I am a Facebook addict. There. I admit it. Sure, most of it is fluff — a way to waste countless hours, peeking in on the lives of everyone we’ve ever known, “friends” to whom we haven’t spoken in 20 years. If Newton Minow were still around, I’m sure he would call Facebook the new “vast wasteland.” I have to confess, however, Facebook stumped me the other day. I was filling out the information for which FB and every other social site asks. You know, Hobbies/Interests, Favorite Books, Favorite Movies, Favorite Bipedal Encephalapod, the usual. Then I got to Political Views and I stopped. I couldn’t come up with an answer. Neither Conservative nor Liberal adequately describe the way I feel about politics. Though nominally a Republican, I couldn’t really claim that as my answer because I’m not really sure what a Republican is anymore. Democrat just doesn’t cut it because I have never identified with the undulating platform of that party. Then it came to me. I am Tragically Amused. I am so disgusted with the current political process that I am both sickened and tickled at the same time when I think about American politics.
Then another revelation hit me. I’m not just Tragically Amused by politics. I’m Tragically Amused by the way we as Americans debate every contentious issue. The fact is, the era of reasoned debate is dead, or at least critically ill. We now reduce every complex issue and the discussion thereof to a 5 second soundbite that appeals to emotion rather than reason and seeks to convince, not out of sound conviction, but out of a slavish obedience to an ideology whose main impetus is power — getting it and keeping it. I’m also disillusioned by the fact that the forums of these debates, rather than simply being avenues of discourse, are controlling the dialogue, again not out of sound conviction, but of propogating an ideology whose substance is secondary to the survival of the ideological school, itself.
Well-known former atheist (now theist), Antony Flew, has best summed up what I believe to be the foundational principle of reasoned debate, “…[A]n academic attacking some ideological position which s/he believes to be mistaken must of course attack that position in its strongest form.” That is, we must battle the best and strongest version of our opponents position for our refutation to have any validity. We never do this. Instead, we tend to transform the issue into its most inflammatory emotional iteration in order to garner populist appeal. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this position. One from politics and one from society.
In 2008, the political elephant in the room is, of course, the presidential campaigns. One need only see a few ads or listen to 15 minutes of a national newscast to know that these are divisive times. There is an enormous chasm between those supporting the “Change” platform of Barack Obama and, ironically enough, the “Change” platform of John McCain. Clearly, as of the writing of this entry, Obama has largely controlled the dialogue, though not without help. While the candidates fight it out on the public stage, pundits on both sides fill the air waves with diatribes against one candidate or the other. What is interesting is that what is said on the public stage (let’s set aside more comprehensive issue statements as those found on websites, etc. Let’s face it, the vast majority do not look at those) is entirely lacking in substance, yet it passes for reasoned discussion. McCain attacks Obama’s lack of experience and judgment, while picking a running mate whose level of experience is equally questionable. Obama continues the mantra that McCain, as president, would constitute “more of the same”, without elaborating on either what “the same” is or why McCain would continue more of it. McCain greatly distorts the terms of an Obama supported bill that would, in fact, teach 5 year olds in an age-appropriate way about the dangers of sexual predators, while Obama misleads Americans concerning a McCain proposal rolling back the Alternative Minimum Tax. And will the Barbara Walters and Rush Limbaughs of the world please stop worrying about the cosmetic choices of pigs? You will notice that in no place or forum do you find either candidate or their lapdogs taking on the strongest and most admirable qualities of the opposition. They are not attacking the opposition’s ideology “in its strongest form” but are rather picking bits and pieces to reduce to easily memorable criticisms and reducing their own platforms to empty but digestible platitudes. What of the advantages of McCain’s experience? What of Obama’s seeming diplomatic and mobilization abilities? In fact, when you ask most Americans what the issues we face in this election are, you will hear regurgitations of campaign soundbites. This election is about change. This election is about experience. No, this election is about fooling all of the people all of the time, or at least numbing them to the real issues.
There are few issues in society more divisive than the issue of abortion and I know of no issue that is more emotional (in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am generally what would be referred to as “pro-life” though philosophically, I am still unsure about where I stand on abortions in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape or in cases where carrying the pregnancy to term poses a grave danger to the life of the mother and that I tend toward the view that, in such cases, it is a matter of conscience and conviction on the part of the mother with which we should not interfere). The pro-life faction vehemently defends the rights of the unborn and uses rather graphic means to support its position that “abortion stops a beating heart.” In similar fashion, the pro-choice faction vehemently defends the rights of women over their own bodies and uses equally graphic means to bolster the sentiment “never again.” Each side has coopted certain vocabulary to frame the issue in its own way, i.e., “choice” and “life,” and have set these terms in an unnatural opposition to one another. What is noticeably lacking in the popular debate, however, is any analysis and consideration by one side of the underlying ideology of the other (it is true that there is such a discussion going on, but it seems to be limited to the inner circles and is not, for the most part, on the public stage). Both sides are equally unwilling to grapple in any meaningful way with the question of balancing the value of life with autonomy of the individual. A woman’s control over her body does not enter into most pro-life analyses whereas the issue of the life of the unborn does not seem to be on the pro-choice radar screen. One argues apples while the other argues oranges and where you come down on the issue is simply a reflection of which fruit you subjectively like more, not the one that is “better.” Neither side attacks its opponent’s position “in its strongest form” and the debate is sadly left to unchecked emotion and vague notions of life and choice. Meanwhile, we leave women and children, alike, shattered in the aftermath of this war.
Finally, a word about the “forums of these debates” to which I referred above. I am, of course, talking about the media. The fact is, the debate over any issue of local, regional, or national importance is conducted in the mass media. Ideally, the media is a conduit of information. Objectivity is the goal. Value judgments should be left to the individual audience members. Any assertion, however, that this is the actual state of the media is absurd. Masters of framing an argument using sound bites, the media attempts to control nearly every facet of a contentious discussion. A couple of weeks ago, Meredith Viera of NBC took McCain campaign manager to task for his criticism of the media, criticism that stemmed from the media’s apparent over-covereage of the Brittany Palin pregnancy story in order to damage the McCain/Palin ticket. Viera insisted that the mainstream media was not responsible for such coverage. The very next piece on NBC was a five minute story concerning the Brittany Palin pregnancy. Rush Limbaugh insisted that Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark (apparently a common political expression) was an attack on Sarah Palin. I am a McCain/Palin supporter, but even I want to say, “Rush, shut up!” Dan Rather, in an attempt at best to make ratings, and at worst, to destroy the reputation of a politician with whom he disagrees, ran a poorly vetted and quickly discredited story regarding George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher routinely describes those who oppose the Iraq War, exercising their freedoms of conscience (conduct that we value in the US), as traitors who should be prosecuted. The fact is, the media seeks to inflame its audience into supporting its ideology du jour, without engaging in any kind of meaningful, objective analysis. So, we are left to make decisions based on words like “pregnant,” “traitor,” and “pig” (there’s that word again!), and not on real ideas.
Sometimes, when I think about the issues that divide us, I shake my head, laugh a little and cry a little. I think unreasonable emotional arguments are hilarious but that their results are often devastating. I laugh at Barack Obama and John McCain, Rush Limbaugh and Charles Gibson, yet I am deeply disturbed that we have reduced American politics to a high school popularity contest. I find it almost gleefully interesting that neither side of the abortion debate realizes that the pro-life ideology is largely about choice and that the pro-choice ideology is largely about life, yet the real life consequences of abortion send me into deep sadness. The way we go about argument borders on funny, like two little kids arguing over whether one shot the other with a finger gun while playing cops and robbers, while at the same time it is tragic, as we consider the real life play that the game of cops and robber reflects.
So, Facebook, I thank you for helping me to label efficiently my attitude toward a lot of things and I blame you for putting me up to writing this if my readers see this as a rambling diatribe about nothing. That would be sad, but I would still smile. After all, because of you I realize that I am Tragically Amused.