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So I’ve been thinking about it.  Robert said that the result of more people being more engaged in the political process seems to be that more people head for the extremes, but I don’t know that that’s what’s happening here.

In the first place, Idon’t think more people are involved in the political process than there used to be.   In fact, I think there are less, at least as a proportion of the adult population.  It’s hard for me to come up with even an anecdotal defense of this, since the only political incident I can remember from my childhood was an all-school poll on the 1960 election, in which, given the overwhelmingly Irish Catholic make-up of our student body, went to  Kennedy in a landslide.

I just don’t know, however, if there was much in the way of the equivalent of the vast majority of my students, who often don’t know who’s running (asked who  Joe Biden was, they guessed Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy), or, if they do, get the basics wrong (MSNBC favored Obama, one student wrote, which meant they were Republicans, who were the liberals). 

It seems to me that a number of factors, however, contribute to less involvement in politics by more people, one of which is certainly the fact that we can now avoid politics if we want.  The last time I remember a situation where almost every channel suspended regular programming to deal with the news, it was 9/11, and even then it was only almost every channel.  

It was entirely possible to go through this last election, the most historically significant since FDR, at least, and possibly since Lincoln, and never hear a word about it.   Radio music stations, the Soap network, you name it, there was a way to avoid it.  I think a lot of people used to be “informed” mostly because they had no choice.  There were three broadcast television stations and all of them had the news on at the same time.  For an hour or so each day, if you were watching at all, you were stuck getting to know things.

But I also think that fewer people participate because the process has become so distasteful in so many ways.  It’s easy to poke fun at the Bush is a fascist war crimine!  Obama is a Communist selling the soul of America into totalitarianism! people–and they deserve to be made fun of–but the fact is that when the discourse becomes dominated by people like these, something profouindly destructive is being done to democracy.

I think that a lot of people have just been turned off by the hyperbole, and by the endless name calling, and by the tactics–and on both sides.   I also don’t think most people are in need of a new narrative, or insecure with the one they have.  They’ve mostly come to some compromise they can live with.  They’re not feeling threatened.

But the people who are doing the yelling and screaming are feeling threatened, and in a way they have a right to be.  I think that both the religious narrative as it is promulgated by the evangelicals in politics and the secular narrative as it is presented by the main secular/atheist organizations are deeply flawed,  and neither of them has the actual support of the majority of the American people. 

I think that the polls are right when they say that most Americans believe in God, for instance, but I don’t think the God they believe in has much in common with the one being presented by American folk Protestantism.  That is, most Americans seem to think that being homosexual or not is a person’s own business, and that God won’t be sending anybody to hell just for that.   God is a vaguely comforting, important person out there somewhere, who really just wants us all to be good and decent and happy and to behave well towards each other.

I think that the fact that the polls also show that most Americans wouldn’t touch an atheist with a ten foot pole has less to do with their understanding of atheism–most of them don’t understand it, and a fair number think atheists worship Satan–than with the fact that the public face of atheism in this country has become strident, angry and pinched.

Whether or not the local high school gets to have a Christmas pageant is important to exactly two groups of people:  the committed Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who want to promote their religion, and the committed secularists, who want to stop them.  The rest of the student body, and their parents, think that Christmas is this neat time where there’s Santa Claus and presents and that sweet story about the three kings–and what the hell is everybody getting so worked up about? 

I think there’s a fair amount of a pox on both your houses in this mess–to the vast general public, the “Christians” are the people trying to ban the Halloween party and the “atheists” are the people trying to ban the Christmas party, but in both cases, what we’ve got is some group or the other trying to stop the rest of us from doing what we want to do

I think that it would be difficult for anybody to get involved in the process if this was what they saw it as, first hand.  If you’re happy about where you are, if you’re not feeling as if you’re very identity is threatened, then you want to enter the process to get things done, like the town sewer system being extended out to the Fire District or a new middle school being built to replace the one that’s started falling down.  When you can’t do that, when getting involved means getting in the middle of a shooting war between two groups of people who seem to be ready to taste blood over issues you find trivial, you retreat to your living room and watch another episode of Friends.

I have no idea what it is we’re supposed to do about this.  I know that the clash between these two ways of looking at the world, of constructing an American identity, are real enough, and that they’re not compatible.

But they’re also not new.  You can find most of the same themes in the New England of the years that ran up to the Civil War.  The two strains, liberal and conservative, have been with us always.  When Thomas Jefferson ran for  President, the churches denounced him as an atheist–and although he wasn’t, quite, he came damned close.   When Franklin Delano  Roosevelt ran for President, he was disinvited from the reunion of his Groton School class, because his fellow preppies had no intention of shaking the hand of the man who had “betrayed” them.

But even though there was always turmoil, up until very recently it was also always possible for Americans to be Americans first and all this other stuff sort of as a hobby.  We managed to assimilate Catholicism and dozens of ethnic groups, so that pizza and tacos and General Tso’s Chicken and bagels with a shmear are all now “American” foods, and there are now myriad styles of “being  American.”  Tony Soprano is as American as David Rockefeller. 

I’d be a lot more coherent here if I had an answer for all this, but I don’t.  I think that the clash of narratives, and the rise of political classes who feel threatened by the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t validate their story, was inevitable.  The sheer amount of information available to larger and larger numbers of people means that any narrative we choose must necessarily bump up against others and against evidence that at least some of its claims are false.  

I don’t know, though, that I am royally sick of it.   I don’t think Bush is a fascist war criminal and I don’t think Obama is a Communist plant bent on destroying democracy and the free market.   I’m tired beyond belief of policy issues become ideological ones.   I’m even sicker of the ideological issues becoming so paramount that we’re unable to actually figure out what the consequences of our policies are going to be and act on those. 

Maybe it’s just that I’m still more than a little sick–and Cheryl is right, this is always worse when you have students, who seem to carry some kind of superbug around with them just to give the teacher a fever–and so my ordinary annoyance with all this is getting out of hand. 

Or maybe it’s just that Glenn Beck and Keith Olberman are driving me crazy.

Written by janeh

February 9th, 2009 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Engagements'

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  1. I think the liberal/conservative; change/restraint dichotomy has been with us throughout our existence as a species. Or maybe that’s just me expressing my human tendency to see things in pairs.

    I do think the idea makes sense, though. You need both forces – one for change; one for stability – in human society, and as long as they’re reasonably in balance, you get improvements without catastrophic disasters. Maybe things get a bit fraught at the point at which it looks like there’s a major change going on – people from Kuhn to Gladwell? Gladney? The ‘Tipping Point’ person – have written on what happens when the balance shifts to a new balance; a new paradigm, to use a much-misused term.

    I think a lot of the rest of the political scene you describe may be limited to the US, but I’m not sure since I don’t think I have a really good feel for what’s going on politically in the Rest of Canada. Here in the east, we tend to take a deep and personal interest in politics, although some other Canadians appear shocked that we also lack much in the way of idealism or strong ideology; tending to take it for granted that a certain proportion of politicians will, ummm, benefit from their positions and even more probably won’t let ideological principles affect their careers too much. I get the impression that some Westerners have a much more – dare I say it – American approach to politics, but of course this is probably because the version of conservatism of our current, Western PM, is highly influenced by American thinking and is ‘ideological’ in the sense that his actions are often determined by conservative principles rather than political practicalities (that is, when they’re not an attempt to get back at certain groups, which can backfire…)

    Anyway, I don’t know how many Westerners are American-influenced staunch Conservatives, but I suspect a lot are.

    Back east, we still tend to follow politics, although I’m not sure if the younger generation does so with as much interest as the older ones did at the same age. Possibly not; our voting rates are dropping. In Canada, there doesn’t seem to be the need to demonize the political opposition with howls of ‘fascist’ and ‘communist’. I’d say apathy is more of a problem here – but ‘here’ isn’t where the power base of Canadian politics is located.


    9 Feb 09 at 8:49 am

  2. Jane wrote ” Robert said that the result of more people being more engaged in the political process seems to be that more people head for the extremes, but I don’t know that that’s what’s happening here.”

    Part of that is simple mathematics. If we assume a Gaussian Distribution (the bell shaped curve) and take the extremes as being the upper and lower tails, then a larger number of people automatically means more people in the tails.

    I moved from the US to Australia in 1971 and my general impression is that the US Congress has gotten much more partisen then it was when I left the US. There seems to be less bipartisen agreement.


    9 Feb 09 at 6:21 pm

  3. Did I write that? I said the bell curve was reshaped with more people at the left and right ends of the major political parties, and that these tended to be better informed than the middle, but I think I at least avoided causality.
    I honestly don’t know that we’re more engaged in politics. If I had to guess, I’d say slightly the reverse over the past five decades. But the well-informed and committed ones seem to either be watching MSNBC and reading THE NATION or watching Fox News adn reading THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR. Mostly, the ones in the center don’t read both. They read neither–more likely the home town paper and one of the old three evening news broadcasts, backed up, if at all, by TIME or READER’S DIGEST. (There are some studies of this. If I’d known it would be on the test, I’d have taken better notes.) Yes, I know there are exceptions, but a lot of the middle ground is held by people who arrived there without giving it a lot of thought, which is why you get such really strange poll results–and voting!–from time to time.
    We also, I think are paying soem price for (a) nationalizing issues, with ROE heading the list, and (b) getting the political machines in lockstep. In terms of practical politics–contributing money, voting or working in a campaign, it’s now effectively impossible to be pro-gun control and anti-abortion, or pro-beefed up national defense adn pro-expanded welfare.
    It’s hard to be enthusiastic when you only agree with your candidate 55% of the time.


    9 Feb 09 at 7:24 pm

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