Monday, 24 July 2006

The toxicity of American political "dialogue"

I have led a sheltered life. TV stopped being an important part of my life when I was about 12 years old, a fact for which I will be forever grateful. Spending my formative years with my nose in books, news magazines and newspapers instead of having my eyes glued to a TV set has made a world of difference. TV encourages passive absorption; the written word encourages analysis.

This carried over into my adult life. To this day I have never had cable TV. But last week I spent in a hotel in Pennsylvania, and when we didn't have something better to do (relatively seldom), my husband and I flicked back and forth between CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. On top of the two previous weeks spent cruising the American political blogosphere, the experience was decidedly unsettling.

Everything I have been seeing leads me to the conclusion that the state of American political dialogue is positively toxic. Everything is classified as conservative or liberal, right or left, and is stated in stark, black and white terms. Polarization is extreme and the other side is invariably demonized, with cheap insults being thrown around in a manner reminiscent of schoolyard taunts. Televised interviews (on both sides) make no pretense whatsoever of objectivity, with the interviewer generally stating at the very beginning of the interview which conclusions he or she had already drawn, and blatantly leading the interviewee to support those conclusions. I've often fulminated at biased reporting on CBC and BBC, but they are rank amateurs at spin. American news channels do not report, they wage war.

Peter J ran an article on Blogcritics earlier today on this very subject, lamenting the division of political discussion into right and left:

This, no doubt, will cause underlying confusion and automatic extreme resentment to any one who holds a different opinion than they on the one particular issue that they ponder. The result is, rather than being able to carry a meaningful discussion with someone on any issue, the person indulges in a useless diatribe. The result is that one person loses sight of the subject and enters a contest where there is no longer an issue, there is only a belligerant (sic) attack, and even though they may share same opinions on other issues, there will never be resolve, only more bitterness.
My delight at his perspicacity was short-lived however. He blamed this state of affairs on the current administration, an analysis with all the intellectual depth of "the Devil made me do it." Seriously, does he really expect us to believe that everybody, both famous and obscure, who holds a political opinion has been pressured into extreme, unthinking positions by George Bush's Republicans? This is just demonization done more subtly. Each and every political commentator, from the guy at the corner store to the heavy-hitting blogger to the talking heads on TV has to take personal responsibility for replacing thought with labels, analysis with polemics. There is no political administration in this world that can force me to become an unthinking automaton spouting political dogma instead of a thinking, intelligent person, trying to understand and analyze things on my own.

I'm not too sure what has brought American political culture to this point. Is it the lack of a viable third political party, or the melting pot mentality that equates unity with conformity? Does Canada's history of two founding nations make us more capable of accepting someone profoundly different as still being one of us? While we certainly have our share of toxicity in public debate, in general we are much more open to considering a new idea, instead of trying to simply paste a label on it and dismiss it.

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Patrick Martin said...

Welcome to the wonderful world of blogs, Janet. I learned of you from AmbivaBlog, and I just wrote a post about The Walrus Said at my own fairly new blog, Stubborn Facts. I've enjoyed your very thoughtful first posts, and look forward to reading many more.

Janet said...

Thank you very much for your very kind words and for the recommendation, Pat. I've been poking my nose in at Stubborn Facts and hope to be able to contribute the occasional comment over there.


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