Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Veil of Politics

I've had a number of conversations recently about issues, both local and national. I've noticed - I guess I've always noticed, but it particularly struck my fancy this week - how often people take positions on issues simply based on partisan politics. I recognize it's a particularly contentious election year (with is a redundant description of the year) and that this really isn't a new phenomenon in the US, but it does seem to be presenting itself in new and unique ways. You've always seen this kind of thing with politicians and people actively involved in the machinations of party politics; it's become an increasing part of news coverage as well, with the proliferation of networks and diversity of opinion. At the same time, it does seem relatively new on a broad scale.

It's not that Mr. Middle Management in 1950 didn't say or do things, "because I'm a Republican," but that he wasn't necessarily the norm AND he wasn't generally saying, "I'm against ____________ because the other guys are for it." Our two main political parties have done a great job of getting people to identify with one or the other - even as the number of registered independents goes up. This has happened because we've become a nation of objectionists. People won't call themselves a Democrat or Republican so much anymore, but they certainly have Democrats and/or Republicans they want to stop. We've become a nation of people who identify our politics by what we oppose more strongly than what we support.

That's not really what I want to talk about though - I'm more interested in how this particular connection to our electoral and governance process limits and distorts how we see the world. This is the difference between politics and politics. If you've read much of this blog at all, you know I take a broader view of politics - it is the way in which people live together - and there are many ways of doing politics, only one of which involves elections and legislatures and laws.

There is a broader scope to politics, one that, until recently, seemed to be clear for most people most of the time. It wasn't about winning, but about making space where you and your neighbor could get along and thrive together. It was more about building community than installing some ideology or winning a legislative battle.

Even in that statement, I'm guessing a bunch of you had interjecting thoughts about how "the other guy" does those slimy things and how "my side," is working for right and good. Don't blame yourself; this is the way we've been shaped.

We're taught to accept a set of facts, often carefully crafted by professional fact-crafters in one party or another - and then to question anything that comes along which challenges us to think about those things. We can easily throw away Report X because some liberal wrote it or reject Study Z because the foundation behind it is conservative. Sometimes those things are true - I mean, fact-crafters do have to craft their facts somehow and using media outlets, research studies, and investigative reports are easy means to convince people of truth (whether its true or not).

At some point, though, we have to avoid the easy route of rejection.

We can't just look at the byline on something and say, "This is trash." There has to be some engagement. I mean, there doesn't have to be - just look at the US Congress: no matter who's in power, they refuse to listen to the other side, whilst the side being ignored can win political points claiming to want compromise when they know their bluff will never be called. It's the same no matter who's on each side.

We've been fooled by this over and over, assuming things will be different if we change the letter next to the name of the guy (or gal) with the gavel. But that's the con - we've been so shaped by objectionism that we're content just to win the battle on the ballot and not worry too much about why it's having a negative effect on the world around us - no matter who wins.

This is why we see so many people searching outside the "mainstream" for candidates this time around. People want something different, but they're looking for it within the same partisan, objectionist, winner take all system that's never proven to do anything good for anyone (except maybe the people at the root of it, regardless of party). Putting "outsiders" into a corrupt system will only make the outsider insiders and corrupt the values that made them attractive in the first place.

In the end, I think the answer is simple: don't believe anyone.

That sounds super cynical (although I'm not sure there are many adjectives I've been called more), but it's true. Maybe we could say, be attentive to everyone. That sounds nicer. If we treated every piece of information with the same skepticism we treat those things we deem "opposition," we'd be far better off. It might lead us to actually research the "facts" we're fed no matter who's manufacturing them. In this age of the internet it doesn't take much time or effort to be really informed. Even Wikipedia has links to things that purport to back up what they say.

We just need to take responsibility for our own opinions and not outsource them to parties and pundits we've found common ground with for some reason. We see layers of argumentative exposes all the time: "Look at How Bad the GOP is," followed by, "Things the Dems Didn't Tell You in that Last Piece," followed by, "Ways the GOP Spun that Last Rebuttal," and on an on. What looks like a genuine search for truth is just a stalling tactic to keep you from looking for yourself.

If your response in an argument is "that source is biased," you need to know why, in this particular instance, about these particular fact, that the conclusion isn't sound. You're probably right about the bias - no one is without one - but it's even more biased to simply accept or reject another person's interpretation of facts simply because you're more comfortable with them.

I've long been an opponent of political parties for exactly this reason. It leads people to generalize and it allows politicians to avoid taking a real stand on anything. Party (or ideological) loyalty trumps having an actual, reasoned opinion on anything.

How many people would even bother to vote if there weren't party affiliations next to names on the ballot? How informed would people actually be if they had to find out what specific candidates think about a variety of issues and make decisions that way? How much easier would it be for neighbors to sit down together, talk through issues, and make decisions to better everyone's life?

It's not Republicans or Democrats or Socialists or Libertarians who are the problem, it's us, who let them dictate agendas and divide us into groups of adversaries, pitted against each other in some zero-sum game where only one team can win. Life isn't like that. We can and must live together - we are ultimately all human beings - let's remember that and treat each other that way.

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