August 18, 2004

Stop the octogon, I want to get off

I am already so sick of the upcoming Presidential election and we still have 74 more days of name-calling, mudslinging, vilification, misdirection, negativity and manipulative rhetoric left to go.

I have found that I don't have it in me to be very political here much anymore or respond to anyone else's baiting. It is so highly unlikely that anyone is going to change my mind about the candidates -- I can imagine nothing that could be said by anyone, anywhere, anytime, anyhow that would make me vote for the administration currently taking up space in the White House -- and I doubt I'm going to change anyone else's mind by expressing my views on the topics at hand as they pop up over the course of the next couple months...and pop up they will.

My feelings about this are not based on truly hard-core political beliefs, partisan allegiance, or an unwillingness to engage in political debate. It's that I think the country is headed in the wrong direction at the moment and, more importantly in terms of why I'm not willing to assert my opinions terribly adamantly here anymore, I've come to believe that there is really no longer such a thing in this country as actual political debate. No one seems to really listen to people who express a political opinion contrary to theirs, let alone give it any credence or consideration.

What now passes for debate on the Internet and talk shows goes something like this: One person will put forth their belief on a political matter and someone on the other end of the spectrum will respond to tell them why they are wrong. The first person will provide an example or fact to support their position and the other person will trot out a conflicting example and vehemently defend it. Then, in a knee-jerk reaction, they abandon reason and debate and start tossing around names and epithets like grenades -- "right-wing wacko," "bleeding-heart liberal," "rabid righty," "traitor," "left-wing kook," "un-American," -- and the discussion simultaneously escalates into shrillness and degenerates into a spewing of vitriol. Something I read recently sums it up pretty well: "Why debate anything when your opponents are just wrong?"

What has caused this shift from debate to shouting? I think that among the culprits are the birth of the soundbite and the tendency of the current Bush administration (and its champions with media access) to go on the offensive and put those who do not agree with them squarely in the camp of "those who are against us." If you are against us, why should we acknowledge your arguments when they must be designed to harm us -- and therefore the country since we are its leaders -- and bring us down? It's effective because it's hard to refute that kind of illogical assertion without getting defensive and defensiveness is viewed, or at least represented, as proof of the assertion. Years of that kind of leadership, especially once patriotism is dragged into the fray the way it has been because of the war in Iraq, deteriorate our collective ability to have meaningful debate.

That brings me to the column that led me to touch on this subject today. The core of this post was written almost a month ago, but I found that I was too tired to form a cohesive chain of rationale to adequately present my thoughts. So I put it aside and figured that I would either leave it unfinished or find a good reason to pull it together eventually. The combination of resignation and outrage I felt when I read this was apparently the motivation I needed.

All I could think was, "Tell me how this doesn't really prove anything, how it's just a liberal concoction to make Bush look bad. He doesn't need our help to do that, he's a one-man Punch and Judy show!" The instantaneous and strong reaction I had reminded me of my unfinished post and I realized that I had fallen into the very tendency I had decried.

The importance of this election raises the stakes for us all, and I think it's easy to let those near-automatic responses slip in and push aside the more difficult task of engaging in meaningful reflection and debate on topics that in some ways we feel powerless to affect but for which we hold the ultimate power. We have a choice to make and if we chose to make it based on "He lied...But he lied more," and other less-than-significant matters, then perhaps we don't deserve a leadership based on more than that.