Saturday, May 26, 2007
Friday, May 25, 2007
In the Bush-Kerry election of 2004, which was supposed to be one of the most heated and divisive elections in recent history, only 55% of eligible voters cared enough to go to the polls, and this was up from 51% in 2000, where W's election arguable made some kind of a big difference on the country and the world.
I would argue that this points to an extremely urgent problem with our country, despite its receiving very little attention from any of us. In a country where our leaders stress teh importance of democracy and a government that is accountable to its people, it should be unacceptable to us that only half of eligible voters chose to participate in this process.
What does it mean that only half of our country cares enough to participate in chosing our government's leader? Well, first off, it is debatable how much of this is a "choice," since some eligible voters may be deterred from voting for socioeconomic reasons, but that is a more complicated issue that I will steer clear of in order to focus on those eligible voters who could easily vote and choose not to.
Those that chose not to vote presumably don't care who wins. Now, we can't say for sure that they don't care who is in charge of our government, but rather that they don't care who is in charge if their only options are the Democratic and Republican nominees (ie the choice between W versus Kerry or Gore).
This indifference between Dem & Repub nominees suggests that people don't see the candidates that our two parties produce each year as all that different. This seems accurate. In hindsight, it looks like a President Gore would have done things much differently than W, but during the 2000 campaign both campaigned as moderates, the Saturday Night Live skit where both candidates answered "agree" to everything the other said during the debates comes to mind. Bush-Kerry was essentailly the same - after giving some attention to Dean, the Democratic party scrapped him for Kerry-Edwards, who both campaigned (during the primaries) as in favor of the Iraq war.
Why did the Democrats choose John Kerry? Well experience was important, but grey-haired politicians are a dime a dozen, so what else was decisive? I would say that Kerry got the nomination because he was dubbed, by his campaign and by the American media as the most "electable" of the Democratic candidates.
Say it with me: e-lect-a-ble. I heard the word "electable" being tossed around at the start of the primary "season" in 2003, while I was an undergrad. Dean was the frontrunner at the time, and I remember asking one of my political science professors what he thought about the buzz about Kerry being more electable than Dean. He said: "electable is as electable does," which, apart from making us think of Forrest Gump, means that you can't judge someone's electability until after the election, and any branding of someone as "electable" before the election is a speculative statement, but nonetheless a good campaign strategy if the branding is convincing to the voters.
Now the big question is this: since Kerry didn't turn out to be so "electable" in the general election, how did the Kerry campaign and the national media convince everyone what he was?
My answer is that there are two kinds of "electable" when we are speaking of candidates. In our national discourse (candidates and the media), "electable" means someone who appeals to the other party. A moderate in the sense of a Democrat that appeals to Republicans, or a Republican who appeals to Democrats. Dean was too Democratic and not Republican enough to get elected, the Democrats decided, but Kerry was just republican enough that enough voters would vote to get him elected. The result, of course, is that two candidates emerge who are not so different from one another (again I am talking about what we know about them pre-election), as we have seen in 2000 and 2004, IE two candidates who embrace a mix of Dem & Repub policies, to appeal to the 50% of the country who votes for either a Dem or a Repub in each election.
This seems like a sensible strategy but I would argue that it is extremely unproductive for our country, because it completely ignores the other 50% of the country who doesn't see any difference in the candidates and thus doesn't care enough to vote. We have defined "electable" as "electable by the 50% of the country that votes," and we have completely disregarded the other 50% who may not be so interested in a candidate who embraces a mix of Dem & Repub policies.
Now, should we care about the fact that 50% of Americans are indifferent? Well, maybe. If we believe that half the country is indifferent because the like everything about the Dem & Repub nominees, so either way they are happy (ie: Bush and Gore or Bush and Kerry are both so great, how can you choose), then we shouldn't have a big problem with this. However, if half of the country has decided that they don't like either candidate, then we have a big problem. I would argue that the state of our politics reflects the latter: half of the country is so disappointed with the Dem & Repub nominees that they choose not to vote for either: because they don't believe that either candidate adequately represents their interests and cares about the issues that they care about.
So if this is accurate, and I do not see why it shouldn't be, 50% of Americans feel that the nominees put fourth each election cycle don't represent or care about the things that they care about, so they don't vote. This in itself should be disturbing. However, I would argue that the problem is actually much worse than it looks, because I would bet that many people in the 50% of eligible voters that DO vote think of it as choosing "the lesser of two evils," so many voters are actually voting for candidates that they don't even like so much themselves.
The result? The two parties put fourth candidates that most of the country is not crazy about, and one of these candidates gets to be in charge of our government. This seems like a big problem to me.
So how do we solve the problem? My opinion is as follows.
The first step is redefining how we think of "electable," in fact we urgently need to do this. Again, we can see the 2008 race starting to look like 2004: right now, Obama is just like Dean and Edwards in 2004 - young, fresh, inspirational, and doesn't stick to the same-old, unambitious, "play it safe" political rhetoric. Now the paradox is that so many people like this guy and so few are excited about the other candidates, yet everyone is questioning whether the guy is "electable," and OF COURSE, what they mean by "electable," is: WILL REPUBLICANS VOTE FOR HIM? The same exact thing is going on with Hillary. Now this is totally bogus, because only about 25% of eligible voters are Republicans - why should the Democrats decide their nominee for President based so heavily on what 25% of the country thinks? Nevermind why this is even an issue because I don't want to digress, my point is that we should not just be asking whether Republicans will vote for Obama or Hillary, but we should be asking whether the 50% of the country who continually chooses not to vote for anyone, we should be asking whether they would come to the polls for someone like Obama or Hillary.
Now I am not advocating Obama or Hillary (although I would vote for either if they were the nominee), all I am saying is that we need to redifine our concept of "electable," since our present concept is inaccurate, and it is this inaccurate idea that is being used to discredit not just Obama and Hillary, but perhaps a great majority of politicians in general (a great majority if you see them as potentially appealing to 75% of the vote).
So if we want to get more eligible voters to the polls, and in turn, if we want to send candidates to the general election and in turn elect presidents that truly represent the issues that majority of our democracy cares about, let's rethink our currently narrow concept of who is "electable" and broaden it to someone that is in touch with the interests of as much of our country as possible.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
As it's that time of year, I've been thinking and having some conversations about university commencement speeches. Now I know this is normally CapeTown's department (the man loves commencement speeches), but I watched these two videos the other day and I thought I should throw them up here, if for nothing else than for the entertainment value of listening to two fascinating people and excellent speakers talk about life to a bunch of graduating students, but also to present two, at least partly, distinct approaches on advice to young people about how to live, and see if anyone had any reactions about what people especially liked about either of these speeches. I personally found both of them deeply moving and inspirational, and also interesting for the different things they focus on.
Oh and also if you are graduating soon and if one of these guys is speaking at your school (wishful thinking about readership on my part but you can't be too careful (that would be careless)), then you might want to hold off on watching these as they could give it away (give it away now).
Bill Clinton (part 1/1):
Bill Clinton (part 2/2):
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Monday, May 21, 2007
And Virginia's giant burning cross gives me a segue into a point about religion. My point has nothing to do with burning crosses, but everything to do with supersonic segues.
People sometimes claim that the appeal of religion is that it neatly divides the world into good and evil, and that one derives some psychological comfort from living in such a tidy arrangement. Such claims are sometimes augmented with the observation that religion invests the world with meaning. I think these claims are fine as they go, but obscure the deeper philosophic point about religion regarding normative commitment- the idea that there is something that one should do.
In a recent work Self-Knowledge and Resentment, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami has argued for the fundamental importance of normative commitments for agency. In the book, Bilgrami argues that it is only because we see the world as placing normative commitments on us that we can have anything like agency in the first place. In a thought exercise, Bilgrami asks us to imagine a character so thoroughly passive that he lacks the will to get out of bed in the morning. This character, who Bilgrami calls a radically exaggerated Oblomov, fails to see the world as placing any normative commitments on him. That is, as Oblomov sees it, it does not matter whether he gets out of bed or not. It does not matter to him whether he does anything at all. He finds nothing in the world that compels him to action in anyway. Bilgrami then asks us to imagine how it is that such a thoroughly passive character could have thought. Bilgrami argues convincingly that he could not. The idea is that the passivity, stemming from lack of normative commitment, is so paralyzing that no individual could actually live in such a state. It is not that they would be so depressed they would commit suicide. Rather, it is that no such individual could possibly exist. Our imagination fails us when we try to picture such an Oblomov. The conclusion of the thought experiment is that since we cannot imagine an agent lacking normative commitments, normative commitment must be necessary for agency.
I will leave it to my reader to determine if Bilgrami succeeds or not. I find the argument compelling. But what I want to say- my point about religion- is that if Bilgrami is correct, then there is a much deeper point about the role of good and evil in religion than either of the fine, though somewhat obvious and superficial points listed above.
The point is this: if viewing the world as normatively structured is necessary for agency, and religion succeeds in so structuring the world, then religion serves a necessary role in enabling the existence of minded agents.
Now I want to be very clear about something. Notice the way I worded the point: "religion serves a necessary role." I did not say "religion is necessary for." I am not saying that religion is necessary in anyway. Quite the contrary. I am saying that religion plays the role of something that is necessary- a role that might well be played by any number of other world-structuring phenomena.
But what exactly is this point that religion serves a necessary role? My idea here is that by structuring the world along normative lines, religious doctrine makes it possible for people (religious people) to see the world as mattering in someway. For the religious person, it matters whether they go to church or not. It matters whether they break laws or not. It matters all the way down and around. To the religious mind, every single detail of life matters a great deal, because life is a battle between good and evil. That's just the way they see it. And because they feel the world matters, they feel compelled to act accordingly. That is the important point, I think. Not the questions about God's existence, or tidy psychological pictures, or meaning. The important point, if Bilgrami is correct, is that the normative structure of the world calls people into action, thus appealing to their agency. This I find interesting.
Now for a few clarifying remarks. There is probably a temptation to read my remarks about "calling to action" as calling to religious action- going to church, obeying to torah, things like that. That is not what I mean at all. The call to action occurs at a much more fundamental level. It is the call to any action whatsoever. The action need not have any relation to organized religion at all. That was the very point of the Oblomov thought experiment. That if we do not see the world as normatively structured- placing normative demands on our action- then we will do nothing at all. We will not get out of bed. We will not even think. In fact, we would not even be. So you see, it need not have anything to do with religion.
And lastly, there might be a temptation to take my point as a puzzle for how it is that a non-religious person could a exist. This too, would be an incorrect way to read my point. I do not think a non-religious person could not exist. I know plenty of them. Remember, the point was that religion serves a necessary role, a role that might well be played by any number of phenomena. The crucial thing is that an agent must see the world as normatively structured. It doesn't matter how that world is normatively structured or how it got normatively structured, but just that they see it as normatively structured. And the point about religion is that religion is one way that this gets accomplished.
Go Twins! Yeah Democrats!
The discussion of the Democrat and Republican teams started by
Shirley says that "when the average white American male tunes into TNT sometime between October and June, he would very much like to see another average white American male on the basketball court. Most of the time, he doesn't. But in the few situations that he does, he is going to root for that player. That's the way it is. We like to see people who look like us succeed."
Pollack doesn't understand, saying "I guess you could use, as comparison, how Jews felt about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax in their primes. But you could also argue that when Greenberg and Koufax played baseball, especially Greenberg, Jews weren't considered mainstream "white." Feeling pride for their accomplishments was akin to feeling boricua pride, or Dominican pride."
It is that section that bothers me the most. He seems to suggest that you can be happy for someone of your race (if that race is a minority race) succeeding unless you are “mainstream ‘white.’”
I will admit that I was thrilled to watch Duke Lacrosse advance to the Final Four because Duke is a program that was brought down last year by the prejudicial minds of those who believe that the wealthy, white, prep school elite are all racists and misogynists. While my teacher’s salary has certainly cast a shadow on my qualifications, I remain a member white, prep-school elite type. I coach lacrosse at a prep school, so maybe that makes up for the poverty thing.
When Duke advanced yesterday, I felt a proud, “you can’t hold them down” attitude rising. I realize the inherent awkwardness of suggesting that white, wealthy, well-educated men were being “held down,” but I’m not sure how else to suggest it. Had a black basketball player from Duke been accused of rape by a white stripper, that guy would be railroaded in a similar manner for sure. The only difference is that I think there would have been less media coverage. Oh, and he probably wouldn’t have been acquitted even though he was innocent. That’s a racism tale for another day. The comparison that I want to make is that American culture has evolved, or devolved, depending on your perspective, to the point that being a perceived member of the ruling class makes you a target for prejudicial media treatment and, worse, mistreatment by the legal system. Cough…Nifong…Cough.
When that happens, I feel fine rooting for Duke. Nothing will be able to remove the stain that was irresponsibly put on the three players falsely accused by the police and convicted by the media. But the stain on the program can be lightened by avoiding any disciplinary issues while winning a national title. Duke’s players this year served 570 hours of community service, had no disciplinary infractions on campus, and are (hopefully) on their way to proving themselves to be the best team in the country. That makes me happy - to see my brothers succeed.
But white guys specifically calling other white guys “their brother” smacks of late night meetings and white robes. It’s not just me who hears it that way, right?
Posted by VirginiaDissentator at 1:35 PM
Let People Know:
Sunday, May 20, 2007
I would like to continue the theme discussed in two of the last posts (by CapeTown and Virginia) and their comments about America as a "divided nation."
The topic has been familiar discussion on this blog and also among politicians, the media, and undoubtedly many of our everyday conversations. Some interesting questions are the following: How divided are we, really, as a nation, among conservatives and liberals? To the extent that we are divided, how did this come about? Are these divisions the inevitable result of human nature? Or are divisions in opinion artificially created? Is the division healthy or harmful? If it is harmful is there anything we can do about it?
The issue begins with human nature (of course who am I to say what human nature is but here is my take on it). Many philosophers, perhaps most notably Hegel, have written about our innate desires to be "recognized" by our fellow humans. This "recognition" can take the form of something like mutual respect, agreement, understanding, friendship, or love. To achieve happiness we need this recognition and we actively seek its fulfillment in various ways. When we fulfill this desire by making connections and achieve mutual recognition, this makes us happier and more secure, whereas if this desire goes unfulfilled we will be more insecure. One way we fulfill this desire is through one-on-one relationships with people, and of course, another is through belonging to some group.
One example of this is sports teams. If you think about it, it's pretty arbitrary how people develop passionate allegiances to their teams, but I think that taking on a sports allegiance is one way where humans satisfy some innate desire to be recognized by other humans, in this case by belonging to a group. Listen to people talk about their team and often they call the team "we" like they are actually on the roster! Allegiances can also be pretty irrational, for example we think the players are on our favorite teams are great people in their personal lives, and we think the players on other teams are jerks (I bet more Lakers fans thought Kobe was innocent than fans of rival teams). Although I don't think it's necessary, one thing that makes the "belonging to a group" feeling stronger, is when the group defines part of its identity as simply being not some rival, other group. So for example part of what makes a Yankees fan a Yankees fan is the fact that they're not a Red Sox fan. So a way to assert your identity as part of a group, and your group solidarity is through being different from some other, rival group. So if you are a Sox fan and you see a random person on the street in a Sox jersey, you automatically fell a connection, and someone in a Yankees jersey you automatically feel some kind of animosity, whether stong of very slight. There is the issue that this might be more of a male thing (being a sports fan) but I don't want to get too off track. The point is I think that this is an innate human desire since so many people all over the world do this, and since I don't see it explained through any "rational" explanation.
Now just like you can be Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan you can be a a Democrat or a Republican. Sports are not exactly like politics, some would say politics are much more important, although in our day to day lives many of us are much more affected (at least emotionally) by sports. But there are competitions (elections) and people rally behind either side much like with sports.
Of course, when you think about it, it just doesn't seem to make sense, or feel "right" that we should treat politics like sports. As opposed to sports, where adopting an allegiance to a team is a pretty arbitrary act that makes something entertaining much much more entertaining, adopting a political party is supposed to be something different. We aren't supposed to just like whatever a candidate says or does the way we convince ourselves that our sports heroes are cool and good people, but it seems like that shouldn't work for politics - we are supposed to listen to what these people say, agree with some of it, and maybe disagree or not be sure about some of it, not just agree with a candidate or a whole party of hundreds of politicians on all of their views.
So then why, if it doesn't seem to make sense, do so many people line up behind a party on everything, agreeing with nearly everything their party says and disagreeing with nearly everything the other party says? Wel as I said I think it is part human nature, and part our conditioning from society. Part of it is that Americans (maybe humans in general because of the above reasons) in general live in a competitive and contentious culture. Our court system and our economy could both be looked at as more cutthroat than in other countries.
Looking specifically in the realm of politics, though, it is pretty easy to see how politicians and the media alike feed the "sports-like" culture of democrats versus republicans, thus exagerating perceived and actual divisions at the same time. Not only are most pundits on television and on the radio partisan ideologues who agree with everything in the party platform like robots, but they have actually created shows that pit one side against the other, like Crossfire and Hannity & Colmes that explicitly pit one side against the other, in addition to the shows that are just one partisan doing the show solo (ex: O'Reilly). Politicians? Some are more guilty than others of playing up party divisions, but I'm sure we can all think of numerous examples.
So why all of this divisive, partisan rhetoric from the media and politicians? Well it's simply a tactic used to maximize their audience and their attention. The media is just a bunch of corporations competing for viewers, while politicians just want attention and votes. Of course, one way to get attention is through civilized discourse where you respectfully consider all sides of a debate and maybe don't arrive at a conclusion since there is no clear answer to some of these complex issues. But not everyone wants to waste their time listening to a newscaster or a politician admitting that these are complex issues and there is no right answer, or at least we are not used to that, so many of us are not so drawn to that type of thing.
Instead, the way it works is that media and politicians have become very good at exploiting this inner human desire to derive happiness and security from being part of a group, a feeling that is strengthened when the identity of the group consists largely of simple the fact that they are not the "other" group. It is just like with sports - surely there are many Yankees and Red Sox fans who have billions of things in common and one of their comparatively much fewer differences in personality is the fact that they happened to one day decide that they like different baseball teams. But rivalries and the feeling of "belonging" to the team we like is one of the reasons people love sports so much, why they are so entertained and impassiond by it all, and the media and politicians have harnessed the same psychological effect and attached it to politics, which is good for them, because it means many more viewers of their programs and listeners to their speeches and contributors to their campaigns. So the media and the politicians really benefit from this, and thus they have a lot of incentive to fan the fire and perpetuate the divisive culture. Whether the image is real or meaningful, an explanation of how Americans are divided along party lines will sell you a lot of books.
But do Americans benefit from it? Does our country as a whole? I would say definitely not, for many, many obvious reasons. One big reason is that these divisive debates don't ever get anywhere. The conversations on the big news shows are pointless, they don't accomplish anything except getting people who disagreed before the discussion to disagree more passionately afterwards because the discussion was done in an aggressive, contentious, and often very disrespectful way. Everyone has witnessed the phenomena where if you try to convince someone of something disrespectfully, you will just cement their original position - the person will not even want to listen to you or consider your opinion if you address them aggressively and disrespectfully. But this is how a great many media pundits and politicians talk, and I think that when they do this they waste all of our time and accomplish nothing useful, and do much harm.
I think it was Socrates that said that there are two kinds of debate. Truth-seeking debate, and victory-seeking debate. Truth-seeking is where people admit that they don't know the answers, and they might not even know what they think about certain issues, and the point of the discussion is to learn more about what you and the other people think, to consider different views on something, and arrive at the best possible conclusion. Victory-seeking on the other hand is an attempt to convince someone of your pre-decided opinion, to "win" the argument. Often there is no way to prove the argument, so "winning" is often thought of as shooting down someone or making a point they can't respond to or shoot down themselves. This of course makes for much better entertainment, which means more people paying attention, and this has become the object of the media and politicians, as opposed to figuring out what is best for this country.
Well maybe that is a bleak picture, it is definitely a generalization and is not true for all journalists and politicians, but I think we can agree that there is too much of this sort of thing going on. The good news is that with blogs, anyone can be a pundit and join in the debate, but with blogs we face the same danger of falling victim to the great temptation of making our blogs entertaining and boost viewers (say something anti-one party and watch the members of your party pour in to comment and check back to read future posts). Thus the phenomena of people self-selecting and only reading blogs of their party.
Despite this danger, blogs have the potential to be a really positive and productive force for our country. If we can overcome the temptation and the emotional satisfaction of responding to a republican statement with a disrespectful jab at how wrong they are and visa versa, if we can instead respectfully consider each other's opinions, admit that there are perhaps no issues more complicated than the ones we undertake to discuss and thus there is probably no clear and obvious right or wrong answer (Iraq?), if we can overcome our impulses and our adrenaline and our emotions and resist arrogantly assuming that we know all of the answers, blogs can really be something amazingly helpful for the country. By having respectful, truth-seeking debate, we can not only get closer to understanding each other and understanding these complex issues and all of the people in the US and the world that they affect, but we can also change the divisive, victory-seeking debate culture that dominates our news and our politics. I believe we can change it becuase I believe that people are tired of it, and we want a change. Our impulses and our emotions may sometimes cause us to take the bait when media and politicians dangle the partisan hook (sorry I got carried away hook line and sinker with that metaphor), but deep down inside I think we all know that the divisive culture is not helping at all and in fact doing real damage, and we also know deep down inside that no one agrees with everything every politician from one party believes. So we are ready for this change, and I think that this change can only come from the blogs, since the media and the politicians all benefit from the increase in attention they get from keeping the divisive atmosphere alive. Of course maybe single journalists and candidates can do something to reverse the trend, but it will be tough because their competitors, of which there will be more, will continue the same old divisive tactics, so I think that this is up to us. I think, potentially, we can change things and we can help this country enormously, and I don't think it will even be that hard, although it could take a long time. All we have to do is control our impulses and emotions, be calm and patient and respectful, and seek the truth as opposed to victory (or the appearance of victory). I don't see why anyone would want to do it otherwise given how much these issues affect our country and our world, and how important it is for us to reach those answers that we can most strongly agree on.
So let's see what we can do. Now I am off to the Red Sox game.