Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Quote of the Day (Maxwell Anderson, on Electoral Apathy)

“The natural resources of this country in political apathy and indifference have hardly been touched.”—Alcoholic pol Solomon Fitzmaurice, in Maxwell Anderson’s play Both Your Houses (1933)

When I was younger, I would certainly agree with the cynical Fitzmaurice and his creator, the now-little-performed Maxwell Anderson (his rarely seen Pulitzer Prize-winning satire, by the way, is playing this month in New York, just in time for the elections). It would probably still be the case for the very poor in this country, who, understandably, see little if any change in their daily lives, no matter which party is in office.

But lately, I’ve feared the exact opposite of “political apathy and indifference.” Take a look at Facebook lately. It’s become the electronic equivalent of the old front lawns bearing signs for political contenders, only in this case it’s far more widespread and vitriolic.

Some people take their advocacy to insane levels. So predisposed are they to their points of view that they forward and post messages with the most dubious “facts,” sure to find like-minded partisans who won't challenge them. Moreover, people from both ends of the political spectrum are likely to do so. Within the last week, I’ve seen a post about President Obama making anti-Christian “statements”; several years ago, I recall that well-known MIT physicist, Rosie O’Donnell, in her desire to hit at George W. Bush, speculated on why U.S. government involvement in the World Trade Center bombing couldn’t be dismissed, as “it is impossible for a building to fall the way it fell without explosives being involved.”

It’s all part of a tendency remarked upon by Michael Scherer in this week’s Time Magazine cover story on “The Fact Wars”: “As some voters feel a deeper affinity for one side or another in political debates, they have developed a tendency to forgive the home team’s fibs. No matter their ideology, many voters increasingly inhabit information bubbles in which they are less likely to hear their worldview contradicted.”

The sad thing is not merely that levels of education have surprisingly little to do with one’s susceptibility to political urban myths, but also that, even after being presented with material that one might think might make them reexamine their "facts," some voters simply become all the more entrenched in their positions.

It makes me despair to read about the persistence of falsehood. Perhaps the only way to turn matters around is to bring voters back to basics:

First, it’s worthwhile to remember what is fact vs. opinion vs. argument.

Second, one wishes that voters, as well as college students being taught the basics of research, would learn how to critically evaluate sources of information. Are there errors in this source that you can spot immediately? That should raise red flags right away. Does the source have an obvious ax to grind? That, too, needs to be weighed.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” William Butler Yeats writes in his great poem “The Second Coming.” Maxwell Anderson’s statement  about indifference might have held true in the Great Depression, but in this election cycle, as with others in recent years, the greater problem might be coming from those “full of passionate intensity.” Their greater number these days makes one worry that the skills that once made democracies operate at all—communication and persuasion, backed by  respect for another’s point of view—are dying on the vine here in America.

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