Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tired of Politics

I’m tired of talking and thinking about politics. And we’re still eight months away from the election. It’s going to be a long year.

Our public political discourse is poisonous right now. Rick Santorum says Barack Obama has “systematically, in every single way, tried to destroy the very foundational elements of our country.” Yikes! Meanwhile, the left’s response to Santorum is to try to associate his name with an obscenity. Sorry, no matter how appalling you think Santorum is, that’s not exactly holding the high moral ground.

There’s always been overheated rhetoric in politics, and we’ve survived other periods of great polarization in my lifetime (remember the ’60’s?). So I’m not panicking. But these are disheartening times for people who believe in moderation and compromise. War and financial crisis have strained everyone’s nerves, and stridency is the new eloquence. There’s lots of blame to go around; if you think Rush Limbaugh and Fox News started it, you’ve forgotten how the Democrats ambushed Robert Bork in 1989. (See Joe Nocera’s op ed in the New York Times.)

I’m tired of all the hysteria. There’s talk of a third-party centrist candidate, but the candidates aren’t the real problem. The real problem is the erosion of standards of argument and discourse.

When I was in high school I had to take a course called Civics. It covered the basics of how our government is organized, how laws are made and so forth, but there was also a unit on valid and invalid arguments. We learned about things like the ad hominem argument and the appeal to authority and why they are fallacious. I don’t know that it made me and my classmates paragons of rational argument, but I think it at least made those of us who were awake a little better able to detect various types of nonsense. Most importantly, it instilled the principle that argument ought to be based on reason.

I guess nobody’s studying Civics any more. I see all of the fallacies I was warned about in high school whenever I make the mistake of tuning into a political debate. And I mean on both sides, at all levels, from the corner tavern to the cable network shows. And it’s a non-partisan debacle: liberals commit these sins against reason as much as conservatives do.

Political opinions are, at heart, hypotheses about how the world works. And in theory there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to argue about those hypotheses dispassionately. But people don’t take the time to think through to the underlying hypotheses; they just assume that bad faith is the only reason anyone could disagree with them. If there are rational arguments behind the other guy’s position, they don’t want to hear them.

It all goes to produce the cacophony that passes for political debate in the United States in 2012. I don’t know what to do about it except refuse to be drawn in. Do me a favor and don’t forward me that incendiary blog post accusing the Republicans of wanting to return women to chattel status or the one accusing Democrats of wanting to install socialism in the U.S. And if you missed Civics in high school, take a half hour and bone up on your fallacies—there are lots of resources. Just Google ‘logical fallacies’ and start reading.

And wake me up the day after the election. I don’t have the heart for this.

Sam Reaves