Political talk--specifically the political talk associated with what I call "crisis media" ("The sky is falling! You must vote for or against this policy, person, law, etc. immediately!")--has six traits:
1. It employs "us" versus "them" terminology.
2. It employs "us" versus "them" terminology at a remove.
Consequently, THEY are always intolerant while WE are not. This trait explains why the liberals in my master's program could say, with no irony, "I'm so glad we are more tolerant than those people." "Us" versus "them" at a remove is the same reason why a discussion about humility so often devolves into a discussion of how other (hypocritical) people should be more humble--certainly not me!
3. It employs labels (and the labels are pointless).
Saying, "Those people are power-hungry" or "those people are greedy" is meaningless. Nobody alive is actually greedy; rather, people behave in greedy ways for a variety of reasons.
Take Charles Dickens: one literary theory is that Dickens wrote the character Scrooge to mirror himself. Dickens was obsessed with money and ultimately worked himself to death. Saying, "He was greedy" is far less revealing than realizing that Dickens was haunted his entire life by the memory of his father in debtor's prison.
Likewise, in the great movie A Woman's World, the Fred MacMurray character is working himself to death (ulcers, heart palpitations) much to the dismay of his wife, excellently played by Lauren Bacall; unlike the other candidates for CEO, he made his way to the top from the factory floor, not through a college degree. He is driven to never looked back, never give up, never stop.
Both far, far, far more interesting explanations than any amount of labeling.
4. Politicized talk is myopic.
The tunnel-vision of politicized talk has nothing to do with how much a person reads on the web or, for that matter, how many pundits the person listens to since the how of the talk is about personal investment, not balance: THIS LAW, THIS PARTY, THIS EVENT MATTERS NOW. IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING!
Climbing on bandwagons is usually the result of this type of thinking. Writing about the Supreme Court's decision in 1989 on burning American flags, P.J. O'Rourke remarks in All the Trouble in the World, "I don't remember what my opinion was at the time but I remember that I had a strong one."
Time changes so much!
5. Unfortunately, those who indulge in politicized talk often also indulge in the "Chicken Little" syndrome.
The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
What is bizarre about this to me is how seldom anyone remembers their own history. I was told that the sky was falling when I was growing up in the 80's at the end of the Cold War. The Day After came out on television in 1983 and Red Dawn (remember: Russians invade Colorado) came out in theaters in 1984; nuclear power was being protested all over the place, and many of my friends believed (or claimed to believe) that the Soviet Union could blow us up at any minute ("I'm going to sleep with my boyfriend before we all die!").
Bunkers and food storage were also big.
|Of course, at the end of Henny Penny (variation on|
|Chicken Little), the wolf eats the folks on|
|Henny Penny's bandwagon, so the end did come.|
|Hmmm, self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?|
Turns out, the Soviets' nuclear weapons were in such bad shape that they would have blown themselves up first.
That's just my own history. A few years ago, one of my students asked me, "Do you think North Korea [which was making belligerent noises] is going to start a war?"
"No," I said and mentioned the Cold War. I then mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis and Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the U.N. I wasn't alive during the latter two; still, I read history, and--
"All this sound and fury has happened before," I said.
The student was disappointed and assured me that WWIII was going to occur at any moment (I still went home and corrected papers that night; a cataclysmic event has yet to save me from having to take a test, attend an interview, go to work, or finish my grades.)
The student's disappointment leads to #6.
6. Politicized talk demands that others get upset and offended.
Note: Acting upset is more important in politicized talk than doing anything. After all, one can do something without acting upset. But politicized talk always demands an audience.
Along the same lines, if I'd wanted to join the "thoughtful teenagers who show awareness of contemporary issues!" brigand, getting worked up about an impending nuclear war would have been the way to go. But teenagers, even supposedly aware ones, aren't that thoughtful, having a tendency to reduce complex issues and motivations to "if only somebody would simply do X!" scenarios (arguably necessary in some cases; Joan of Arc never would have gotten anywhere if she hadn't been a teen!). Some adults never grow out of this tendency.
In the end, borrowing the book (hey, I wanted to find out if Caroline chose that guy or not), finding out the answer, discussing it with my friends, then tracking down the book years later through Amazon to indulge in some misty-eyed nostalgia proved more satisfying and useful to the universe than a thousand hours of hand-wringing about an "crisis" that never took place.