Tolkien: The Time Given to Us

I do sense in many people’s lives that come our presidential election year, a lot of people are edgy, irritated, angry and dis-eased (and this is made worse in a political swing state such as Ohio where I live where we suffer political advertisement and robo-call saturation bombardment).   Passions are raised and fear mongers are out in force on the airwaves warning of dire consequences if “the other guy” wins the election.  This is on top of the many actual news stories that tell of an unsettled and unsettling world.

Some wish they lived in different times and others wish the times were different.   Maybe we long for that more pastoral and care free time which we believe is the way things are supposed to be . . . but in all actuality have seldom been in the history of the world.  We can consider wisdom offered to us by novelist JRR Tolkien in his classic novel, The Fellowship of the Ring.

In that Lord of the Rings trilogy and in his other related works, Tolkien presented the Hobbits, the little people of the Shire, as basically good folk who enjoyed life.  They were not much concerned with the world beyond the Shire; literally, they were seldom concerned with anything beyond their next meal!  They were no threat to the rest of the world and of little importance to world powers.  They simply enjoyed their idyllic, prosperous lives and were rather innocent regarding the problems brewing in the rest of the world.  Yet troubles came upon them just as they do upon everyone.   They were not to blame for these troubles, but they could not escape them either for they lived in the same world as everyone else in Middle-earth.  One of the Hobbits, named Frodo, a hero of the story, has his good life totally disrupted by the evil and war which were consuming the rest of  Middle-earth.   He laments:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Even Gandalf the Wise, a wizard with amazing powers, longevity of life and knowledge of the world and its powers good and evil, also wishes that problems would occur  in some other time and place.  Every generation,however, has to deal with the reality of their contemporary situation.

The reality for each of us is that we cannot determine the times we live in, nor the dramas that engulf our world.  But within those major events, we can shape our lives at the personal level – how we respond to events and how we relate to those around us.  We do have power at that level.

We don’t create the times we are born into, but each decides what to do with the time given to them on earth.  And even the most insignificant of us, as was true of Frodo of the Shire, are capable of contributing in a most significant way to the times in which we find ourselves.

It may be that we don’t have to do some great thing, but what is required of us is that we are faithful and true in the little things which are in our power to effect.

Calming the Presidential Campaign Rhetoric: Christ is Savior

Lots of Americans on both extremes of the American political spectrum get fervently wound up in election year imagining some apocalypse if their favored presidential candidate does NOT win the election.  I don’t know whether that is the product of the negative campaign ads or the reason the campaigns constantly run those ads.

For Christians, we live by a truth which is outside of the effects of who wins the U.S. presidential election:  Jesus Christ is Lord, God and Savior.

No election can change that simple, yet eternal truth.   So however much we fear the “other” party’s candidate winning the election, we do need to keep perspective.  Jesus Christ is Lord, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).

“As the prominent biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. The Priene inscription called Caesar ‘savior’ – savior of the world, bringer of peace and justice to which Paul says, ‘No way!’ We must add, therefore, that if God is savior, Caesar is not. And if God’s salvation, including peace and justice, comes through Jesus, then it does not come through Caesar – or any other political or imperial force or figure.” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pg. 44)

That “any other political or imperial force or figure” includes the President of the United States and the United States itself.  Just for the sake of a little humility for us Americans and to deal with our own hubris, we might remember that the devil in Luke 4:5-6 when tempting Jesus says all the authority and glory of every kingdom on earth belongs to him, and he offers it to Jesus who refuses it.   Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, not through the US, or through the US only if the right man gets elected president.  Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of lords, showed little interest in governments and their power.

None of this is to say that it doesn’t matter who wins the election.  Since we do believe in free will, every decision matters and has its effect, great or small, on the universe.  But the complexity of the universe and the the love of God interact in such a manifold matrix, that we have Christ testifying to the fact that God the Father gives both rain and sunshine to the good and evil, the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous:

“… your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

Jesus attributes this particular behavior of God to His love, and then goes on to say we are to be as perfect in this love as God.   So we as Christians can have strong partisan, even polarizing, political feelings, but then as Christians, we are obliged to love the other as God does.

Three Political Thoughts

I have not commented on the political developments in this Presidential election year because I have not had a lot to say.  There is something about the American form of democracy that I don’t like.  The campaigns are completely media driven with sound bites far more important than substance. Negative campaign ads seem to rule the day.  Being little attuned to the media since I almost never watch TV, I find it hard to attune to campaigns that are totally designed for TV and the media.   The campaigns generate more heat than light, as they say.  Some of course contend that democracy when it works is messy, loud, based in ad hominem attacks, appealing to fears and emotions rather than to real policy (one can see these signs all the way back in the Adams vs. Jefferson election of 1800).  And obviously if everyone were simply in agreement a one party system works fine.  When, however, there are real disagreements, one should expect contentious campaigns.  I realize all of this but still am not fond of the way we do elections.  I think I heard in France that in the last several days of a campaign, no TV or radio ads are permitted at all.  That idea would suit me.  Let the candidates stand on their own words not on the hundred millions of dollars spent on media imaging and spin.

The Spring 2012 edition of THE WILSON QUARTERLY cited two studies which cast doubt on whether the whole series of Republican debates really benefited the voters in any meaningful way.  One criticism is that  “debate moderators of 2011 sometimes  seemed more interested in stoking conflict than in eliciting meaningful answers—and the candidates weren’t given enough time for meaningful answers anyway.”  Of course that makes for better television drama than having candidates calmly state their positions.  Maybe that is what the newspapers are for!    Additionally, “Debates have allowed the press to elbow their way in front of voters for commercial purposes.”  It’s as if the press to justify its own existence,  not to mention is self-importance, makes sure its presence in the debates is known.  Everything is mediated through the press who also digests it all and feels the need to interpret everything to the voters who apparently can’t think of anything to ask and wouldn’t understand the answers anyway.  “During the  20 debates between May 5, 2011, and mid-February, 2012, the NYU team counted 46 questions about social issues (abortion and gay rights), four about the Arab Spring, two about climate change, one about small business – and 113 about campaign strategy and negative advertising.”    So apparently the biggest concern for the future leader of the free world has to do with campaign strategies and the media.  The media inserts itself as the biggest issue for Americans to be concerned about.

Media Nation - "Television the drug of the nation"

The media makes sure that people pay attention to the media and wants to ensure that our only access to the candidates is through the media.    “Pay attention to us,” is their motto.  Voters would do well to turn them off completely.  As voters, we won’t take time to read speeches or position papers.  We want sound bites and bullet points, which the media and the candidates obligingly provide.  No wonder candidates give stump speeches even in answer to debate questions.  They know what the media will focus on and we the voters seem willing to accept that impoverished campaign diet.

I found more encouraging the 23 April 2012 TIME magazine article, Inside The Presidents Club­­­­ by Nancy  Gibbs and Michael Duffy.   It is a glimpse into their new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.   What I saw (maybe because it is what I wish were true) is that despite all the adversarial political rhetoric which may occur between the various presidents especially when they campaigned against each other,  the presidents do find a way to cooperate with and use the experience of their predecessors.  Some have become friends but all found ways to work with each other.   They do realize they are the president of the United States and all its people, not just the leader of their party’s ideological wing.  That is far more appealing to me then the attack ads they use to get elected.  I know many who prefer that our presidents remain ideological enemies with presidents from a different political party.  I find no particular comfort in that partisanship.  I prefer presidential statesmanship to political brinkmanship.

Finally, and with a little sense of humor I enjoyed from science, DISCOVER’s web page article, 5 Ways to Turn a Liberal Into a Conservative (At Least Until the Hangover Sets In)  by Chris Mooney. 

Mooney says research has shown that there are five things that can make a liberal vote Republican.  First, liberals become more conservative when something consumes more of their mental attention.  When liberals are distracted with things that demand their attention they think more like conservatives.  On the other hand, “Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.”

Second, “Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for liberals and conservatives alike. … higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.”

Third, “Subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms.

Fourth, when people were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer or were asked to use a hand wipe before responding, they became more conservative in their opinions.

Fifth, studies show that fear causes us to become more conservative.  Being afraid moves us politically to being more pro-military and with favoring the death penalty.

So, “priming people to feel either fear or disgust (or the need for cleanliness) seems to favor political conservatism, and politically conservative candidates.”  Research on the other hand, does not show any similar ways to make conservative become more liberal.

Such is the nature of politics.

Ethics and Economics

I’ve been slowly reading through John Medaille’s TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET: A DISTRIBUTIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT, TAXES, HEALTH CARE, DEFICITS, AND MORE.    As I’ve acknowledged in previous blogs I have no formal education in economics, so it often is incomprehensible to me, and I will not here defend or critique the book.

Medaille offers a rather somber evaluation of modern economics and thinks the ongoing economic crisis worldwide is not an aberration but really the end result of modern economic, capitalistic policies.  One thesis of the book is that in an effort to make economics a hard science (rather than a mere social science) economists jettisoned ideas of morality.  Economics void of morality becomes a strange animal indeed creating many of the problems we see all around the world.  Some people defend as the greatest good whatever is “good for the economy.”   But of course exactly what constitutes the economy is not completely accounted for (is it people or businesses?  citizens or corporations?), nor is “good” defined especially in a system of thinking which wants to avoid moral judgments.  Medaille for example points out that while current economic thinking assumes the existence of labor, it cannot account for the existence of labor because it totally ignores the existence of families.

Modern economics does not account at all for what it costs to produce a labor force, thus families are left to scramble on their own to earn enough to survive meanwhile “the economy”  (economic leaders and forces) feel no responsibility for the survival let alone thriving of families.  So economic policies often ignore what is good for the family.    Additionally the labor force is also the consumer force – the rich get richer off the labor and consumption of these people.   But those leaders of economic ideas see no connection between the cost of producing a labor force and their own profitability.    Medaille offers many ideas about how to correct some of the problems that beset the world economy today, ideas based in distributist economics.  Some of his ideas would resonate with conservatives (especially he advocates a significantly smaller federal government) but his arguments on the moral issues of economics might not make conservatives feel so comfortable.  The keystone to his ideas is the notion of the just wage (you can read more on distributist ideas at

I suppose because I’ve been thinking about Medaille’s ideas connecting ethics to economics, I paid attention to a 20 December 2011 NY Times Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, Deep Pockets, Deeply Political.   Blow is sounding a recently familiar alarm:

 A tiny number of wealthy Americans are playing an ever-increasing role in financing our politics. This is not a good thing for a democracy.

Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to making government “transparent and accountable,” issued a report, which said:

In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. …

The report also pointed out that “overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists and lawyers” and that “a good number appear to be highly ideological.” In the 2010 election cycle, the report revealed, “the average one percent of one percenter spent $28,913, more than the median invdividual income of $26,364.”

But perhaps even more disturbing was this:

The community of donors giving more than $10,000 (in 2010 dollars) has more than quadrupled, from 6,456 in 1990 to 26,783 in 2010. In 1990, they accounted for 28.1% of all itemized (over $200) donations. By 2010, that number had risen to 44.1%. These donors are also accounting for an increasing number of all donations. And they’re giving more, too. In 1990, the average donation was $13,443. By 2010, it was more than double: $28,913.

James Madison

That the top  1% of  the well-to-do are financially more influential in politics than the rest of the country is not new.  Certainly Jefferson’s call that “all men are created equal” was not really a declaration of the equality of every human being but rather a demand that the limited number of landed gentry should be considered equals with the king.  The founding fathers envisioned some sense of the upper class ruling the country (as I recall James Madison even made mention at one point that the wealthy actually constitute a minority in the country and they had to be protected under minority rights against majority rule!).   There seems to have been in fact some notion among America’s creators that the well-to-do get to retire from work early and then can nobly serve the country in political office (This was an idea entertained by Ben Franklin).   So the wealthy being more influential in government than the majority of people is part of our democracy by and for the people from the beginnings of these United States!

I find myself connecting the statistics which Blow mentions to the ideas of morality in economics raised by Medaille.  People who are willing to drop nearly $30,000 down to influence politics are the ones who are fighting against paying taxes.  They would rather give $30,000 to political parties to promote their own interests (though this political donation is a form of a tax – the price to prosper in America) than to give that same amount of money to the government for the common good.  And they will give that same amount of money year after to year to political causes to avoid paying even less than that amount in taxes.

In the ancient Roman republic the imperial family and their slaves staffed the government at no public expense.  Senators and the equestrian class did the same out of a sense of duty – it was they who paid out of their own wealth for public buildings and services.  The landed elites of the provincial cities in turn paid for public services out of a sense of their own responsibility for the public good.

Is this civic sense, the sense of the common good,  what is so lacking in the current process of the wealthy paying for the politics of America?  Now, sadly people are willing to pay only for their own self interest – which often means exactly avoiding contributing to the common good.  A civic pride seems to be lacking.  The Romans thought patriotism meant working for the common good of all citizens which entailed spending their own money to build up (=edify) society.   Belonging to the wealthy class and owning property was considered a privilege which carried great responsibility for the common good of every citizen.  They believed all citizens should benefit from prosperity of the empire and of the wealthy.

Americans love to criticize entitlements – generally of any subgroup of Americans to which they don’t belong.  But entitlement thinking exists in the upper echelons of wealth too – it is entitlement which says the wealth is mine alone and no part of it is to be used for the common good.   It is entitlement thinking which fails to see the land on which we stand as a natural resource which is a shared good which profits all Americans.

George Washington

The common good does not mean socialism.  Medaille certainly opposes socialism which he actually thinks is really a necessary offshoot of capitalism because  current capitalism fails to consider that all economic issues are ethical issues as well.  Patriotism as valuing all citizens and working for the common good is in short supply in America these days.   Patriotism which values civic duty  is not a nationalistic exclusivism or exceptionalism.  It is a virtue which the founding fathers did embrace as they imagined citizen statesmen and citizen soldiers.   These same founding fathers thought the wealthiest Americans would come forward and support the common good for all citizens – such were their ethical beliefs.

None of this means we cannot question the size of the federal government, or work to reduce its size.  Certainly the size of the government is a question worth debating – and for Medaille this is part of the ethical discussion which needs to take place.  The issue I raise is whether our extreme individualism doesn’t in the end hurt the very basis of civil society as we cease to have any sense of responsibility for others.

Paid Political Ads: You Pay the Price for Campaign Financing

U.S. Capitol

There is a restlessness in voters this year that will once again turn out an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent electorate.   That really isn’t unusual anymore in American politics since both major political parties portray themselves as being Washington outsiders and anti-establishment.  One party is always in power and the other one trying to get back in power.

This message strikes a chord in Americans who see their “independence” being expressed through constantly morphing anti-establishment candidates . The reality is Washington stays the same the more candidates ride a wave of change to office.  The constant anti-establishment “we’re the party for change” appeal keeps things pretty unchanged and unchangeable.  We are constantly balancing back and forth between the Democrats who are now in power, and the Republicans who were in power before and are returning again.  Both parties are the object of our scorn and beneficiaries of our votes.  Both sides appeal to change thus perpetuating the system.  It’s a Sudoku puzzle with only two squares and you can only put a one or two in each of the boxes and no number can be used twice; the solution is logical but not too hard to figure out why so many find it uninteresting.

This year, thanks to the Supreme Court’s opening the floodgates of corporate spending on political advertisements, more “independent” corporations are paying for political ads to flood the airwaves thus effectively jamming any ability for reasoned discourse on important issues.   Consider NPR’s recent piece, ‘Independent’ Groups Behind Ads Not So Independent  which aired this morning.  Countless groups who are investing fortunes in political advertizing under the deceptive guise of being grassroots, local, non-partisan and independent are in fact Washington lobby groups, often funded by the few ideologues who want their particular views broadcast to America.  It is not government of, by and for the people, but rather government for, by and of the few who have the means to pay or the financial backers willing to pay for them.

These groups are all Washington insiders who don’t just play the game of Washington insider politics, they’ve manufactured it and sold it to the public at great profit to themselves and their causes as they get politicians to pay attention to their money and power.

As long as we pay attention to these ads, we pay the price for the American system of campaign funding: money talks and more money talks more often and more loudly.

A real anti-Washington electorate is one not listening to well financed Washington based lobby groups.  The only thing we should pay attention to is what issues and candidates these groups endorse and support because we will then know who the real Washington insiders and powers are.  Follow the money;  the power behind the political parties and the candidates will be revealed. If the NPR story is correct, it will be the real Washington insiders who are paying to keep the system just the way it is because they know how to win the political game they invented and sold to the public.

This is not to say that all those running for office are simply paid for by corporate sponsors and lobby groups.  No doubt candidates believe in some of the causes they champion, and some find themselves stuck in a campaign financing system that encourages these abuses.  Some probably have concluded they have to play the game as the only way to accomplish their goals.  For me, the real anti-Washington fervor should be directed at the ways people with money and ideologues can manipulate the system and the politicians.

Angry voters should demand the system be reformed, so that we quit having to pay the price of well funded lobby and special interest groups making us pay for the system they have manufactured and continue to perpetuate.  A real fight is to take away government of, by and for the corporations and lobby groups, and to return it to the people.  Will this be easy to accomplish?  No, because there is an awful lot invested in the current way of doing things.

Considering DC and Democracy

While in Washington, DC, visiting my son, we did take a tour of the Capitol Building led by an intern from my Ohio congressman, Mike Turner’s office.   As part of that tour, we watched a 13 minute documentary about congress and its role in the American government system.  It seemed to me that emphasized in the documentary is the fact that the house and senate are that part of the American government (of, by and for the people) most closely attuned to the American democratic political tradition.  They most closely represent the diversity of opinions throughout America.  They are that part of government in which debate on and discussion of issues is done within their assemblies and is part of what they are supposed to do.  It is the designed process by which government of, by and for the people comes to its decisions.      (My photos of DC are at

Historically, its roots are in those original debates which the leaders of the thirteen colonies engaged as they struggled with their relationship to the crown in England.  And anyone who has read American history knows those debates were rancorous and passionate.

In a democracy, such rancorous debate is the very means by which decisions are expressed, considered, dissected and decided upon.  (And I will admit by nature I am not always personally comfortable with such passionate and adversarial disagreement.  I hope for and prefer more agreement and greater harmony and tranquility).

John Adams

Certainly even in the days of the second president of the United States, John Adams, there already existed partisan debate and political trickery and dirty works.  Pseudonymous postings in papers that came into existence solely to promote a partisan point of view were common by 1800.  Vice-President Thomas Jefferson worked to politically undermine his President, John Adams.  Though they were powerful co-conspirators in the American Revolution, they became bitter political enemies in the partisan debates in the beginning of the Republic. 

James Madison too engaged in similar underhanded behavior against a government headed by his one time revolutionary compatriots.  He too was not afraid to engage in underhanded dealings to subvert those he disagreed with – not just their ideas, but those he considered political rivals.

It does seem to me, however, that in our current political polarizing partisanship, that some push for ending serious debate.  Some want one party rule.  Some want rivals and opposition silenced. 

Yet the political health of a democracy, like the strength of a species for surviving in a hostile environment, lies in its diversity and variations.  For democracy if anything is based in the consideration of and conflict between ideas; this is also its strength.   Ideas are improved on the anvil of debate, or, to change metaphors, in that heated cauldron which produces stronger alloys and new combinations of polymers with vital adaptability to the changing needs of people. 

Vote.  Pay attention to the issues at hand.  Learn about the debate, not just about what agrees with your opinions.  For a one party system is the basis of every dictatorship and all despotic rule.

Splitting hairs or Splitting Reality?

I would encourage any American who sees themselves in the independent middle between the two major U.S. political parties to read Farhad Manjoo’s TRUE ENOUGH: LEARNING TO LIVE IN A POST-FACT SOCIETY.  I had mentioned the book in a blog a few weeks ago:  True-ish, Truthiness, and True Enough

“In this book I’ve explored how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth.  I argue that new information tools haven’t merely given us faster and easier access to the news, but that they’ve altered our very grasp on reality.  The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what’s actually happening in the world – that is, it lets each of us hold on to different versions of reality.”  (p224)

Manjoo gives examples from recent political events to show that “reality is splitting” for liberals and conservatives in America.  He examines some common political beliefs of the left and right, offers what evidence he could find from his research about “the truth” of the situation and then comments on how both the left and the right choose to believe what they want to believe and whom they want to believe no matter what the evidence might show.  His claim is that the modern media exacerbates the problem as partisan commentators repeat partial or distorted truths, or harp on one truth while ignoring everything else that is known about a situation.  And in the modern information age where everyone quickly becomes overwhelmed by the amount of information and the number of voices, people more readily turn to listen to those that are espousing views they already agree with.  People aren’t searching for the truth, they are looking for evidence that confirms what they already believe.   Thus on the right many choose to believe that John Kerry was not a war hero, on the left they believe that Bush stole the election from Gore, and a sizeable group of American conspiracy theorists still believe that the American Government or military staged the 9/11 attacks using missiles in order to justify going to war with Iraq.   In each case, when evidence is used to pick apart the beliefs held, “believers” hold to what they believe and don’t trust the evidence offered even when they can’t refute the evidence.   This is the sense in which “reality splits” and people see what they want even while looking at the same evidence.  Manjoo offers some psychological and sociological reasons from research studies  as to how the human mind works  regarding what we choose to believe and why; the bottom line is we really do pay more attention and give more credence to those things which reaffirm our already held beliefs. 

“Selective exposure, selective perception, the cult of fake experts, and the end of objectivity in the news: these are merely pistons in what has become, today, a powerful engine of propaganda, one that drives all the recent examples of our society’s unfettered departure from ‘the reality-based world.’”   (p 227)

Among the sociological findings regarding our selective listening:

  1. “We’d rather listen to the other side’s flimsy attacks on our side than our side’s flimsy attacks on theirs.”  (p 43)   This has an interesting effect in campaigns: our voting decisions seem wiser when the opposition presents weak arguments for its side.    Saturation type advertising can be counterproductive if it isn’t presenting compelling reasons for independent voters to change their minds, but might work to keep the party faithful, loyal.   However, Manjoo points out that liberals and conservatives react differently to campaign advertising according to studies.  Republicans  prefer to hear even flimsy messages that support their ideas  rather than listen to the weak arguments of Democrats, while the Democrats find the flimsy arguments of Republicans to be convincing evidence to vote Democratic. 
  2. “Republicans and conservatives are more ideological in their political posture…” (p 46).    Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with.  I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for)  new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas.  (see my blog What Biology Says About Your Politics)
  3. Studies show news anchors and “experts” can sway public opinion 3-4 percentage points on an issue.   Thus the battle to make networks more conservative or liberal can have an effect on elections.    But also, “…’reality’ splits when people selectively expose themselves to different facts, or when they interpret the same evidence in divergent ways.” (p 107)  So choosing to watch only one “biased” network will cause one to have a totally different view of reality than those who watch other networks.
  4. Studies show “each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective…  then we think that reasonable people ought to agree with us.  And to the extent that people disagree with us, we conclude that they are not reasonable – they’re biased.”  (p 152)
  5. Studies in education show  “That American society prizes style over substance…” (p 116).   I consider this to be one of the most negative factors in American politics.  We continue to confuse entertainment with substance and so will continue to be attracted to entertaining/stylish/attractive candidates over people with substantive ideas who aren’t as good looking.   (Yesterday’s news: Connecticut GOP chooses former World Wrestling Entertainer Linda McMahon as their senate candidate). 
  6. Studies show that “Society works better  when people trust one another.” (p 222)  Unfortunately now we have “particularized trust” – we trust only those who agree with our point of view and so we are willing to blind ourselves to the negative aspects of the political views we hold.

Manjoo’s descriptive tour of America notes the effects of video news releases (manufactured “pseudo-news”; stories told from a point of view – even sales pitches – but presented as “news”; PR firm created videos intended to influence/deceive but offered as objective information).    Not only has it become easier to create news stories and releases, but the effect of millions of blogs/tweets/txt messages/etc means messages even false or pernicious ones spread the word at the speed of light.   This only furthers peoples’ distrust of information that they don’t like or don’t agree with which further enables people to hold to different realities.   In the end Manjoo sees the current effects of the information/communication age continuing for years to come.

Stuck in the Middle of American Politics (C)

This is the third and final blog in this series.  As an observer of American politics more than as an activist,  my comments are what I think about what I see.  The first blog was Stuck in the Middle of American Politics (A), followed by Stuck in the Middle of American Politics (B).     I found the  Pew Research Report  Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor) to be particularly interesting about current trends in American political feelings.

Do those who oppose big government do so because they have principled political views, or does in the end the smaller government in fact benefit them in the same way large government benefits others?   Smaller government for example might benefit a certain class of people at the expense of other classes.   So then, does the issue come down to realizing that big government benefits others, but not me personally, while smaller government benefits me personally even though it may be detrimental to others?   Is the issue then not political principle or an opposition to “socialism” but more a matter of what is to my personal benefit?  Self- interest, selfishness and even greed are thus coated in political principle.  The issue is not patriotism – what would benefit the citizens of our country as a whole, and what am I willing to sacrifice for the good of my country and fellow Americans – but what benefits me.    That would be American individualism at the extreme – each person cares only for what they are going to get out of the system, or take away from the system without having to pay  for it.  Thus people milk the system to reap the greatest benefits for themselves – whether the government is big or not is secondary to the issue of the individual working the system to their own personal benefit.

Another question:   What happens if an anti-establishment party comes to power and becomes the establishment?  Do they really think they will be less hated than other political parties who are in power?  Those in power are always to be blamed for the unhappiness of all others. 

My thoughts for a better America via politics:

1)    Demand from candidates:  tell us what you are for, not what you say your rivals are for.  We should shout them off every platform when they engage in negative politicking no matter how entertaining we find that practice.   Force them to keep to their message rather than characterizing their opponent’s message.  Unfortunately, we voters are so influenced by negative campaigning that it becomes virtually the only type of campaigning still done.  We voters have to change our consumer habits when it comes to elections.  The negativity – the anti-Washington attitude – is polluted and made toxic by the endless negative advertising which is done during campaigns (and which the Supreme Court recently will have increased by throwing out campaign financing reform).    

2)    Because of our media habits,  we fuse together politicians with superstars and entertainers.   What is lost is having people of wisdom rise to govern – we do not have a system which is producing statesmen and stateswomen, but only which produces media superstars.  Watch  how media superstars enter politics and influence it via radio and television, and even how politicians move into media positions in order to enhance their political futures.  It is the modern media form of hucksterism.  No more are our leaders “statesmen” now they are entertainers, and our appetite for political entertainment is insatiable.  Then we wonder why we and the world do not respect our own leaders – they are entertainers, actors and superstars not world leaders.   The media promotes those who “look good” no matter how shallow they may be.   Reject politicians who become media personalities and media personalities who become politicians.

3)    Stop listening to any media political commentators – they are paid professional entertainers and we should never forget that.  They make their big bucks by being entertaining which often coincides with being controversial and living on the edge of issues and at the extremes rather than with keeping us focused on what is central and important.  

4)    Quit listening to sound bites and to campaign advertising which distort issues rather than contribute to our understanding of policies or politicians.   They all create a lot of heat but little light.    The media wants and needs controversy to attract its audience – and when nothing controversial is happening, the media creates the news, focusing on small, insignificant and unimportant  sideshows and by so doing making them the concern of the nation.  If we demand substance from the media and the candidates rather than substance abuse, we might find politicians responding to meet the demand.

I am utterly amazed at how many seemingly educated voters run to hear the TV superstar/entertainer/commentator at every turn so they know how to feel about an issue or a comment by a politician (especially the “opposing” party’s politicians).  Are we all really so dense that we need a TV personality to predigest the comments of politicians and then spoon feed us so that we can know how to “feel” (I won’t use the word “think”) on an issue?  The media relies on controversy to keep us coming back – it is just another form of entertainment and we are addicted to being entertained which is one reason politics and politicians sink to new lows.    We need sane and in-depth discussion of issues, which often is not entertaining.

The Point of a Two Party Political System

mccain_obama_apConservative Political columnist Cal Thomas recently responded to Meghan McCain and Steve Schmidt’s explanation about 2008 GOP election losses. Thomas in his Op-Ed piece “Lost in Political Space” characterized their solution for the GOP as saying Republicans should become “more like Democrats.” Thomas’ indignant response: “What’s the point of having a two-party system if one party mimics the other?”

Thomas makes a good point – if the two major political parties are identical in what they offer, how can we say there is real political choice in America? Democracy does invite different and even opposing groups to put forth their ideas for consideration by the voting public. The frustratingly difficult task for believers in any one party or political philosophy is to convince the independents and undecideds and the wavering fringe to vote for their ideals and candidates. What seems so obvious to the politically committed often leads the party faithful to disdain those who to their dismay are not convinced by their party’s platform and arguments. This only further alienates the “unconverted” who feel the disdain and dismay. If the uncommitted are not simply indifferent to the topic, they are looking to the political parties to give them good reason to vote their way. But often what they are shown is disdain for not “being enlightened” or they are told to be afraid if the “other” candidate(s) are elected; neither venue will convince people to join that political party.   A political party that is only “anti-” is not offering an ideal to be embraced.

The situation of needing to convince others about political beliefs is what exists for adherents of any religious tradition living in the U.S.’s secularized multicultural society with its freedom of religion, emphasis on individualism, separation of church and state, and freedom of conscience. It is difficult to get others to even notice your religion/beliefs let alone be converted to them.

What bothers me in American politics is how often I hear the politically committed express hatred and vitriol toward the opposing political parties and philosophies. This seems to me to be particularly self-destructive for any political party exactly for the reason Thomas stated: “What’s the point of having a two-party system if one party mimics the other?”

voteThere are real political choices to be made. And in a democracy the ideas offered are put up to a popular vote. This never guarantees that the best ideas or candidates will win. That is part of the risk of having a democracy. Sometimes it sounds to me like some politically committed adherents don’t really want a democracy. They really do want a one party system. Of course they want their party to be the only choice. That of course is not democracy. Communist China and Nazi Germany both favored a one party system.

Democracy always poses some risk – certain ideas and candidates who are totally unacceptable to some can win the popular vote. The solution in a democracy is to win the next election – which in America at least occur at predictable intervals. The solution is not to destroy the two party or multiparty system and replace it with a one party system and no choice. American democracy is a good thing, even if we find convincing a majority to vote our way to be totally frustrating.

A few years ago the Republican Party appeared virtually invincible – American opinion had gone their way and it was almost inconceivable that the Democrats could win because they didn’t seem to have any winning candidates or ideas. But come 2008 and behold the Democrats are swept into office and the GOP is alleged to be on the ropes (but I think reports of their demise to be highly exaggerated).

America however is a democracy and the sea of public opinion comes and goes like the tide. There is no reason for the GOP to become identical to the Democrats. People will not stay enamored with the policies of the Democrats forever. The Republicans probably would do well to offer a real social, economic and political critique of what the Democrats are currently pushing. Offer explicit proposals for what the GOP would do if they were in the majority – not just vague negative criticisms of what the Democrats are doing but what exactly would the GOP be doing differently if they were in power. Then the GOP should offer concrete predictions about what exactly they think the end result of the current Democratic policies will be, and how the U.S. would be different (and better) if the GOP policies/proposals were followed. If the GOP is correct, in a couple of years it should be obvious what was wrong with what Obama and the Democrats proposed and did. If on the other hand the Democrats succeed, then the GOP will need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better alternative for America. This would seem to me to be a better direction for the GOP then simply deriding anything that the Democrats do. Convince voters that your vision of reality is in fact correct – you will then at the next election be able to show you predicted in advance what happened and will be able to say why your vision is better for the future and why you should be leading the country. The GOP loses in 2008 were not because the Republicans were not like the Democrats, but because the populace didn’t approve of where and to vote1what the GOP under Bush-Cheney had led the country. That was not an unconditional or uncompromising endorsement of the Democratic Party (let the DNC take note), but it was a rejection of what the Bush-Cheney GOP had wrought. The GOP has to convince the populace that its ideas and vision are not coterminous with Bush-Cheney’s America . It doesn’t mean becoming more like Democrats but it does mean distancing themselves from what was in order to show that there is a viable GOP alternative.

The Downside of a Negative Campaign

  In a previous blog, The CamPAIN, I commented on the presidential campaigns spinning out of control – and with all of the spin doctors (both the campaign spokes people and the media talk show hosts), the imagery of campaigns spinning out of control is a most appropriate one.

One event which caught my attention was McCain’s own supporters booing him when he tried to defend speaking respectfully about Obama.  The negative irony of the very people claiming McCain is the candidate they would follow, booing him when he tries to the lead them should not be lost on anyone. 

Booing their own candidate is a natural result of a negative campaign, for the negative campaign is not so much about getting passionate for your candidate as it is about  getting passionate against the other candidate.  The passion of a negative campaign is hatred for the other.     What happens in negative campaigns is that people are not so much for “their” candidate as they are riled up against the other candidate.  It becomes a hate vote.   You are not for someone, you are passionately against someone else.

I think that is what you see in the reaction of the crowd to McCain’s calling for them to be respectful.   McCain’s party base is not passionate about him, but they can be riled up against Obama.  And so the campaign aims for what it believes is the best appeal they have this election – keep the other guy out of office even if you aren’t for our candidate.  On the other side, many Obama supporters seem genuinely to be for him, not just against McCain.  Obama has excited his supporters in a way that McCain has not been able to excite his own base.  This says nothing about who would be the better president but might give some indication about which man might enjoy more positive support once elected.

Appealing to hate, which is what negative campaigns do (though they would deny that is what they are doing), has many risks.  Among them is that after the election the electorate is polarized into adversarial and antagonistic antipathies with no hope of the bipartisan cooperation politicians so like to praise.  So when after a divisive election the country needs to be brought together again, the hatred fed during the campaign takes a life of its own.  Hatred is a powerful emotion which has become stirred up during the campaign.    As the FBI webpage on hate crimes notes, “Hate itself is not a crime-and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”  Campaigns push freedom of speech to the limits, and respect, reason and responsibility right out of door.

For my fellow Orthodox, I continue to advocate tuning out all of the negativity which I personally do not think is in any way helpful to our country or to our spiritual lives.  Negative campaigns are an effort to manipulate your feelings – to create heat not light.

As I mentioned in the sermon this past Sunday, remember the words of the prayer before the reading of the Gospel:

Illumine our hearts, O Master who loves mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your Gospel teachings; implant in us also the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing to You: for You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

We are to fear God and to fear displeasing Him.  We do not need to let the fear of a presidential candidate overwhelm our reason or our hearts.  We are to both do and think such things as are well pleasing to God.  Many of the passions stirred up in a contested election are not pleasing to God, and do not bring us to think and do things which are godly.  Let us not give leave to our senses because of the claims of a presidential campaign.   God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  No candidate can change that truth.