Monday, November 22, 2010

Looking for Reality

I don't care about Bristol Palin.

The latest flare-up involves what happened on Dancing With The Stars last week. Bristol, whose dancing has not been among the most skilled, was kept on for another week while Brandy was eliminated!

Oh My Goodness!

It's a horror, may be a conspiracy, could be manufactured for ratings. The conspiracy version is that Sarah Palin fans want to support Bristol as some kind of statement and since the viewers "voting" overrides the "judges" "scores", this creates the result. This doesn't count Bristol's other reality show about teen mothers or her absolutely tasteless public service announcement (with "The Situation" from Jersey Shore) against teen pregnancy.

Oh, and I refuse to watch Sarah Palin's Alaska on TLC. It's not just that her syntax makes me crazy (it does). But why do I want to watch a show about her? Would she watch a show about me? Or You?

The reason I avoid these two shows (and the Singing shows, the Skating shows, the Weight Loss shows, the Businessman shows, the Race shows, the Survivor shows, the Bachelorette shows, etc.) is simple.


We call them "Reality" shows, but the industry calls them "Unscripted". The characters are picked for their extremes, the situations are contrived to create drama (right after this commercial break), and the outcomes are pumped up as if they were world-changing.

I'm not looking for more silly situation comedies or police procedurals. I'm just thinking about how much of our shared discourse is about this Unreality. What are we NOT discussing because we're all distracted by the Reality? (I've commented before about how "the family" in Fahrenheit 451dominates everyone's social lives via wall-sized television screens. Wonder what Bradbury thinks 47 years later?)

But it's not a stretch to see that we do the same thing in other venues. Sunday morning cable talk shows are the source of weekly "news". But we have contestants who are selected to create drama, play pre-defined roles, and score points. It's only a short hop to having Daisy Fuentes come on after Meet the Press and say, "if you thought Mitch McConnell was the best, text 3451, but if you thought Chuck Schumer was better, text 3452 -- regular rates apply".

I've discovered a new Monday vice. It's a running blog from Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post. He does real time commentary on the news shows. Be warned, his language is sometime rough and his snarkiness score is off the charts. But his reflections demonstrate how useless these staged "conversations" are.

They don't enlighten because THEY AREN'T REAL!

So what should we be talking about? There are a lot of folks (Tea Partiers as well as others) who are concerned about the long-term good of the country. Last week, the New York Times put up an interactive site that allowed folks to make choices to balance the budget. It was actually fun to consider. Over one million people reviewed the site and many calculated their responses. And while there clearly isn't consensus on how to proceed, as the following link shows, it's at least a great start.

Here's another example of what Reality means. If you follow politics, you know the names Arianna Huffington and Mary Matalin. Arianna is the founder of the Huffington Post and a recognized progressive. Mary worked with vice president Cheney's staff, ran GHW Bush's campaign in 1992, and can be a harsh voice on the right (but is still married to James Carville -- go figure). But Mary and Arianna participated in the StoryCorps program NPR reports as part of its National Day of Listening. Both become REAL people who struggled to get where they are, who were supported by their mothers, who struggled with pregnancies, and who actually admire each other regardless of (or maybe because of) their differences. It's a touching conversation.

So once again, let's try to focus on what is REAL. As we gather with friends and family for Thanksgiving, it's the opportunity to truly engage. Not as characters playing roles, but as REAL PEOPLE. And that's worth giving Thanks over.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"I Don't Belong to an Organized Political Party..."

"...I'm a Democrat", Will Rogers, 1935.

As I've written before, since I'm a student of what passes for civil discourse I regularly subject myself not just to articles on political sites but also to the comments folks make in "response" to those comments. It's often painful, mostly maddening, and largely irrelevant to the actual content of the original column. But that pretty well describes the current state of civil discourse in the society at large!

In my earlier posts, I have suggested that we need to have more honest conversations about the nature of the problems we face as a society. I have asked all parties to be committed to telling the truth in the midst of disagreement. I have suggested that we call out those who continue to repeat false claims. (My newest idea is to have the big "X" from the Family Feud game show appear on the screen when a politician repeats a known untruth! $200 million a day -- BEEP!)

There is a critique to be made of my position. It suggests that all matters of exaggeration, distortion, or fantasy are equal and that some of what was said (socialists, death panels) is so extreme as to deserve special condemnation. This is the critique the progressive caucus made of Jon Stewart's rally. It argues that we Democrats have suffered and need to release our own angry protest. I've had friends and family members make the same observation about my writing.

As I look to answer those who want to push hard at the Republicans, or to launch fundraising organizations to match those on the right, I am still looking for a "Higher Way" for civil debate. And while I don't have enough of an answer to satisfy me, some things I've read in the last three months speak strongly that such a search is preferable to the tit-for-tat strategies that have characterized our political dialogues for a couple of decades.

As I've read books by a biblical theologian, a British social theorist, and a moral philosopher, I find some common ground in the search for this Higher Way.

The biblical theologian is N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham for the Church of England. In his book After You Believe, he argues that our task as Christians is be living the coming Kingdom. His interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and Paul's Epistles calls us to celebrate the Image of God in others and thereby show the world the contours of this kingdom that is both to come and unfolding in our midst.

The British social theorist in Anthony Giddens. He has done amazing work in articulating the mechanisms through which society reproduces itself over time through a process of Structuration (don't ask). The very short version is that through repeated interactions we define ways of describing the world which then shape future interactions. Societies shift as these various processes tying individuals to larger organizational groupings are reshaped. Because we're in the midst of it at the time and the changes take significant time to unfold (often generations), we're not duly attentive to what's happening around us. He's not just an excellent social theorist but is also active in European politics and has written about the nature of globalization and how we need a "left of center" government he calls The Third Way.

I'm currently reading Justice, by Michael Sandel, philosophy professor at Harvard. It's a remarkable book that talks about how we together define a good society. He argues, following the work of John Rawls, that we should understand our lives together in terms of an idealized society rather than pursuing our self-interests. He talks about how Kant called us to hypothetical ideals as opposed to views of utilitarianism, libertarianism, or arbitrary free markets.

All three of these authors would support my position that the nature of productive civil discourse needs to be re-imagined. We don't want more of the same "in your face" kinds of dialogue. We need to search for justice for all, replicate those structures that support that effort, and commit to partnering with God as He births his Kingdom.

Let me insert two more pragmatic reasons why I'm calling for more abstract notions of the Common Good. First, what we are doing just plain doesn't work at its core. Years ago when I was teaching social psychology our textbook had a wonderful section on negotiation. I can't remember all of the required components, but the one that has always stayed with me was the need to support the legitimacy of your opponent in the negotiation. Without that belief, good faith negotiation is impossible. I would argue that the name-calling of today's debates (especially when conducted through the lens of the media) destroys claims of legitimacy on both sides rendering fair conclusions near impossible.

The second reason is that Newton's Third Law doesn't work in Civil Discourse. Newton's Third Law says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It works really well on physical elements in the right conditions. But it doesn't work in politics. Every action has an accelerated reaction. What was the outrageous claim becomes the new baseline. And I agree with all my Democratic friends that the Republicans have been far better at raising those stakes in recent years than we have.

In a bizarre way, I'm proud of that. That's why I'm searching for the Higher Way. So I ask my Democratic friends whether progressives, blue dogs, neo-centrists, or whatever: let's redefine the rules of the game. Let's focus on the greater good over protected interests. Let's not demonize those on the other side regardless of what they say. Let's put the long-term Idealized Common Good ahead of winning.

Yes, we run the risk of losing in the short run. But in the long run, we stand for a vision of the civil society that can be well articulated, defended against attack, and will become part of rhetoric that reshapes how we live together in the ways Wright, Giddens, and Sandel suggest.

I also read Carl Hiaasen's Star Island and am halfway through Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I'm sure they connect somehow but I'll let that wait for another day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Houston, We [Have] a Problem"

The actual quote is "Houston, We've Had a Problem" but stay with me.

I've been thinking about problems. Probably because I've had enough time to read political sites, pay attention to what was said during the campaigns (and mostly not said, but I'm ahead of myself), and consider the real issues facing contemporary society.

What I've noticed is that nobody is really talking about the problems we face. Instead, there are countless examples of specifics of solutions that then get tossed around as dividing points between parties, candidates, and cable new networks.

  • Want to argue about immigration issues? We talk about border security, going after employers, empowering police in Arizona to confirm individual status, and exploring the costs of the deportation of 12 million people.  
  • Want to talk about the economy? We talk about tax levels, outsourcing, labor unions, extended unemployment benefits, and infrastructure investment.
  • Want to deal with education? We talk about state funding, local control of textbooks, teacher's unions, testing to standards, and parental influence.
  • What about the war in Afghanistan? Should we increase drone attacks across the border, negotiate with the Taliban, have a fixed date to start withdrawal, or unconditionally support the Karzai government?

In all of these, and countless others, we don't talk about the nature of the problem we're trying to fix. Admittedly, sometimes that's not possible -- military action in Afghanistan may have been necessary without the time to properly analyze it, but somewhere in the last decade it might have been helpful.

But if graduate school taught me anything, it was the importance of properly defining the problem if one is to successfully analyze it. In fact, the world is full of insurance agents who never finished their dissertation because the research tproblem was too vague.

I think the heart of our challenges as a society rest in our inability or unwillingness to explore these problem definitions. If Republicans and Democrats, progressive and libertarians, tea partiers and career politicians, journalists and small business leaders, retirees and twenty-somethings, city dwellers and farmers, could sit down and say, "What are we concerned about?", amazing things may happen. At the very least, simple campaign slogans might be less palatable.

Take Social Security as an example. The program as originally designed was to support the needs of the orphans and widows (a Biblical imperative). There were real folks who were hurting. One may argue that churches, charities, and neighbors might have dealt with it, but in the midst of the depression they couldn't. Over time, it became a means of guaranteed income regardless of your situation (which is why it's called an Entitlement). But before we talk about Social Security as a Ponzi scheme (according to Governor Perry of Texas), or being "your money," we need to talk about what it is we want it to do. Surely we could agree that we need to care for the poor and needy in our midst. Forget "lock boxes" or "privatization". How do we come together for the social net we require as a society? (I'm assuming most of us aren't in favor of starving grandmas.)

What about the Housing Bubble, the Finance Industry, and Foreclosures? A rational conversation would begin to focus on how to align affordable housing, reasonable mortgage rates, proper loan evaluation, appropriate risk management for lenders, and planned development for cities. We got into this situation by NOT having this conversation. Instead, we based an economy on expanding demand (and creating it), massive construction employment, the financial benefit of making easy loans (both initial loans and equity loans), the game-playing of refinancing, the creative financial instruments of derivatives and "collateralized debt obligations", and robo-signers on foreclosure documents. It's only a focus on the solutions and not the problem that allows critique of "those who bought more house than they could afford" or "greedy bankers". Our failure to think through what we were trying to do allows us to pretend that we have no options.

I could do more but you get the idea. The general point is that there are issues we're trying to deal with as a society simply by sloganeering and occasionally passing legislation (if we can get a majority) that takes a stab at the amorphous blob that is the problem. And since we didn't define the problem, we have no real way to discuss the potential solutions without all the name-calling.

The Health Care "Debate" is the horrible but real example: how do we define minimally appropriate care for our citizens at a level that is affordable for the society? What does that look like? Is it in our interest to see folks healthy? These are important conversations that don't deal with "public options," "death panels," "mandates," or "massive government takeovers."

But we're not having them. I'm ready for coffee with anybody from any political persuasion who's ready to help define a problem. When do we start?