The Day of Reckoning Revisited

Due to space constraints, I barely scratched the surface of how far into the gutters the political discourse remains in my first Understanding the News post last week. Here are the titles of a few recent sample threads on the Democratic Underground site: “Teabaggers: Tools of Bin Laden?” “FUCK YOU CONDI RICE.” “An Open Letter to Delusional Rightwing Folks.” Not to be outdone, here are a few excerpts from posters on the right-wing forum Free Republic: “These presstitutes make me sick!” “‘I had no hesitation about taking a human life’… Neither did Stalin. You can’t have a moral dilemma when you have no sense of morality.” “We all know his pappy is a commie, his momnie [sic] is a comie [sic] and that he aint a po azz black boy down fo de struggle. He was raised a privileged white communist punk by his rich ass grandparents.”

I edited these out of my original post fairly early on (and in fact I’m missing even more such comments as a result of my quick hatcheting) because anyone like me can cherrypick the worst comments from public forums where anyone can post like DU and Free Republic, but as I hinted at in my original post when I talked about how partisan views can be self-reinforcing, extreme viewpoints have a tendency to go unchallenged, and hence increasingly legitimized, on partisan forums. For one thing, extreme viewpoints tend to be more vocal about it. This isn’t just a tendency inherent in the positions themselves (the status quo is more of an outrage the further your own position is from it). Consider a hypothetical Democratic message board, with posts from various parts of the spectrum represented. Some posts may be very moderate, others may be all-out Marxist, but they all share one thing in common: assuming there are no trolls, they are probably all in disagreement with the Republicans. Indeed, to feel strongly enough to sign up for an explicitly Democratic message board, one is probably not terribly moderate.

That means there are certain micro-level issues that all of the board’s members are in agreement on. Whenever there is a thread on one of these micro-level issues, the extreme Marxists and the relative moderates will have scarcely any difference between them, in theory. But on issues that might produce more controversy, the moderates are less likely to speak up, because they might be construed as agreeing with the enemy. (In my experience, individual posters tend to have less individual identity on the most popular political message boards.) On the other hand, those that hold relatively extreme positions just on the fringes of what is considered acceptable are allowed to speak freely. Their positions are legitimized, allowing new frontiers to be opened and eventually closing off more moderate positions as the social controls against dissent take effect.

Despite the seeming demise of any principles with which to define and control society – from the naked greed of large corporations to the demands for rights coming from any corner large and loud enough to be heard – the tendency to make such rules, and form societal associations organized around these rules, is endemic. We find it anywhere you look in society, wherever cliques or subcultures are found, and one ignores or underestimates this basic tendency of human nature at their peril. Right now such tendencies have put us on the brink of the abyss, and while I’m still not certain what needs to happen, something definitely needs to happen. Congress will only find the middle ground when America as a whole will, so let’s put together each side’s solutions and the problems with each, and find a way to solve those problems, reason out why one solution is ultimately better than the other, find a solution that incorporates the best of both sides, or at least come to an understanding of each position.

In addition to everything I suggested in my original post, this will require a voice for moderate voices that can recognize the merits of each side and point out their flaws, and hopefully suggest synthesized solutions. The aim is not so much to convince either side so much as to provide a voice for the silent majority in the middle. But for the same reasons mentioned before, moderates tend not to care as much about politics, at least if they’re prone to seek compromise, because they tend not to have very solid views (given their propensity to waver between them) and tend to be okay with whatever comes out, if they even pay attention to politics given how little they care about them. And once again, they’re not likely to escape charges of bias, and may even show some real bias if they become increasingly convinced one side is superior to the other. The entrenchment of our political positions works to keep them from leaving the trenches, and I don’t know how to break the cycle.

I will say that our present system of electing our government on a geographical basis, though it appears reasonable at first glance, does not encourage healing the divide or giving a voice to moderates. Political positions have always been partly geographically determined, whether it was the north being against slavery and the south being for it before the Civil War, or urban areas being more Democratic and rural areas more Republican now. The result is that, even without much gerrymandering, districts have a tendency to become “safe” for one party or the other, which does not encourage and, with our increasing partisan divide, may even discourage the election of moderates. This makes it easier for Congress to reflect the partisan divide in the rest of the country; moderates do get elected, but they do not tend to have much of a voice, especially since their districts may be more vulnerable, and they risk being demonized on the national level among their nominal peers, as Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter know well; better to give the leadership positions to those more likely to stay in Congress longer. (I don’t believe changing this necessarily requires amending the Constitution, which to my knowledge only governs the division of representation among the states, not that those representatives need to be elected by geographic sub-divisions.)

The geographical system of electing our Congressmen is not the only aspect of our electoral system that furthers the divide. Our “first-past-the-post” plurality system of voting discourages the formation of more than two parties, as should be obvious to anyone who sat through the effect of Ralph Nader on the 2000 presidential election; any viable third party needs to be able to attract exactly as many people from each side. With only two parties, polarization is all too easy; with at least three, one party can synthesize the best ideas of the other two and come up with some ideas of their own that might be better than that suggested by either side. There are ways to address both problems, but I’ll save them for future posts because they’ll take quite a bit of explaining.

Understanding the News: Ignoring the Day of Reckoning

Note: As this was heavily edited down from a post three times the size, I’ll issue another post greatly expanding on this one.

On January 8, 2011, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head during a meeting she was holding with constituents near Tucson, Arizona. Although Loughner was a mentally disturbed man who held extreme views on all sides of the political spectrum and paid more attention to conspiracy theories than anything that could be called “news”, the shooting came as a shock to a country deeply divided between left and right. Attention turned to a map made by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections showing candidates in vulnerable districts targeted by crosshairs.

People on both sides called for bipartisanship, civility, and toning down the political discourse, and later that month at the State of the Union Address, congressmen of both houses sat in the chamber regardless of political affiliation, breaking with tradition. Even Keith Olbermann, who arguably was one of the standardbearers of the division of the political discourse on the left, apologized for anything he may have ever said that might have been construed as supporting violence. Later that month, Olbermann’s MSNBC show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, was abruptly cancelled.

Did anything result from all the calls for bipartisanship? Not really. Other than Olbermann, the same figures are the most public representatives of left and right, and I see no evidence any of them have changed their MO. Radio host Laura Ingraham recently expressly rejected another call for unity from President Obama, and another radio host, Mike Malloy, suggested that the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden should have taken out George W. Bush instead. And I found these incidents from, respectively, Media Matters for America, which had a column calling Obama’s haters “deranged“, and Newsbusters, which called one recent claim of radio host Randi Rhodes “lunacy“. Even Keith Olbermann will restart Countdown on Current TV next month – and it’s worth noting that the breakup with MSNBC may have been in the works ever since Olbermann was suspended the previous November for donating to Democratic congressional candidates.

In my view, the left seemed more self-aware about their sins than the right. While Olbermann fell on his sword, no comparable conservative figure shared the same fate that I know of (with Glenn Beck’s Fox News program only being cancelled in April). While Olbermann apologized for any perceived sins, Palin – from whom one could have drawn a more direct line to the shootings in Tucson – refused to take any responsibility and instead attacked the media for allegedly jumping to blame the right for the attacks. In the end, the left’s reluctance to play the same game as the right only came out as a win for the right – one side pulls the conversation as far right as they want, but the other side is too reluctant to do likewise. I’d like to think it wouldn’t take a conservative figure being shot to shock the right out of their complacency, but I’m not sure if even that would work. But if an assassination attempt can’t bring “red America” and “blue America” together, what can?

Tribalism is a natural result of the human experience. We like to think that we’ve risen above tribalism, but we merely live in bigger tribes today, and smaller sub-tribes among them. One of the most important aspects of any group of people are the moral precepts and core beliefs holding the tribe together. These core principles are at the heart of the tribe’s identity; they allow its members to identify other members of the tribe, beyond those they personally know, and they serve a more practical purpose in keeping the tribe together by creating social controls against those who undermine the rest of the tribe. These controls, and the principles themselves, can have nasty consequences. Anyone who disagrees with a group’s core principles will not remain a member of that group for long.

So it is that our two great political persuasions have purged themselves of heretics and seek complete purity. The other side is pure evil; it is the enemy; to even consider it for a moment is to introduce an impurity. When these core beliefs are held in unanimity, they can be self-reinforcing, and as such they are often deeply held, thought to be self-evident, so now the enemy becomes stupid too, if not outright liars; after all, aren’t our positions so obviously right? At this point, they have become fundamentally religious beliefs, so deeply held that those who hold them cannot make any decisions, cannot even function, if they find themselves forced to throw them out.

In the case of our two great political persuasions, it is thought that the course of action most in accordance with these core beliefs is always in the best interests of America, in every situation and on every issue, regardless of whether or not it contradicts other beliefs they claim to be just as core; to claim otherwise is an absurdity, a heresy. Regardless of what they may claim their principles to be, both parties will sacrifice their principles to support their true clientele. Republicans will always seek the best result for corporations, while I suspect there is some truth to the Republican cariacture of Democrats as not-so-closet socialists.

To make matters worse, the media – Fox News, MSNBC, and major radio companies such as Clear Channel, but all the media to some extent – have gleefully exploited and furthered the political divide. By providing mass outlets for those who would drive each party further into the fringes, they further legitimize such extreme positions and in fact make the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann instantly mainstream. That it is eminently understandable (outrageous positions attract attention and ratings) does not make it any less shameful.

The media are responsible for the divide, and they have a responsibility to put that divide back together. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my frustration with CNN for trying to stand in the middle rather than on both edges, and specifically that letting Jon Stewart shame them into cancelling Crossfire was a mistake. But while that’s still important, I now suspect it’s doomed to failure without more sweeping changes, because the divide is now being driven by forces outside the media, and there’s probably no convincing Fox News to stop furthering the divide.

I don’t know anymore how to really begin healing the divide, or even stopping its growth. It will take a humanization of the enemy – a realization that there are real people who are persuaded by the other side, and they aren’t all misled or delusional – a recognition that we are all Americans who have to live with the people and ideas of the other side; a recognition that politics is not some sort of zero-sum game where the only goal is to “win” but something with real consequences; a sober assessment of our values, what they mean, why they’re desirable, and when they can be too much of a good thing; and above all, it will require a recognition that the partisan gridlock now afflicting Congress – a natural reflection, and microcosm, of the division of the country – is preventing us from moving forward.

I’m not sure if either side really wants to do any of this, and I’m not sure how to get them to – our political persuasions are so entrenched it seems impossible to pull them out of the trenches. But something needs to be done… or else I fear the shots that were fired near Tucson will prove to be the first shots of a new civil war.

Understanding the News: Introduction

I have long considered myself a bit of a philosopher; in fact, for most if not all of Da Blog’s existence, philosophy was my main plan for my future, despite misgivings, hopes for Da Blog itself, and dabbling in other areas. However, I am not a philosophy major in college, because I find what is currently called “philosophy” to be too esoteric and ivory-tower, and overly focused on irrelevant and purely hypothetical questions.

Philosophy is not merely concerned with such esoteric speculations. I consider philosophy to be of the greatest importance for unpacking the critical questions of human nature. Philosophy has long been concerned with building a framework with which to understand human behavior. The conclusions reached have not always been entirely accurate – in particular often denigrating or denying the social aspect of human life – but it has been a common and constant theme in philosophy since at least the days of Plato’s Republic.

That philosophy has largely abandoned this ground, and made itself irrelevant and laughable to the extent that it has stayed, is quite unfortunate, because in my view, there is no question more important. For all that has been said about the wonder of the universe, the promise of technology, the hunt for the Higgs boson, and all the other myriad triumphs of the physical sciences, it is the simple question of human nature that has had and will have the biggest impact on the course of history, because it is, ultimately, humanity that sets that course.

Why are politicians so corrupt? Why are corporations so ruthlessly greedy? How come we can’t feed everyone? How come we aren’t doing anything about global warming? Why do wars happen? Where does religion come from? Where does evil come from? And most importantly, how can we fix all of the above?* The answers to these questions, and many more besides, are rooted in an understanding of how humans actually work and behave, and why. They are the most important questions for our modern world, not questions of the physical sciences or metaphysics.

(*Obviously, this question assumes that religion is something to be fixed, which you may disagree with.)

I’m currently taking a sociology class that has an assignment to write blog posts connecting current events to the numerous social theories developed over the years about the modern world. It’s a project that quite frankly, I should have started early last month, but I haven’t yet shaken my procrastination issues; I’ll be releasing two posts a week to compensate. (After my numerous attempts to compensate for the lack of an Internet connection at home were a minor theme of Da Blog for the first four years of its existence, someone from Comcast convinced my mom to finally get an Internet connection at the worst possible time, when my inability to complete even my modest class schedule is putting a severe damper on my finances.) However, I may not stop when I’ve completed the obligations of the assignment; I may continue the project indefinitely into the future, as a regular feature on Da Blog. In fact, this project may well be the start of something that becomes the most important part of in the future.

As a storage place for the new project as well as a way to organize all the posts related to it in one place, I’ll be introducing a new category to Da Blog, “Understanding the News”. The category will start out a subcategory to “My Comments on the News”, but I may move it to the “Philosophy” category if I feel the need to (the fact that this very post isn’t a good fit to “My Comments on the News” may be a sign I may need to move it). It’s not the best of names, but I hope it gets across the notion that this project is about finding a better understanding of why the world is the way it is, and the forces behind everything that happens in the world that might not be obvious.