Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Just Shut Up and Talk!

I am a pretty smart person.

No, really, it's true...just ask my Mom. If you don't believe her, I can show you the medal I won in 7th grade for the Presidential Academic Fitness Award. Yup, that's right, awarded to me by President Ronald Reagan himself via my 7th grade teacher, Mrs Detwiler. By the way, go ask Mrs. Detwiler if I am smart, she'll tell you. She drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee WAY back in 1984 before it was uber-cool to destroy a medium size forest and a species of frog during a trip to the grocery store and back.

Actually, whether you believe me or not doesn't matter, just come on over and I'll kick your ass in a game of Trivial Pursuit (you can even pick the edition we play). My point in all this is that you do not have to be the proverbial rocket scientist to have common sense and a good understanding of history, yes, history, one of those NCLB "other" fields of study. Even the slightest bit of American History will expose just a few problems we are having in this country today, and why we will continue to slide into complete disarray if we don't shut up and talk.

I am not going to write about any specific issue here because it would be so myopic to do so, that it would shatter the position this post is taking. I am going to write about my observations of our proud nation in recent history (that darn word again), and why I think we may be in bigger trouble than it may seem.

Perhaps the first order of business to attend to is to redefine what is "news". The main definition of the word is a report of a recent event; intelligence; information. The main definition of opinion, on the other hand is a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty. OK? Good.

The reporting of news has traditionally been the role of the media, originally, at least to some extent, as one of the methods by which the public could keep the government honest. The government, as it was set up by the "Founding Fathers" was not to be trusted, it was put in place to govern with moderation from several fronts. We shouldn't trust our elected officials, we should elect those we believe are best suited to do the job of representing our general beliefs, then monitor their actions, and hold them accountable if they fail to properly represent the majority's desires. In order for this to work effectively, the media needs to be unbiased in the reporting of "news".

Furthermore, there must exist in the reporting of news, something called integrity; a firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values. In the case of the media, this means the truth. So, why would so many people watch programs and read material that is opinion intended to sway other's points of view? It seems obvious that these programs and periodicals exist to make money. Without ratings, the money is not there and these sources of opinion cease to exist.

They are good, however, at something, and that something is the aforementioned ratings. I believe that so few people have the time, energy, and sometimes the well-rounded education (notice I did not say intelligence) to follow exactly what is going on in our world without relying upon these opinions to help make sense of it all. This fact is perfectly acceptable (most government bills and debates can be downright dry and incomprehensible), but it puts a greater responsibility on the "journalist" to communicate with honesty and integrity, something that so few today seem to lack. They are paid to exaggerate and sensationalize to fill 24 hours a day with the highest rated material possible, and often there just isn't enough real "news" to fill all that time, so who can blame them for making stuff up? I can.

How do we address this problem? By having more open and higher quality conversations among ourselves. Stop repeating what we hear or read of the opinions in the "media", and start finding ways to educate ourselves and each other. Stop approaching every issue as if it is the all important issue and that the consequences of every decision are dire. Hold back the anger as first response when dealing with any opposing viewpoint, but hold others accountable for the truth in what they say. Perhaps most importantly, listen! Listen to the words and message that others are sharing with you. Try to understand their words before replying with a prepared response. Listen to the complete story rather than looking at each issue we face in and of itself. Listen to history, and not just American History, but the history of all nations as the people of Earth.

So much can be learned by just looking back at what has been done before. This does not mean that if something didn't work before, we should never try it again, but rather that we should not try the same thing that failed in exactly the same manner. Additionally, we all must remind themselves that the decisions we make often have a lag before the real impact of those decisions is felt. It is as ridiculous to blame the most recent Bush administration for Al-Qaeda as it is to blame the Obama administration for the terrible economic conditions we face today. This means that sometimes many years must be taken into account when analyzing any specific action.

Look back on our own history and notice any number of things that seem to have been forgotten. One such thing is that we didn't always have to choose from only two political parties. Clearly this country is diverse enough to have the need for more representative viewpoints that might potentially allow for more meaningful debate without the pressure to vote along party lines.

Also, I believe that the greatness of this nation is our ability to change, not the infallibility of the original documents of independence themselves. The founders of this nation were wise enough indeed to write a Constitution that allowed for amending, and an amendment itself is by definition not intended to be permanent. We even overturned an amendment, you know the one, back when the country tried to make a drug illegal, then realized that it only created more crime and cost the government good tax revenues. Sounds vaguely familiar to another debated issue today, doesn't it? This is also the country that did not offer half of our population the right to vote until 89 years ago!

Are we, the United States a great nation? I say yes. Do we make mistakes...some pretty major ones? Yes, we do, but what makes us great is that we live by majority rules, and generally that works well. I am feeling less than optimistic right now however, perhaps influenced to some degree by my own circumstances at present. When I listen to what people say on the television, and what people write in periodicals, or on the Internet, I become disillusioned. I hear rigidity, absurdity, hatred, and occasionally venomous anger from Americans, willing to display these feelings with the world with ears sewn shut. I watched that town hall meeting in SE Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago when that unfortunate woman help up the photo of President Obama with a Hitler moustache drawn in under his nose. I was ashamed for her. Such a blatant display of historical ignorance leading to a truly offensive caricature of our most powerful citizen. Yet, several thousands of others I assume saw it and cheered, and that makes me sad.

This is not a partisan issue, but one that extends to many ends of our political and demographic spectrums. Whether its Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olberman, Ann Coulter, or the others, the nonsense must end. If you want the truth, turn these people off, and turn on C-Span, or better yet, place a call or visit your House Representative or Senators and ask them to explain to you whatever it is you want to know, then share with them your opinion. Attend town hall meetings with an open mind, and if you choose to ask a question, for your sake, please do not begin with a baseless accusation.

The point of our government is to govern to the will of the people. When the will of the people is influenced by fallacies and sensationalism, the will of the people is not being fairly measured, and therefore government fails. It can only be concluded, therefore, that anyone who chooses to mislead or coerce through the use of these methods is not interested in the government functioning properly, and must have personal investment in the alternative to the real will of properly informed citizenry. Do not think I am calling for dissolution of the media, but let's work together to reward those journalists with true integrity who are able to report to news without opinion.

I will point out one other thing before signing off on this post. The Declaration of Independence calls for, among other things, the general welfare of "We the people". President John F. Kennedy famously suggested that we ask not what our country can do for us, rather ask what we can do for our country. With these things in mind, I suggest that one way we can come together as a nation is to stop asking "what's in this for me?" and start asking "what is best for everyone?"

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1 comment:

  1. First I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with what you just posted. We should rationally "discuss" rather than exchange vitriolic accusations and misinformation.

    However, this nation is no longer ruled by rational discussion because our discussion platforms have become ruled by the media which, as you pointed out, no longer do investigative and unbiased reporting but desire to sway the public by opinion and is focused entirely on politics.

    Unfortunately, this is working on both sides. Because the media has become an opinion oriented information service to gain ratings, the public in general is being influenced mostly by opinion than by fact.

    The sad truth is that most Americans are merely sheep and are too lazy to learn about the facts themselves. Getting to the facts has become ironically harder in the mass media and Internet age. The information superhighway has become the misinformation expressway and the toll is high.

    It's also sad that history is so little appreciated and even less understood by the masses. We like to rewrite, interpret and misrepresent history to suit our own personal interests or rather, we like to hear that history from those that do the misinterpreting.

    America is a great country but it is on a bad road right now. We have become even more polarized than ever because of an ignorant populace, a media that serves its own interests, and a political system that follows the money with little fear of "accountability to the people".

    I can say that I have some friends with whom I can have rationale discussions about issues with. People whom I can listen to and who listen to me. We can exchange viewpoints and sometimes come to the same conclusions even if by different angles even if we both have strong convictions (which is usually the case). Strong convictions don't have to preclude a rational discussion.

    What saddens me is that these are the exceptions rather than the rule with many people I meet. I am often stunned by the ignorance of people and the willingness to accept outlandish opinionated and twisted information because they heard it on TV or read it on some website, even if to their own detriment!

    Unfortunately many people only know how to argue emotionally rather than rationally. Even I can sometimes fall prey to the vitriol when it touches an emotional chord with me and I can lash out and attack with fangs and claws though I try to remain rational.

    We have become a country where public discourse is defined by the opinions and misinformation of those in power (and not those in Washington by the way) and those with the loudest voices in the media. I honestly don't see how we, as a nation, can ever return to honest and rational discussion of politcal issues. We are a nation filling up with hatred, anger, and intolerance. We scream at eachother and don't listen. We spew vitriolic attacks that make it impossible to listen. And in all this, the ones who really win are those with the real power in this country (and not those in Washington) who have everything to gain by confusing and herding the sheep to do exactly what they want them to do.

    Is our democracy in danger? Is the public interest in danger? Yes, but not because of government but because of ourselves.