Thursday, February 17, 2011

Complaining About Politically Active, Intellectual Lazy People

I am fed up with the laziness Americans, in general, show toward political awareness and criticism in this information age.  By this, I do not mean that I am fed up with political apathy, nor do I mean that I am fed up with low voter turn-out.  I also don't mean to hold up other republics as shining examples in comparison to us, but we project ourselves as a beacon of what a constitutional republic should be; it would be nice to live up to that standard.  Much of what of what I'm writing is similar in tone to general critiques of political discourse in recent years.  I don't feel like I have a particularly brilliant insight into our political landscape, but I felt the need to write about it because it greatly troubles me.

Specifically, I am filled with intense disappointment for an American voting society that has such incredible and unprecedented access to a wide spectrum of information but chooses to squander it -- a society that dehumanizes and demonizes political opponents that are more visible and exposed than ever, simplifies complex discourse to snide partisan jokes, and overlooks sober political debate in favor of media cheerleading.

Despite all of the incredible communication and education resources available to us, as a society we generally remain politically hostile, obstinately partisan, short-sighted, lazy, bull-headed, and willfully ignorant.

In 1993, I turned eighteen and became eligible to vote.  Since then, in less than twenty years, here are some of the things that I, and many other internet-active Americans, can now do that were not possible (or at least practical for many people) then:

* Look at the full text, often with ongoing edits, of bills submitted to state and federal legislative bodies.
* Read the non-partisan analyses of bills by government officials, such as a legislative analyst.
* Look up how any representative has voted on any given bill ever.
* Look up the historical context of almost anything in our own past or the past of any civilization ever recorded.

In addition to those enormously valuable things, we also have the ability to do things like:

* Stream major legislative sessions from C-SPAN or look them up later on a variety of video sites.
* Read myriad sides and aspects of political debates in literally hundreds of venues that are friendly, hostile, or mixed relative to our own views.
* Watch, read, listen to, and respond to to the broader opinions and concerns of political figures, professional journalists, bloggers, private citizens, and all sorts of people from different backgrounds all over the world.
* Have our internet browsers automatically translate foreign websites into languages we can read, giving us access to primary documents, news articles, conversations, etc. -- basically everything we see above, but for the entire world.

Most people who are politically active on the internet do not do these things.  I feel comfortable writing this because the evidence, though based on casual observation, is impressive in its consistency.  People do not look at, much less read, the full text of bills.  They wouldn't even be able to tell you where to find the text of bills, nor do they seem to care.  The blogs that cover events of political significance rarely even bother to give the names of the very important bills being discussed, and almost never the numbers by which they can be properly identified.  I will stop short of speculating on the reasons for these omissions, but I will say that it is lazy, unhelpful to serious political analysis, and intellectually indefensible.

In general, politically active people do not read non-partisan analyses of a bill; they read partisan analyses of those non-partisan analyses.  They don't look up voting records themselves; they listen to the cherry-picked, context-free slams from polemicists.  Voters don't learn historical facts, absorb different analyses, and formulate their own opinions; they listen to other people spin historical narratives that wrap up selective facts into a story that fits their predispositions.  We don't seriously read the "other side" of a debate to understand perspectives; we skim selective quotations that cast our most disagreeable political opponents in the harshest light.

Despite having enormous resources of information available to us, every day our society largely spurns the opportunity to learn more about how our world has worked, how it has failed, and what people are trying to do about it today.  So much more is immediately available to us, both passively and actively, than ever has been before.  A lot of it is irrelevant, confusing, and infuriating.  Too bad.  It requires our effort to sort through.  Whatever your education, whatever your background, whatever your occupation, the world is constantly changing, and we all must continuously engage the rest of the world to make any serious critical analysis of how we should move forward.  If we float along on a sea of second-hand information and opinions put out by partisans and media outlets, we're politically active while being politically brain dead.

We become politically active to accomplish things.  If a goal is well-reasoned and a course is sound, all the critical analysis, slams, and distractions in the world can't detract from that.  I work with a literacy program that promotes literacy in part because it is believed to be an essential part of participating in a democratic society.  There are millions of people in this country who strive and struggle every day to read, write, listen, and speak with the people around them -- simply to do basic things.  If you're reading this right now, you have the ability to access and analyze -- and contribute to -- a staggering, unprecedented amount of information that can inform your participation in our government and in political culture.  I'm not saying it's easy.  I'm not saying it doesn't take time.  But compared to the entire history of the world, it has never been easier than it is right now.

6 comments:

uruz said...

Humans are stupid, panicky animals, and in this country their instinctual survival needs are more or less eliminated due to the quality of life we enjoy. In general, we will take the path of least resistance; we really won't care much for the precise wording and content of a bill, because we have pundits and talk show hosts and partisan-charged media and news outlets to inform us of what's going on. In the end, all that matters is the next episode of the Jersey Shore and what toppings we want on our pizza.

Greg Christopher said...

I agree with you, dude. We spend more time bickering about crap and virtually no time on actual issues.

Part of the blame lies with the media. As Paul Krugman famously said, if George Bush came out tomorrow and said the world was flat, the headline in the NYT the next day would be "shape of the Earth, opinions differ". There is no attempt to determine what reality actually IS. That is a shame.

Mysterious Man from the shadows said...

I totally agree with you. It seems like people generally prefer to seek out pundits, bloggers, etc. who say what they want to hear.

I guess for a lot of people, it's just more fun to join in the shouting match of political discourse than to analyze the issues themselves.

(Admittedly, I do think the issues are sometimes so technical as to be quite difficult to understand for anyone who is not an expert in the field.)

Anonymous said...

Carl Sagan once said he hoped that when confronted with the unprecedented access to knowledge offered by the information age, US citizens would seize the opportunity to be better informed about the country and the world they live in. The one positive to his death is that he does not live in a world that has now so hideously dashed his hopes.

Konstantinos said...

Ah. But there's such a fine line between wealth of data and *overwhelming* amounts of data. I feel this is precisely why (one of the major reasons) the public has no other choice but to delegate certain authority to representatives (or via representatives - e.g. to form certain government agencies with unelected officials). And if we accept this, is there any other way for the public but to remain reactive rather than proactive? (I think the reactive nature to abuses of power or grievances is what happened all the time historically? Is it reasonable to expect change?)

The problem of overwhelming information was formulated long ago. (Lem makes quite dire predictions of technological consequences because of this.) I'm sure there's more literature, articles, studies out there supporting modern *conflicting* politeconomical approaches than a citizen could read in a lifetime. And should it be necessary? Is it really mandatory for everyone to understand bookkeeping, high-end finance etc? And is it a sensible goal? Do decision-makers themselves really comprehend the consequences of their actions in general? On the other hand, can you really support or argue certain government policies without proper understanding of their actions, which in turn might imply understandings mechanics for which even lawgivers have dedicated specialized committees?

I'm a rather young person. And I'm sincerely at a loss here. But frankly, I see no alternative to targeting specific grievances by attracting public attention to them one (or a few) at a time. (Sadly, the public isn't capable of pressing its claims even according to this scenario today though. Ah well. Once Greece happens to the majority of locals...)

Rafael Cosentino said...

Great article. I wonder if you would give us permission to reprint in on www.youstand.com - with full credit and attribution going to you with links to the original as well.

rafael@youstand.com