We went out for a delicious dinner last night at a wonderful, and completely packed, restaurant in downtown Toronto (it’s called Mildred Pierce, for those who live in the area), and spent some of the time unobtrusively eavesdropping on the conversations at nearby tables. The discussions, much like the one at our own table, vacillated between the very personal (who’s dating who, personal anecdotes) and the impersonal (entertainment, sports, weather). But not a single word was uttered about politics: Nothing about Canadian politics (collapse of the right), Ontario politics (health care and education strikes threatened), Toronto politics (‘new deal’ for cities in peril), US politics (Bush/Kerry), or international politics (Iraq etc.) Not a word. This was a Sunday night so there were no obvious business reasons for steering away from the subject. It just never came up. And it occurred to me that at our annual neighbourhood BBQ on Saturday night no one talked about politics either. Is politics just too boring in Canada or has it become tacitly PI to talk about them, because of the political polarization that seems to be happening everywhere? Is the left-right gulf getting too wide to even try to broach in ‘decent conversation’?
I appreciate that there is less urgency about politics here in Canada than there is in the US, at least. The election here is over. And I’m told that at least 40% of Americans know personally at least one person on active duty in the Mideast, and that, I would expect, would probably make it a more likely topic of conversation. But some of my American readers tell me that talking about politics in face-to-face conversations is just too uncomfortable for them these days as well — too likely to lead to arguments. So outside of political rallies and other meetings of like minds they don’t talk about it much either.
What does this mean? First, it means the end of true political debate — I don’t mean those phony, scripted events where politicians roll out their rehearsed one-liners, I’m talking about articulate exchange of political views and information between real people. If you don’t talk with others about politics, how do you form your viewpoints and where do you get your information? From attack ads? I don’t think so — maybe I’m naive but I don’t think they work; most people know when they’re being manipulated, and won’t fall for it. From radio talk shows or editorials or blogs? Most of them are only for people who have already formed an unwavering political opinion on everything, and are merely looking for reassurance and justification for their belief. From television news and the print media? There isn’t enough information content in the sound bites and newswire rehashes in most of them to allow an informed decision or point of view on anything.
It seems to me that, on almost any political issue, 50% or more of the population is completely disengaged — even if they care, they don’t think anything they do or say or feel will have any impact, so they can’t be bothered to voice, or sometimes even form, any strong opinion on it. And the rest are in two, polarized camps, each believing that the other is irrational or immoral or misinformed, hopelessly so, so that meaningful discussion with the ‘other side’ or with the disengaged majority is impossible or fruitless. So except for the one-way palaver from the political flaks and political advertisers and partisans and oversimplifying mainstream media, there is no political information flow. And there is no discourse, no exchange of ideas or views, no balanced presentation of opposing views, no true political conversation. Because what purpose would it serve?
I see an astonishing paradox in modern society — in an era with unprecedented access to information, most people are ignorant of even the basic facts on most political issues, from the connection between 9/11 and Saddam, to the causes and implications of global warming, to the political situation in Sudan and Venezuela and Chechnya (not to mention parts of the world less in the news), to the numerous ecological and humanitarian crises that everyone from the Union of Concerned Scientists to Amnesty International is shouting about. Why are so many so ignorant? I think because they choose to be uninformed. Why? Perhaps either because they they can’t relate to the issue, or because they don’t think there’s any point in getting stressed about issues they feel they can do nothing personally about. So you end up in a vicious cycle: The less people know about a subject, the less inclined it is to come up in conversation, so the media conclude there is no interest in it, so they don’t cover it, so people know even less. And if they do know about it but feel helpless or disinclined to do anything about it, they don’t share their knowledge with others, and eventually with enough indifference the situation gets worse and the solutions become more intractable so people feel even more helpless and disinclined to try to do anything. Political disengagement is infectious, and it’s reached epidemic proportions, especially among the young.
All of this supports Richard Manning’s argument in Against the Grain that politics was and is designed to protect and entrench the status quo. As a result, nothing pleases those with power and money and influence more than massive political indifference and disengagement — what Gene McCarthy in the 1960s during the fight against the Vietnam War called ‘acedia’ — a Greek word meaning spiritual torpor, lack of care, apathy and inactivity in the practice of virtue. Unlike the 1960’s, the numbers of politically disengaged is inversely proportional to the age bracket — it is the young who I love so much and have such great hopes for who are least engaged in the political process, who infect each other with their indifference to global issues. But I don’t think it’s that they don’t care. Most of the young people I know are overwhelmed and intimidated by how much those of us who are politically active know about global issues. My teenage granddaughter has read my blog, but says she “doesn’t understand it”. The young focus their energies and their passion instead on issues in their own networks, local things, things that they can do something about.
We need to show them the way to do more. We, who have been in the streets, need to reach out to the young and not-so-young who have given up on the political process (often before they began), and stop drowning them in facts and laying guilt trips on them and filling them up with bad news and instead:
If we do that, if we can re-engage even a fifth of the people who never vote, who never read about politics or world affairs, who have lived their entire lives in political passivity, we will have started a revolution. Not only will they infect other disengaged peers with the zen of political activism, they will shake the diehard leftists and diehard right-wingers as well, because all of a sudden these new political activists will be up for grabs by whichever group that makes the most articulate, balanced and credible arguments, not by the blowhards who preach to the choir. And these new political activists will, on many issues, hold the political balance of power.
The real ‘swing voters’ are the ones who have never voted before and don’t expect to vote in future. Rhetoric won’t bring them to the polls. If we can ‘activate’ them, then conversations about politics will no longer be politically incorrect, and political activism will spread like a virus. As those who fought against the Vietnam War can tell you, political activism is as infectious as political apathy. The defenders of the status quo will be shaking in their boots.
And then the revolution we all need, the revolution to save the world, can begin.
Cartoon by the incomparable Robert Mankoff (from the New Yorker, of course)