Monday, July 23, 2012

The politics of manipulation

I first took an active interest in American politics in 2002. Before then I really didn't care or pay attention, but the actions of the Bush administration seemed so over the line that I felt that I had to get involved. And by 'involved' I really mean voting and listening to NPR. Since then I have followed the news of many election campaigns with varying degrees of interest.

I hate politics. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to separate myself from them, to disengage entirely. It's frustrating to watch the pundits and pollsters and politicians parade all over television and radio with redundant talking points and inflammatory rhetoric. It's all an act, entertainment for us. As I said above, I don't have much experience with any political phase beyond this current one, so there isn't much historical context here, but I can't imagine that it was always like this. There are some progressive politicians that I admire and some truly regressive ones that I can't believe exist, but if you strip away the party line issues, I would say that most of them are practically identical.

But it isn't simply entertainment. There is a truly damaging social aspect to this as well. The political media has managed to get the population squared off against each other. Political issues are seemingly designed to infuriate one side or the other. Instead of making policy on actual, substantive issues, they make policy on wedge issues. And then we all hate each other. 

The recent shootings in Aurora, Colorado (about which I will say more on a later post) are a great example of this. Politicians and the media have both tried to find ways to spin the actions of a single individual into their narrative. And we always believe it. I'll admit that it is very seductive. 'Of course the shooter was involved in the Tea Party/Occupy movement.' But that is obviously terrifically damaging. It doesn't matter where the shooter was politically aligned. He clearly does not fit the mold of any major organization, so whatever his past affiliations were, they are irrelevant. Nevertheless, we are all so eager to find further ways to justify our own worldview that we rally to every call to arms we hear.

This is why I want desperately to abandon politics and focus on entertainment and philosophy and cooking. I stop listening to NPR, stop listening to political podcasts and following blogs (I don't watch news on TV, otherwise I'd give that up as well). I have a beer, play some video games and build a little paper toy. 

But then I get pulled back in. I am reminded that, although they may well be designed to divide Americans, they are also incredibly important. How can I sleep comfortably when Republicans ignore global warming and enact austerity measures for the poor and middle class while the rich get richer? How can I ignore the mountains of cash poured into campaigns by corporations who clearly have an expectation of some reciprocity once their candidate wins? How can I ignore these things and, more importantly, how are these villains getting elected in the first place? How are these races even close? It's because the other half of America is essentially selfish and horrible. Their worldview is so radically different from my own, I can't even imagine having a conversation with them. 

And just like that, I've jumped back in with my pitchfork. 

Somewhere, someone is laughing at all of us.

1 comment:

. josé . said...

Nathaniel,

I agree completely with your perspective here. Over the years, I've cycled between spending way too much of my free time following politics (on CNN in the late 80s & 90s, in RSS feeds a few years ago) and avoiding the news altogether to avoid accidentally thinking about politics. Currently I'm back in the latter part of the cycle, which I hope to manintain indefinitely. I've even infuriated some of my friends in CA by suggesting I may not vote any more.

The bottom line is that the cycles of political propaganda have been getting more and more extreme and disconnected from reality (in the case of the R's) or more and more bland and disconnected from what can actually be achieved (in the case of the D's). In the meantime, people get caught up in demonizing the other tribe and both sides delegitimize the role of government.

One of my favorite bloggers these days is John Michael Greer, whose column often provides very sharp and incisive critiques of what's going on in modern society. A few months ago, he went through an extended discussion of theurgy and thaumaturgy , which are inward-directed and outward-directed techniques for managing and manipulating thoughts and emotions.

(Confusingly, he calls these "magic", which he defines differently from everyone else. In his definition, magic cannot affect physical reality, except by convincing someone - even yourself - to do something physical. Thus you can't use his "magic" to go through a solid wall, but you can use theurgy to get yourself to open a door, or thaumaturgy to convince someone else to open it for you.)

In any event, in this column (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com.br/2011/10/plutos-republic.html) he discusses political propaganda (refined thaumaturgy) at some length, and talks about how it causes practitioners - who initially think they're just manipulating others - to get caught up in their own bullshit and emotional appeals.

What I would add to this is the observation that both parties are now caught up in thaumaturgical dead-end spirals, from which they cannot escape short of a major disaster. The R's have convinced themselves that science, reality, and even basic human decency are completely irrelevant to political decision-making. Truthiness is good enough.

The D's, on the other hand, talk a good talk that appeals to our philosophical tribe. But all of their actual achivements are based on continuing the work of the last successful R's (Obamacare = recycled Romneycare; Clintonomics = recycled Reaganomics) and fighting off the efforts by the R's to become ever more extreme.

The country itself is caught up in a ratchet cycle that it won't leave until a really major disaster occurs.

On the (positive?) side, between the massive environmental catastrophes that we're experiencing with greater frequency, the absurdly overextended imperial presence, (Are we really going to war against Syria and Iran? I guess the last two wars were so successful?), and the financial house of cards we've built up (I also try not to read about what's happening in the Eurozone) ... I suspect we're overdue for a really major crisis.

I just hope that what emerges is better than the current duopoly of the Demopublicans and the Republocrats.