The Potato Problem: Or Why Our Politics Are So Infantile

Mar 21st, 2010

During George W. Bush’s presidency, liberals suffered from well-documented Bush Derangement Syndrome, a sort of foaming-at-the-mouth hysteria at anything(!) the brash and clumsy Texan dared to do.  There were protests and pickets and widespread despair that the country had been irrevocably lost to a body politic comprised entirely of Pat Robertson’s brains and Dick Cheney’s firepower.  For us lefties they were truly the Dark Ages.  We spent many years crying into our double-tall-soymilk lattes.

But as seasons come and go, as power changes hands, and as Newton’s 3rd law so elegantly predicts, the last 18 months have seen the reciprocal rise of conservative hysteria:  our national attention now seems prepared to give audience to anyone and everyone willing to say anything and everything about Obama, as long as it’s salted with invective and peppered with ‘Hitler’, ‘socialism’, and ‘doom’.  Glenn Beck in particular suffers from reductio ad Hitlerum: the fallacy of jumping the shark all the way to Hitler by the time your sentence enters its first prepositional phrase.

REALLY?  THIS CONSTITUTES POLITICAL ARGUMENT?

Yet more than enough (!) has been written about Fox News, Obamacare, Tea Parties, etc…and that’s the point of this post. Enough has been said about the qualitative deficits in our national political culture.  Our debates are clearly geared toward soundbites, Twitter posts, platitudinous boilerplate, talk radio, and 4th Grade reading-level op-eds in USA Today. These are all serious qualitative problems: the quality of our information is poor and our ability to reason even poorer.

The often ignored – and possibly more pernicious – problem is quantitative. Not only are we arguing badly but we’re also simply arguing too much.  In a world of subtle spices, diverse cuisines, and soothing libations, we seem worryingly content to eat, night after night, the political equivalent of potatoes and water.  It’s an intellectual famine, where food is bland and ubiquitous and yet sustenance is nowhere to be found. If CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News were our sole information universe, we could be excused for thinking that the world has only one nation and that that nation has 5 total political issues (4 of which are currently Obamacare).  Completely eradicated from our political culture is the recognition of and engagement with global issues, ideas, and problems.  It seems to me that an obsessive mentality has narrowed our scope of inquiry into embarrassingly shallow territory.  While we parse whether or not insurance regulation is ‘Socialism!’, the outside world actually has things happening that are (gasp!) interesting and worthy of our engagement.  Read Britain’s The Guardian, The Times, or The Independent, or read Canada’s Globe and Mail, and revel not only in the depth but, crucially, in the breadth.

Or better yet, if you find yourself saturated with such numbingly boring cable news material, go to your local newsstand (they do still exist, you know) and pick up a current affairs magazine, say, The Economist, and read it cover to cover.  If you still think that Michelle Obama’s dress and John Boehner’s latest bloviations are the most interesting things to talk about in the world, then you deserve your woeful fate.  But while your brain rots flipping through the nationally syndicated channels, remember that you could be reading great literature, investing in LOCAL community news and issues, hiking through our woods, deserts, and grasslands, volunteering, playing sports, or taking classes.  But if talk-show politics must be your fodder, consider that while you’re hi-fiving Sean Hannity, the Shabab militia is raping girls, burying them up to their waists, and stoning them for the privilege.  While you’re buying gold and telling jokes about Obama the Monkey, Morgan Tsvangirai is going to work every day next to a dictator and trying to bring humanity to his battered country.  While we’re stuck in rewind, the world is moving forward.  Increasingly, the most exciting academic research is done outside the USA, and foreign students who do get their PhD’s here are increasingly going right back home because that’s where the exciting opportunities are.

I don’t want to see our country wither away either from stupidity (the inability to come to grips with a complex world) or cannibalism (a fatal, petty, navel-gazing internalism).  There’s so much more out there to talk about.  I’m so tired of hearing about my fellow citizens speak of Europe only as a punchline, Africa as a charity pitch, Latin America as a xenophobic rallying cry, and Asia as (not kidding, I actually heard this) “those weird short people who fill our WalMart shelves.”  The world is a serious and exciting place, ripe with opportunity and peril in equal measure.  Why do we talk so little about the real thing?

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  1. Sarah
    Mar 21st, 2010 at 10:43
    Quote | #1

    My magazine of choice is Harper’s. Obviously its much easier to tune into talk radio and listen to gossip than to read something like the Economist. You make good points about how US news organizations ignore real news in favor of gossip. It’s creepy.

    As for that propaganda piece with Obama, what are “toubled times”?

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