the potential problems with it, I’ll suggest an alternative that lacks these issues. Maybe I disagree with the solution, maybe I just want all options on the table. Rather than discuss which solution is better, this person will declare me their enemy, despite knowing I agree about how serious the problem is.

When that happens it’s hard not to conclude: they care just as much (if not more) about that particular solution as they do about solving the problem – or worse, they don’t care if the problem gets solved! They’re just justifying the “solution” that benefits them most, regardless of whether it helps or harms anyone else.

The charitable explanation for all of these cases is that I simply misunderstood their views, and I lacked the social intelligence to know that ahead of time. The less charitable explanation is that I’m more open-minded than average (but everyone says that), and I’ll mix views and principles in ways that make sense to me and no one else. Or maybe if two people talk for long enough they’ll find something to disagree about, and I need to learn to deal with that.

I suspect it’s a mixture of all of the above.

Note that I’m not naming any particular issue or group: whether I thought of myself as left wing or right wing at the time, no matter what social identity I had taken on, these kinds of events would keep happening with “like-minded” people.

Political Priorities

“Okay, what does this have to do with becoming a political independent?”

Over the course of reflecting on these cases – of realizing that the people around me don’t share my ideals – I’ve realized that I’ve never actually fully settled in any political position. By the time I had ever declared myself to be one thing, I was already transitioning to something else, even if I didn’t fully realize it. But the people around me did. The “like-minded” people around me, fully settled into their views, sounded the alarm over and over again that I had political principles they did not, concerns they did not, and potential solutions they did not.

Looking back on my political development, it’s become clear that my ability to predict my own future beliefs is nonexistent. If you had told me about any of my future political beliefs at any point, I wouldn’t have believed you! Maybe that’s true of everyone… and if so, I believe I need to embrace that fact. I could be wildly wrong about many things (or even everything) right now, and I would have no idea.

Here’s a thought experiment I’ve been thinking about recently: If a time portal opened up, and out stepped the older and wiser version of you from the future… wouldn’t you want to know their beliefs? Wouldn’t you want to question them about how their beliefs differ from yours, if at all?

I know I would. If the older and wiser version of me believes something, that’s evidence (but not certain evidence) that’s the better belief to have.

Meeting the older and wiser you is impossible – but opening yourself up to the factors that will make you wiser, and rejecting those that make becoming wiser harder, are definitely possible.

If I want my views to shift towards the beliefs of the older and wiser version of myself, then I need to be radically open-minded. I need to open myself to all possible political positions, all possible political beliefs, and all possible political priorities.

But haven’t you already done that? You said you’ve held nearly every political position on the spectrum. True. But the difference is that if you pointed to any point in my political development, and asked me if I was open to going towards a past or future point in my development, I would have said no. If I’m going to be radically open-minded, I need to honestly consider the idea that I might become a conservative, or a liberal, or a communist, or a libertarian, and yes, even a fascist (fat chance of that).

If I’m going to be radically open-minded, my first and foremost political priority needs to be towards finding truth. Scientific truth, historical truth, personal truth, and every other kind of truth. If a force prevents me or anyone else from understanding the truth – whether by design, in the case of censorship and coercion, or whether by effect, in the case of political allegiance and social unpopularity – that force is something I need to reject. Or worse, if a force puts me in a position where I feel like I have to lie, I need to reject that force. Especially now, in a time where in my country, partisanship is at the highest anyone can remember it reaching. To my eye, more and more priority is being placed on declaring your allegiance, rather than on understanding truth.

If something is true, it is a part of reality, and not understanding it will only hurt me and the people that surround me. If something is true, I want and need to believe it, no matter what that fact is. My first and foremost political priority is creating a world where I can pursue truth, understand the truth, and publicly discuss or declare what I honestly believe to be true.

I want to be in a position where if someone states something to be true, and I don’t believe that’s true, I can honestly and openly state what I believe is true instead. If they demand that I stop, I can’t – it’s not personal, it’s strictly business. The same goes for if someone makes an ethical argument, where I don’t believe that’s ethical.

If I believe I have access to the truth in ways that others do not, I want to live in world where I can openly share and persuade others of the truth. Especially if I believe that not understanding that truth actively harms me or the people around me – in a case like that, it would be unethical to not persuade others of the truth, to try and avoid the negative consequences of people acting based on an understanding of reality that doesn’t match reality.

This is a hard path. It’s become clear over the years that for most people, their political views aren’t a collection of logical arguments they’ve brought together into a unified whole. Their political views are deeply personal, an intimate reflection of their personality traits, personal history, religious/metaphysical views, who they are friends with, and certain traumatic or life-changing events. Telling someone that one of their views is wrong, especially when it’s based on any of these deeply personal things, never gets a good reaction. But it’s not personal. It’s business.

So there I am. I’m declaring myself a political independent. Not because I’m about to #WalkAway from my political party, or because my views have radically shifted between this month and last month. I’m becoming a political independent because it has become clear that I can’t predict my future views, and if I want to pursue the truth in its unadulterated form I cannot let political allegiance or unpopularity stop me. I need to be free to form my own political views, craft my own political priorities, and pursue my own political objectives without external forces stopping me from doing so.

But what about other people? You talk a lot about creating a world where you can pursue truth and say what you believe freely, but what happens to everyone else? How are your other political objectives going to affect other people? What principles are you going to use to determine which effects are acceptable or not?

Those are all good questions to ask. I even have a few answers in mind… in another essay.

The 10 Most Powerful Languages To Learn

You want to learn a language, and you want to learn a powerful language, one you’ll use for the rest of your life. Which language or languages should you learn to do that?

Maybe you want to learn a language with population power, allowing you to talk to millions, or even over a billion people. Maybe you want a language with global power, spoken in dozens of countries and allowing you to travel the world with ease. Maybe you want a language with cultural power, allowing you to fully experience the richest cultures of the planet in their original language. Maybe you want a language with financial power, one that will make working in the richest nations on Earth, or on the most critical trading routes, easy and profitable. Or maybe you just want a language with staying power, one unlikely to undergo the tragedy of language death in the next 10 years, let alone the next 100.

This is my attempt to answer – for myself at least – which languages are the most useful and powerful to learn, especially in the immediate future. There are many factors to think about when choosing a language to learn (some of which are notoriously hard to pin down, such as total number of speakers), and your list might look radically different than mine. With that said, here are my choices:

1. English

If you’re reading this post in English, congratulations: you have mastered the lingua franca of the early 21st century. For better or worse, English is the closest thing the world has to a global language. It’s spoken by over 1 billion people if you just count first and second language speakers, but the number is even higher if you count people with any amount of English proficiency (you don’t have to be perfect, just get the point across). It’s one of the six official U.N. languages, and is the premier or official language of science, trade, publishing, air travel, and the internet.

It’s used in some capacity by nearly 100 countries, (including developing future superpowers like India and Nigeria) but is also the unofficial official language of the most powerful economic, military, and cultural superpower the planet Earth has ever seen: The United States of America (home to five or six times as many native speakers of English as there are English people). Perhaps another language will come to be the lingua franca of the world, but for now English got here first, due in no small part to the British empire and the global influence of the U.S.A.

If you were born in a nation where English became your native language, know this: you were born in the center of the empire, at the height of it’s power, and you have an enormous advantage over billions of others when it comes to global affairs. But that advantage probably won’t last forever. If you want to maintain that advantage, you’ll want to learn another language, or two, or ten.

2. Mandarin Chinese

If you’re looking for a potential challenger to English, at least in sheer numbers alone, then you need to take a serious look at Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin, just like English, has over a billion speakers, and nearly 1.3 billion if you count different variants and dialects of Chinese.

Considering that China is already the second largest economy on the planet, and is forecasted to overtake the United States sometime in the next several decades, it’s an incredibly valuable language to learn if you have any aspiration of working in, around, or with Chinese people and companies. However, the reason it is a very valuable language to learn is also the same reason blocking it from being the global language on the same level as English: 90-95% of Chinese speakers live in China. This is changing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, where China is building infrastructure and trading relationships all over Eurasia, with Chinese people and companies creating a global presence where none existed before. Not that it didn’t already: Chinese is another of the six U.N. languages. However, with BRI, pockets of Chinese speakers will be found along the key trade routes of the world, both ancient and modern.

3. Spanish

While it doesn’t boast over a billion speakers, like English or Mandarin, Spanish does boast an impressive 500 million speakers worldwide, and a spot as the third of the six U.N. languages. Spoken in Europe, parts of Asia, parts of Africa, most of the Caribbean, and the entirety of Latin America save for Brazil (reflecting the Treaty of Tordesillas), learning Spanish will open an impressive amount of the world up to you. If you have any goals that involve visiting or working in Latin America (or even the United States of America, where around 50 million people speak Spanish, second only to Mexico’s 120+ million), Spanish is an incredibly useful language to learn.

4. French

While French is no longer the lingua franca of diplomacy that it was a century ago, French is still an important global language. It is the fourth of the six U.N. languages, is a working language of several international organizations (such as the Olympics Committee and FIFA), and is spoken by around 280 million people around the world including in Europe, Canada, and huge parts of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. French’s presence in Africa is key, with some projections placing French as the future most spoken language – though there are key reasons to doubt this, given that not every country in the Francophone nations has universal French fluency. Regardless, French is expected to grow in number of speakers, and in global importance.

5. Modern Standard Arabic

The Arab World stretches from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and the lingua franca of this gigantic region is Arabic. However, saying “Arabic” is misleading, because while estimates put the total number of speakers above 300 million, those 300 million people speak several different regional and national dialects of Arabic, many of which aren’t mutually intelligible. What is mutually intelligible is Modern Standard Arabic, or simply Standard Arabic. Based on Classical Arabic, MSA is used throughout the Arab speaking world, and is the fifth of the six U.N. languages. While English might be the current global language, and French might be widespread throughout North Africa, anyone who wants to work in or around the 22 nations of the Arab League (many of which are global hot spots of conflict, commerce, or both) would be wise to learn Standard Arabic.

6. German

German probably shouldn’t be considered a global language, considering that of it’s 100-120 million speakers, most of those those speakers live in Germany and neighboring countries. However, what makes German a crucial language to learn is Germany’s impact on world trade and global affairs. As of 2018, Germany is the fourth largest economy by GDP, is a member of several international organizations (NATO, G7, G20…), and is one of the central members (if not THE central member) of the European Union, with Brussels serving as the de facto capital of the emerging global superpower. Although, even if Germany wasn’t a key member (and German a key language) of the European Union, anyone who wants to spend much time in central Europe should look into learning German.

7. Russian

While neither the Russian Empire nor the U.S.S.R. still exist, Russian remains an important global language. Boasting 260 million speakers worldwide and a spot as the sixth of the six U.N. languages, Russian is the lingua franca of Eastern Europe, much of Central Asia, and naturally: Russia, largest country on Earth by size, ninth largest by population (over 140 million), and eleventh by GDP (not a minor country by any stretch of the imagination). The issue facing Russia – and affecting the potential number of Russian speakers – is demographics, where fertility declined dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union, and currently sits at about 1.6 births per woman – well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births. This has led some pundits to discuss the possibility that this low fertility, combined with western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, will lead to a demographic death spiral in Russia. Personally, I’d say calling it a “death spiral” is melodramatic. In spite of this, Russian will continue to be an important language to study, no matter where you are in Eastern Europe.

8. Hindi

While India might have the second largest number of English speakers on Earth (with around 125 million), Hindi is the primary language of India. I say primary, because India has 22 official (scheduled) languages, with support for English as the 23rd, and over 1000 other languages spoken within the country. With over 500 million speakers (over 600 million if you include Urdu speakers) worldwide, and with India soon be largest nation on Earth (overtaking China as the most populous sometime before 2030), Hindi can’t and shouldn’t be ignored as a language.

9. Japanese

Japanese, like German, is not a global language – 125-130 million people speak it, with a moderate diaspora outside Japan. What makes Japanese an important language to learn is that Japan, like Germany, punches way above its weight in global affairs – particularly in commerce, where Japan ranks third in GDP, in part due to creating some of the most successful corporations and media franchises on Earth. However, like Russia, Japan faces it’s own demographic problems, with a fertility rate well below replacement leading to a shrinking workforce and shrinking Japan. While this is likely going to lead issues in the future, so long as Japan remains one of the top economies in the world, Japanese will continue to be an important language to learn.

10. Portuguese

Portuguese is spoken by around 260 million people worldwide. It joins English and Spanish as a language where the majority of speakers live outside the country it originated – in this case, Brazil, where over 200 million of the 260 million speakers live. Like India, Brazil is a rapidly growing superpower, with membership in major international organizations such as BRICS and Mercosur – but also with it’s own host of problems endemic to Latin American countries, including corruption, mass poverty, and history of military coups. While some would argue that Portuguese and Spanish are similar enough that you could get away with learning the more-spoken Spanish, so long as Brazil emerges as a regional and global superpower, Portuguese will be a valuable language to learn.

Other Languages Worth Learning:

With those key 10 languages spoken for, we should acknowledge that global events, and the global impacts of different languages, can change rapidly. Maybe Russia’s or Japan’s demographic troubles will spiral out of control, making their languages irrelevant. Maybe several North African nations will reject French in favor of complete reliance on Arabic. Maybe the European project will fail, and with it Germany’s importance on the world stage. I think each of these events is incredibly unlikely, but the future is uncertain. In case the future is dramatically different than anyone can predict, here are some other languages for you to consider:

  1. Korean: South Korea is similar to Japan (don’t tell any Japanese or Korean people I said that), in that South Korea has an outsized impact on world trade and global affairs compared to its size.
  2. Italian: Italy is the 9th largest economy in the world, ahead of Russia or Canada, making Italian a language well worth learning.
  3. Non-Mandarin Chinese: If you want to spend a lot of time in or near China, then learning a variant of Chinese other than Mandarin could be worthwhile.
  4. Languages of India: Particularly Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, Marathi, or Tamil.
  5. Languages of Indonesia: Particularly Indonesian, the lingua franca of the more than 700 languages spoken there. Indonesia is the fourth largest country by population, and is very likely going to have a huge impact on global trade in the coming decades.
  6. Persian: Spoken by nearly 100 million people, if you learn this you will probably get some very interesting job offers from the U.S. military, even more than if you learned Arabic. Something to think about.
  7. Swahili: One of the lingua francas of Eastern Africa, and spoken by between 50 and 100 million people – though most Americans have probably only heard it mentioned by Weird Al Yankovic.
  8. Turkish: As I’m writing this, Turkey is having some… issues. That said, Turkey’s location on the Mediterranean and the Black Sea makes it highly influential on global trade.
  9. Languages of Southeast Asia: With the growing influence of Vietnam and Thailand on trade, either through trading done within their countries or by their proximity to extremely important Asian trade routes, Vietnamese and Thai will open you up to several unique opportunities.
  10. Conlangs: Conlangs are constructed languages, and include languages such as Klingon, and more famously, Esperanto. Under this category I’m also including sign languages, even though I’m not sure actual linguists would agree with that. These can be extremely useful, at least if you want to get paid for knowing a language few others do. More so for sign language than Klingon though.

What language should you learn? That’s going to depend on your goals in life, and I can’t answer that for you. If you want to bring North and South America closer together, learn English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. If you want to work in Japan, learn Japanese. If you happen to be half-German and half-Korean, look into German and Korean. If you want to be the most amazing polyglot that ever lived, learn every one of these languages and more. With all of that said, I’ve answered my own original question to my satisfaction.