Friday, November 22, 2013

The Power to Change the World Lies With All of Us

This post has had as many false starts as the visiting team in a Seattle Seahawks playoff game. Every time I try to attack it from a different angle, I still end up writing a 3,000-word political manifesto. And no one is going to read that. I wouldn't even read it.

I first felt compelled to write something when I-522, the ballot initiative here in Washington state to label GMOs, failed to pass in our most recent election. The defeat really surprised me, because we have pretty progressive voters in this state. We voted last year to legalize marijuana and gay marriage, for heaven's sake. And we can't even agree to put a label on a box of Cheerios?

Another reason the defeat took me aback was that 522 held a commanding lead in early polling.

So what happened? Well, I don't watch TV, but I heard from a lot of people how the "No" campaign -- funded to the tune of $22 million by GMO giants such as Monsanto and food companies that use those GMOs in their products -- pummeled viewers with ads critical of the initiative. Apparently one of the big talking points was that 522 would raise people's grocery bills.

The only problem is, there was zero evidence for such a claim. But playing on people's fears and their pocketbooks can do wonders for a political campaign, it seems.

A lot of people these days complain about the corrupting influence of money on political campaigns, especially after the Citizens United case. I agree that corporations and special interests are buying our politicians and their votes, and that it's a problem we need to address. Our elected leaders today represent the people who fund their campaigns more than they represent us.

But all of us could go a long way toward undermining the status quo by attending to two simple things: doing our own research, and thinking independently.

It's my fervent belief that far too many people these days let others do their thinking for them. Mainstream commercial media sets the agenda for what topics they think the public should be interested in, and our politicians attract people to their sides using lots of emotionally charged soundbites. Party platforms and bumper-sticker slogans end up substituting for critical, independent thought, as evidenced by the fact that we seem to have lost the ability to debate. One would expect that if people could articulate their views, they would -- but instead we get Team Red and Team Blue shouting hollow talking points at each other and calling each other names. I swear that if I never again hear anyone on the right using terms like communist, Marxist, or libtard, or anyone on the left using names like teabagger, fascist, or anarchist to denigrate their opponents, it will be too soon.

As John F. Kennedy put it so well, "We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

By doing our own research, we can get a good handle on whether we're being told the truth. Did the Washington voters who said "No" on 522 stop to consider whether they were being manipulated by a handful of agribusiness behemoths trying to protect their profit margins? Did they look at both sides of the issue, or did they let someone else spoon-feed them their views? You may never get to the complete truth of what you're investigating, but the more sites and sources you research, the more you can begin to build a consensus and come to a decision based on knowledge instead of on fear or personal political prejudice.

To that end, I find that it helps a lot to investigate foreign media outlets, which often seem to provide a fuller, clearer, more objective picture of American current events. I learn more about U.S. policy from reading the U.K. paper The Guardian than I do from any domestic media source. (Don't even get me started on the U.S. media's embrace of infotainment and the drift away from investigative journalism.) The BBC, the CBC, and Al Jazeera are three other sources I rely on. Independent media holds an important place in the discussion, too, but you have to be on higher guard against sketchy research, even sketchier claims, and partisan axes to grind.

And before anyone says "I don't have time to do all this," let me just say that I'm a stay-at-home dad for a 2-year-old who needs a lot of attention, and I work from home 40 hours a week. Even if you can only carve out half an hour before bedtime, you're still making time for something that's crucially important. Jefferson and Madison both stressed the importance of an informed electorate, and it's up to all of us to take the initiative and arm ourselves with knowledge. How else can we ever hope to hold our elected leaders' feet to the fire and build a better world?

As for thinking independently, I'm the first to admit it can be really difficult. We all have our own biases, and it's both easy and tempting to build an echo chamber around ourselves in an attempt to uphold our most cherished beliefs. But blindly accepting the views of one side like religious dogma while ignoring or demonizing any opposing views has helped lead us to our current state of violently polarized politics. I would much rather try to understand why the opposition believes what it does. Not only can you build empathy and tolerance for different views by taking the time to listen and reflect, but you might also see some of the tricks that partisans use to slant the news to their point of view. When you start to recognize where the other side omits certain facts or uses loaded language to stir up its base, it becomes easier to see how your side does the same thing. You get better at cutting through the partisan bias to arrive at the nugget of truth that often gets lost in all the shouting.

I speak from experience. My Facebook feed includes pages from just about every corner of the political spectrum, from (speaking of independent media) Common Dreams to Reason, National Review to Democracy Now, Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul, and The American Spectator to I encourage people to take that kind of approach -- to deliberately frustrate your own confirmation bias and tear down that echo chamber. It's fascinating to sit back and see how such divergent groups can take the same collection of facts and spin them so differently. Bias is a powerful tool. But challenging your own biases can be even more powerful, even transformative.

I think one of the most effective things people can do for themselves to engender independent thought is to let go of their party affiliations. Instead of asking yourself whether a certain view on a topic fits a specific political agenda, try asking yourself whether it works. Does it make practical sense? Would it help more than harm? Is it the best available solution to a pressing problem?

Again quoting JFK, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer."

This is easy for me to say, since I've always been an iconoclast of sorts. I was annoying my parents before age 10 because I kept questioning the things we were supposed to take on faith in regard to our family's religious beliefs. In my formative years to come, I found myself becoming more liberal when I was around conservative people, and more conservative when I was around more liberal people. I haven't changed much in the years since. Today, I'm the only person I know who thinks the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement both have legitimate complaints. I don't approach life this way to be a deliberate contrarian. I just like to ask why, while the people around me usually seem to want to find an ideology to hold on to. Most people are joiners. I never have been.

Believe me, I sometimes wish I could be content with my world, just going about my daily business and not questioning everything. But I took the red pill many years ago, and once you do that, there's no turning back.

All I can encourage people to do is to look beyond their party preferences and political biases, and see what happens. I'm not talking about just peering across the aisle from Donkey to Elephant, or vice versa. There are options out there beyond just Democrat and Republican, and it's not as if flipping D.C. back and forth between those two parties every few years has gotten us anywhere. They've held a monopoly on the U.S. political scene since the Civil War -- I would think that if either party was going to lead us to the promised land, it would have figured out how to do so by now.  

But when you start talking about third parties, you get people saying the third parties might have some decent ideas, but they'll never win. Well, of course they won't, if you refuse to consider voting for them. It is perhaps the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy in American politics. Yet the refrain I heard in the 2012 presidential election, over and over, from both Democrats and Republicans, was that they were voting for either Obama or Romney not so much because they thought their guy was all that great, but because the other guy would have been so much worse for the country. We end up voting against candidates instead of for them. That's no way to choose our leaders. We should demand better. We certainly deserve better.

So why do we continue to voluntarily narrow our choices to two right-of-center, corporate-controlled parties that differ on a few social wedge issues but are practically identical on things like foreign policy and Constitutional liberties? What on Earth do we have to lose by considering an alternative?

The most interesting ideas I heard being discussed during the 2012 campaign came from the likes of Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Rocky Anderson. They sure didn't come from the two mainstream candidates. Take a listen for yourself, from the third-party presidential debate last year, and see whether you don't find yourself frequently nodding in agreement and wondering why no one else is talking about solutions like these. You'll probably also get a sense of how intellectually stagnant the two major parties have become.

None of this would be a big deal to me, if I didn't think we faced a lot of serious issues that require serious solutions, rather than more empty talking points and more corporate kickbacks. But if we want to change our world, we have to show people the tools they need to make informed decisions, and we have to be unafraid to move out of our own comfort zones. Complacency will change nothing.

We have the power to change the way things are. But do we have the power to change ourselves when the situation calls for it?

I think we can, and must, do a lot better.

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