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Poisoned discourse

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Opinions

Alright, stand back everybody.  I’m going to try something unprecedented with this week’s column, something new that I’ve never done before.  So watch out, ’cause anything can happen.  Today, I’m going to break a long-standing principle of mine, and actually write… about… POLITICS!!!


Well, not really.  As my legions of devoted readers (Hi Mom!) should know, I never discuss national politics in The Hoot, and I don’t plan to start now.  The problem is that, with all due respect to my fellow columnists, I just don’t believe an audience for political commentary exists on campus.  It’s perfectly easy to grab a national newspaper or click on a web site; why should anyone care what I, some college student, care about the latest from Washington when there are so many better informed, more direct sources to get it from?

In addition, I’m wary of falling into the Brandeis echo chamber.  This campus has a distinct leftward slant (what, you haven’t noticed?), and I feel that even if there’s someone willing to take the time to read my column, the best I could hope for is to preach to the choir.  There’s no one to persuade and no new insights that I can contribute.  So instead I shoot for the the specialized audiences and the narrow interest stories, basically just writing about things I find interesting and relevant that no one else is writing about.

Make no mistake, I do have strong political views, and I do care about the legislative process.  I try to keep well-informed and politically involved, and I think that everyone should if we want our democracy to function.  And I’m outspoken about the fact that my views are unashamedly left-wing, probably even by the standards of this campus.  I’ll happily embrace the labels liberal, progressive, socialist, Obama-voting … you get the idea.

I don’t talk politics as much as I used to though.  This isn’t by design; it’s just the way my life has gone.  Maybe it’s post-election letdown, maybe I’ve said all there is to say, maybe everyone here just agrees with me too damn much–I don’t know.  I still read political sites and stay up-to-date on the latest news, but I do it in relative silence.

The entire mainstream political discourse has just grown too shallow for my taste.  Once you reach a certain saturation of political, economic and sociological knowledge, you begin to realize how empty you find everything that politicians say.  I’m not trying to claim any special depth or understanding for myself; I just think that this barrier is very low.  The rhetoric is all tailor-made to appeal to the masses, and arguments which require nuance seem to be dead on arrival.  I’ve reached the point where I assume that politicians on both sides of the aisle must be either willfully ignorant or deliberately deceptive, because there’s no other way they would be able to repeat such blatant fabrications and over-simplifications.

I wish that there could be a mainstream debate on political philosophy in this country, one that consists of more than leaders reaffirming their principles to their followers.  Sure, you can find plenty of essays on what it means to be “conservative” or “progressive,” but there’s no attempt to engage the other side in philosophical dialogue and to re-contextualize political debates as outgrowths of deeper differences in values.  We can argue for or against health care reform all day and end up right where we started.  However, discussing the value of promoting self-sufficiency in general or of the morality of a free market holds the potential for progress, as long as the debate can be disengaged from the political paradigms we’ve built around it.  At the very least, it will cause those who’ve never been approached on that level to view and reconsider their political beliefs in light of deeper moral questions.

Even the politically seasoned would benefit from this level of intellectual probing.  You can find  educated, respected economists who will argue for either side of a welfare state issue, for instance, and each will have persuasive data and analysis to defend the superiority of his position.  While an objective truth exists, the factors involved are so complex and humans are so good at ignoring contradictory evidence that I’m not sure we’re capable of finding it.  But if the question shifts from “What is objectively right?” to “What is morally right?”, then the very foundations of political issues are approached.  This is how large-scale political changes can actually occur.

One of my few long-term political goals is to establish this kind of political dialogue with someone.  I like the idea of being intellectually challenged by someone with a differing political philosophy.  I picture a series of probing essays, an unfettered but respectful point and counterpoint, and I think at the end (would there be an end?) I will have learned a lot about myself.  I want to be forced to defend my most deeply held beliefs; I want to establish a more complete, nuanced worldview.

Or maybe this is all just intellectual masturbation, and we’d eventually reach the same dead ends that people always reach.  Maybe at some point our intellectual capacities will be exhausted, and the dialogue will descend into the same old “I’m right, you’re wrong” talking points that has become synonymous with modern political debate.  Maybe the national discourse has simply become too poisoned for the two (or more) sides to meet with sufficiently open minds.  I’d like to close on a note of optimism, but I really don’t know if our intellectual limitations are just too great.