February 13, 2009

How we think and speak about politics

Anglican alerted me to Roger Ebert's blog, and specifically to this post about, well, a lot of things, including film, politics, and how we understand our culture. (This one includes spoilers about the film, "The Reader" btw. I haven't seen it, but just thought I would add to his warning.) But at the beginning, Ebert connects some disparate issues about how we learn about politics and religion, and how we talk about them. Two points that caught my attention. The first, about the "Rush Limbaugh effect:"
"These people, usually friends of mine, are gentle, sweet and very nice, except when they drift into a certain tone I interpret as 'listening to Rush Limbaugh too much.' Then their voices take on undercurrents of anger, resentment and frustration. It is the dittohead voice, and they've learned it off the radio. If you listen to Rush, you quickly realize that it isn't what he says but how he says it. He has an unending capacity for counterfeit astonishment. It has been very effective in long-distance behavioral modification.
This counterfeit astonishment is also effective at forcing a zero sum game in politics. It isn't just the right who practices this, of course, though they seem to have it perfected the tactic. And we see it now, from some, though certainly not all, of those Republicans opposing the stimulus.

The second point is about how we know what we know:
That wise man Mark Twain told us: 'In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.'"
As Ebert notes, that is true for him in some areas, and also for most of us (in some capacity). What bothers me to a great extent is the numbers of people in office who seem to have very little understanding or thought about their approach to government. That applies to the left as well, but I have to say that glaring contrast between conservatives who defended every tax cut, and every dollar spent in Iraq (without oversight, I might add) but who now claim fiscal responsibility as their governing principle--well that contrast is just too much to take right now.

The other part of Twain's quote is most annoying to me right now, and something I have written about before. I don't have a problem with people having half-assed opinions about stuff. We all do that. We all opine on how the government should work, or how the referee missed that call, or how the recent warm spell in February relates to climate change. None of that may be true, or factual, or knowledge based in any way, but we do that. What seems different to me, is that assertion of that same quality of knowledge as justification to govern, or as an assumption of proven fact.

This is partly due to dealing with people who have no understanding of science telling me that evolution is false, or those with no understanding of history telling me about God's unique relationship with our American founders. But it is partly related to LB's thoughtful comment in the last thread. I simply do not believe that most conservatives have really thought through their supply-side (not conservative=supply-side) economics through. Their adherence to the deregulation, lower taxes, smaller government mantra is repeated as a faith -based assumption, with no or little recognition of the historical reality. I am not saying there are not some arguments to be made on this economic philosophy--but I am saying that most people who repeat the "less government/lower taxes" mantra have not though through the salmonella in their peanut butter or their economic system failing through mismanagement.



leighton said...

The tone of voice observation is a good one. My aunt was apolitical until she started watching Fox News years ago, and now she can't talk about current events without a combination of outrage and a TV anchor's carefully measured cadence. I suspect this is part of why sites like Media Matters haven't had much of an influence outside the lefty blogosphere, since their commentary is restricted to text and thus forced to ignore the tone-of-voice component of the "news" they cover.

ANewAnglican@gmail.com said...

Thought you would enjoy that. Ebert's blog is a regular in my reading rotation.

steves said...

Thoughtful piece. I usually only think of Ebert as a movie critic. I tend to agree that Limbaugh certainly doesn't encourage any kind of meaningful dialog and has made his living being outraged. I will admit that I found him entertaining and interesting back in the early 90's, but either he has changed or I have changed. I can no loger stand to listen to him.

I do see this zero sum game from the left, too. In discussing political issues with some of my friends on the left, there are a few that are unable to see any conservative positions as being valid, rather just that they are stupid, dangerous or evil. There is little room there for any discussion unless you agree with them. I don't think this is true of much of the left and certainly isn't true on this blog. I also can't identify any lefty "Limbaugh" that is feeding into these people.

As for economics, I will admit that I don't understand economics as well as I should, but I don't think most people do. I have heard some Obama defenders say they don't know either, but they just trust Obama. Frankly, that seems like a dnagerous position to take. I like Obama, but I don't think we should ever just accept government actions based on faith that they will always act in our best interests. I prefer some kind of oversight and informed decision making.

Monk-in-Training said...

Hey Steve,

While I do trust Pres. Obama more than I ever did Pres. Bush, I STRONGLY agree with what Pres. Reagan said : "Trust but verify"

Watch them all, that is the eternal price of liberty. :)

Bootleg Blogger said...

"I also can't identify any lefty "Limbaugh" that is feeding into these people." A few years back when I was at a desk more I started listening to the Air America feed when it was getting going. There was a commentator on there who sounded just like a female, left Limbaugh. Obviously she didn't have the influence that Rush has had (or I'd be able to remember her name:)). But I remember changing the station at the time thinking I liked some of what she said but couldn't take the her tone. I didn't have a name for what I didn't like at the time, but constant outrage, anger, demeaning labels for those we disagree with, and "counterfeit astonishment" fit the feeling I had. Granted, I agreed with her general sentiment but not the tactics.

The "Rush Limbaugh Effect" captures so much of my interactions with conservatives, even my current boss. Normally very reasonable, fair, and fun. However, if a topic comes up like prayer in school, for example, the rational discussion is over and the hyperbole and outrage kick in. He's a dittohead, btw.


Streak said...

BB, I had the same response to Air America. I agreed with them more, but didn't think our tone would be improved with more shouting. Olbermann came pretty close to crossing the line there too, and I often couldn't listen to his special comments.