Monday, August 31, 2009

Feeling Superior, Feeling Alarmed

Save_the_Rustbelt at Economist's View leaves a comment on something I said there:

Shorter Bruce:

People who aren't like me are stupid.

That is not such a good way to build political momentum for anything.

I suppose blogging, and blog-commenting is essentially a narcissistic activity. Look at me! Here's my opinion!

But, that wasn't the point I was trying to make, when I mourned the state of American democracy, and the dysfunctional stupidity of the politically "independent", middle-of-the-road American public, in a way that provoked rusty's rebuke.

That's not my analysis of what's wrong, at all. It's not about me. I am not expressing this opinion about the grave stupidity of the moderate, centrist Middle of American politics, to feel superior to the ordinary people in "the Middle".

In my view, ordinary people "in the middle" are not natively stupid; they just have other priorities.

For the vast majority of the electorate and population, politics is a question of specialization and trade, like any other economic problem. Most people don't pay as much attention to politics as I do. Most people don't have advanced degrees, or the experience of working in government.

And, they shouldn't have to. They have other things to do with their time. Their jobs, for example. Raising families.

Some people might complain that Americans would get more survey questions right, if the survey was about American Idol, than about health care or Iraq. But, that *should be* OK. People should be able to play golf, do macrame, attend concerts, watch professional wrestling on teevee, without democracy falling apart.

But, functioning democracy is not "free". The People have to be pay *some* attention. Things can be organized to make it easier, quicker. I can buy canned soup and frozen vegetables, to minimize the time spent preparing meals, so that I can do other things with my 24 hours. Whether that "works" well depends delicately on a complex net of specialization, which includes, for example, government regulation of food processing, so that I don't pick up food poisoning from bad practices at some faraway ranch. It actually helps, if there are specialist food critics and teachers to worry about whether there's too much salt in canned soup, or to promote alternatives. There has to be enough competition of the right kind, so that I have choices, when I go to the supermarket. And, it helps, in keeping prices reasonable, if lots of people at the margin actually do know how to cook, and can, say, substitute fresh veggies from the produce section or the farmers' market, if the price of frozen veggies gets out of line.

What used to be called "public opinion" -- the collective views and values of the mostly well-intentioned moderate "Middle" of the electorate -- is vital to the functioning of democracy. But, given that those people have lives and other things to do, they have to conserve the time and attention they devote to forming their opinions and views. Popular political opinion in a democracy in a developed country is a lot like canned soup or frozen vegetables. Possibly nutritious, possibly tasty, but not something one ordinarily spends a lot of time preparing from scratch.

The complex net of specialization and organization, in whatever area of social and economic life, is organic, subject to general entropy and in varying need of repair and reconstruction and tending. Things fall apart. There's a crisis. Repairs are made. Just when frozen TV dinners in an aluminum tray threaten to dominate the culture, Julia Child comes along with a cookbook and a television cooking show. Or, Michael Pollan comes along with a critique of industrial agriculture. Or, Upton Sinclair gets a job in a meatpacking plant. New agencies of government are created, or old ones reformed.

Just as people do learn to cook, even in a world of McDonald's and Campbell's Soup, and that's a good thing, so a fairly massive investment still must be made in political understanding. I think we used to make more of the need for an educated populace, of the value of having people, say, attend college, where they would do more than "major in business" or "pre-med", they would learn something about political economy and culture and science and the larger world.

And, while day-to-day, most people would not have to pay much attention, the demand for attention would vary, with the season and the times.

A lot of what people do to stay minimally informed about political controversy is like canned soup or frozen vegetables. They have informational strategies, that allow them to have opinions, without working very hard at it, just like I have a microwave oven to "prepare" my Green Giant frozen veggies. (Very good, by the way.)

Split-the-difference, middle-of-the-road, both-sides-have-a-point is an informational strategy for conserving intelligence and attention, like a microwave oven, simple, quick and easy.

So, is listening to the pre-processed, canned opinion of a nominally non-partisan journalist, who is specialized in "covering the issues".

The thing is, that the complex, organized net of specialization can break down, and then the individual's strategy goes from being simply economical of time, energy or expense, to being dangerously stupid. This is easy to see with food processing and distribution. If entropy in the organization of industrial food processing methods means that bacteria in a field in California contaminate and poison my frozen veggies, I'm a fool to keep eating them. (I was upset to learn, recently, that frozen pot pies, which I loved as a child, can no longer be made safe to cook at time and temperatures, which leave them still edible; industrial processing is so complex and poorly regulated, that the makers cannot trace and eliminate contamination and the only "safe" alternative is for consumers to overcook them the product to the extent that they are no longer palatable.)

Most people are getting their political opinions from the Media in an easy preparation form, liked canned soup.

I get my political and economic opinions from more boutique sources. Partly, this is a function of my making politics into a hobby, akin to following a sport like baseball. Partly, it is because I'm highly educated in history, politics and economics, and, therefore, can be more discerning and analytical. I depend on Mark Thoma, and Paul Krugman, and Steve Benen and digby and Mark Kleiman and Sterling Newberry and billmon and Arnold Kling and many others to taste-test and prepare sauces and chop celery.

The point of this extended metaphor is that, no, my mournful pessimism about the doleful state of public opinion and democracy in the U.S. is NOT about my feeling morally superior. My understanding is superior -- that's a given; just like Julia Child was a better cook, and better eater, than I am, with my Green Giant.

From my superior perspective, I am shouting: YOU ARE POISONING YOURSELVES! YOU ARE POISONING ALL OF US!

Ordinarily, I would just complain about the quality of the political news Media, in much the way Michael Pollan might criticize agriculture and food processing.

But, at some point, ordinary people have a responsibility, as consumers, to notice that they are being fed poisonous cardboard.

"Obama wasn't born in the U.S." "Health care reform will mean Death Panels for old people!" is pretty obvious poison, I would think. But, we cannot, apparently expect corporate Media to eject Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck from the business of delivering pre-processed political opinion to the masses.

But, the slippery idea that there is some ambiguity about whether the law prohibits torture and murder of captives by CIA agents, is also, to my mind, pretty obvious poison as well. And, we, apparently cannot expect the denizens of Washington Week in Review to acknowledge it.

This isn't about my feeling superior. This is about American democracy dying from ingesting poisonous ideas and not being collectively willing or able to generate enough popular interest or outrage, to reform the system by which political opinion is generated and distributed, consumed and processed into policy, in ordinary times.

These are no longer ordinary times; they cannot be ordinary times, if American democracy is to survive. People are going to have to give up some of their easy methods of forming political opinions for a while, and do a bit more critical thinking. We need more choices in the supermarket of ideas. We need better quality, certified quality if you like.

People like me, who spend more time and attention on politics than is really sensible, have to be the ones, who sound the alarm: American Democracy, you are poisoning yourselves! What you are eating tastes terrible! Pay attention!

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