Saturday, October 20, 2012

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

Looking at so many political engagements across the spectrum, I see so many people proffer both vice and virtue. There are those who urge us to find love and compassion for our fellow men; lamenting greed and cold-heartedness. Some wish us to be more competent and assertive; eschewing those who lack any sense of responsibility for themselves. And still others call for a deeper patience and tolerance for those with whom we disagree; demanding cessation of unprovoked violence and aggression.

The tragedy in our ideological differences, I think, isn't the variance. The tragedy is that our way of thinking about such issues ("politically") has led us to believe that the conception and practice of these ideas are mutually exclusive. This is not necessarily so. We will probably never see a world with united preferences. There will always be areas (even vast ones) of disagreement. But there is little reason to believe that values (such as the above) cannot be mutually deterministic. That I care about others should not  be construed to mean that I have no sense of someone's personal responsibilities. That I urge competence and assertiveness should not be construed to mean that I'm intolerant. That I oppose aggression should not be construed to mean I'm cold-hearted.

And yet I see such non sequiturs all the time when I witness the political discourse of today. It seems that we have a tendency to believe that because we may oppose the means of others that we must also oppose their ends - but it's simply not the case. Whether such misunderstandings are a subconscious "tic" or simply a strategic way to make those who disagree with you seem immoral, I'm not completely sure. But I'd imagine it's a spectrum. And it's almost certainly some degree of both.

My advice to you, when you should read such things, is to be charitable in your argumentation. Remember that we're all human...we all have (probably) both good and bad ideas. We all certainly have our faults. I've met many people who I believe do and say "bad" things, but I would never pull their intentions into the category of malevolence. Their hearts are, more often than not, in the right place. Even the most vile among us (excluding the inextricably insane) seem to feel the need to build moral justifications for their actions. I don't think that's mere coincidence.

So listen to what others have to say. And when others begin to cast off-hand dispersions towards your intentions, don't simply rebut in kind and leave them feeling vindicated. Patiently but firmly remind them that, if they believe that you simply don't care about these other values, that they are mistaken and need to reconsider their accusations. Real communication about such important things is already going to be an uphill battle. It's not made any better when peoples' familiarity with their opponent only extends to what amounts to a caricature of their views.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Policies and Scope

I've done what I could to avoid any serious personal investment in the upcoming election. This includes side-stepping the debates and trying to avoid the pitfalls of political conversation with family and friends. In 2008 I felt like I had a dog in the race so to speak. I'm not sure whether I owe my change in demeanor over these four years to evolution in my own thoughts or my generally growing weary of the political process. Whichever the case, I've lost any desire I'd once had to have anything to do with it. But, like all bad things, you can only dodge it for so long. Eventually confrontation seeps its way into some conversation or another. And then you start to wish you had stayed in bed that particular morning.

So, when I have had the unfortunate opportunity to bat around some election-season politics (and I generally prefer just to play devil's advocate when that happens), I've noticed two particular aspects of any given talking point that seems to garner an eerily small amount of critical thought; policy and scope.

I think the failure of the voter to distinguish rhetoric from policy is sometimes pretty alarming. This follows regarding the rhetoric of both favored and opposing politicians. Often I'll hear a person drone on about the claims of politicians they happen to despise - citing their ideas as radical and generally malevolent. Pushing aside the conspiratorial nature of the second claim, the first often seems off-base from the start. I've heard very few politicians publicly propose ideas that are relatively radical (given the baseline of American politics). And this is the case because, strategically, it doesn't make any sense for politicians to pander to the fringe when pandering to moderates is much more fruitful. This is why most of their speeches or remarks in front of any relatively neutral audience is generally overly prefaced and temper perceptions about their position. Now, of course, in front of any special interest group, a politician will deviate and sometimes certainly say things that will seem at least relatively radical. And this is where the people who fire volleys over extremism and radicalization get their ammunition.

But it's very important to contrast not only what a politician claims to believe, but what a politician ACTUALLY believes (these are not usually the same thing) with affectable policy. Politicians are going to feel quite a bit of restraint - not only from the shifting political support of the public, but also (more importantly) from the other major players in the federal government. So, in other words, even if a person feels that someone has proposed or believes in something that is relatively radical (no matter how accurate that description may be), it's certainly not an accurate reflection of what policies and legislation will come to fruition once they are elected.

Another failure of most people is in reflecting on the scope of any given talking point(s). Take for instance two recent topics de jour in the parlay of presidential debates; public funding of PBS and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. In the former example you have sparked contention over, at most, hundreds of millions of dollars afforded to public broadcasting around the nation. For the sake of argument, let me make it clear that, in principle, I'm against such spending myself. But it would seem that any person with a basic grasp on math and a little knowledge of where we are regarding federal spending (approximately 4 TRILLION dollar budget and approximately 16 TRILLION dollar national debt) would quickly be able to see that spending (arguably) valuable debate time squabbling over what we're giving to Big Bird isn't thinking about the fiscal situation seriously. And yet that fight is prominent...with people on both sides of the political aisle.

Then we turn to the issue of Benghazi, a tragic incident to be sure - and one that has certainly seemed to have been coordinated at this point. It's certainly easy to see, in hindsight (as with many terrorist attacks), ways in which this situation might have been avoided. And certainly no one should belittle the deaths of the four U.S. personnel killed in the aftermath. I wonder, however, how Republicans in particular imagine they are to make much political hay after their bleak and misguided history of foreign policy blundering. But I wonder, more importantly, how the scope of this situation has been construed as to blanket the multitude of foreign policy issues we're already faced with. Lost in the squabble over the attacks seems to be the radical (appropriately used) response to such attacks by more prominent Muslim groups in Libya...protests which exceeded 30,000 people at one point. And yet I can't expect those eager to blow up Obama's spot on this issue to recognize this, or to not continue to disparage all Muslims with the blood of the guilty. And what of our own intervention in Libya over recent years and decades? Will that receive any consideration? And our larger involvement in supporting and deposing regimes of interest across the Middle East? And if the tragedy of the deaths of four in Benghazi is an all-consuming issue in our current political sparring, then what of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have died (many of them even more senselessly) in our wars abroad? What about the hundreds and thousands of INNOCENT women and children that have perished to drone and other air strikes in our decade-old quest for justice? Where is the hand-wringing of Americans over that tragedy? Or how about the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of innocents killed in Iraq not only during the Second Gulf War, but because of the political and economic sanctions spearheaded by our government?

In words repeated but immortalized by one of my musical idols, "The death of one is a tragedy. The death of millions is just a statistic."

My general point isn't that people are stupid. I'm certainly not as smart as most of the people I engage with. The problem, as I see it, is that people are so attached to their political team-identity that they are content with remaining willfully ignorant about certain things. If your opponent does something wrong, it was the worst thing that could have happened. If your guy does something wrong or performs poorly, it was an opponent's fault. Non sequiturs, strawmen, ad hominem - all just shifters of of victory. This is why most conversations on this front seem fruitless. People are either unconcerned with or incapable of unwinding their own political ideologies. After all, why bother with the task of critically analyzing what you believe when all you're concerned about is being part of the winning team? And then why should I bother parrying the claims and accusations of people who put as much forethought into their political alliances as they put into choosing their favorite football team?