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:

  • Ask them what’s important to them (open-ended questions with no preconception of the answers) and listen to their answers,
  • Tell them stories about how the political process has brought about important and positive change,
  • Teach them how the system works, in the context of how it could work to deal with the issues they said were important to them, and
  • Encourage them, starting with something small, to make the system work for them.

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)

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  1. Dale Asberry says:

    >>Why are so many so ignorant? I think because they choose to be uninformed.<<Is it possible that they are hopelessly addicted to their boredom? Take a look at The things that you and Alan Carter are saying seem to be very close in principle.

  2. I am not too old (early 30’s) but am pretty politically aware which probably makes me a minority for my age group. I like to follow politics because I feel it is both important but also because I find it interesting. I like to ponder the different options, considering the pros and cons of each. I think it is the analytical nature in me. That said, I find politics seemingly becoming more of a game of deception than a process for leading a city, province or country into the future. Elections are all about who can spin the media the best and who can be the most believable while lying through their teeth and less about who has the best plan for the future.I was watching CNN today. After 20 minutes of talk about whether Kerry was hurt 3 times in Vietnam or just once one of the guests said something like (and I am paraphrasing) “but this all seems silly. We really need to be focusing on present issues and wars, not past ones” to which Wolf Blitzer replied (again paraphrased) “so true, there is so much else happening around the world today more important than this” and with that the 20 minute discussion ended. And yet it was probably Wolf Blitzer himself who made the decision to spend 20 minutes talking about Kerry’s vietnam record, followed by the mandatory 5 minute discussion on Michael Jackson and/or Scott Peterson court cases while barely mentioning the major and extremely important battle going on in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq. Very likely the success or failure of Iraq depends on how this battle with al Sadr unfolds and yet no one in the media seems to mention this. If mainstream media spends all its time on petty issues like Kerry’s war record or the Michael Jackson court case is it any wonder why the general population tunes it out?Does anyone really know what Bush or Kerry have planned for the next four years if they are elected?In Canada it isn’t much different. The recent federal election was all about which leader was the least scary, not who was the best to lead Canada into the future. Martin won because he wasn’t as bad as Harper not because people think he has a great plan for the future of Canada. We chose the ‘do nothing’ candidate over the ‘who knows what he will do’ candidate. In Ontario we saw Daulton McGuinty break nearly every election promise he made. You can’t discuss politics if you don’t believe politicians views.Ultimately it comes down to this. 1. If you don’t trust what your politicans are saying it seems pretty pointless to discuss the merits of each politicans position.2. If the media isn’t willing to inform us (beyond spewing the same lies/rhetoric polticians feed them) about the issues that really matter, how are we supposed to have a real debate of the issues? You need to understand the issues before you can discuss them.(BTW, is it just me or has everyone else noticed that the amount of Iraq talk is directly proportional to the number of press conferences Donald Rumsfeld gives. If the Whitehouse wants to reduce Iraq talk in the media all they have to do is ask Rumsfeld to shut up. That is what I call media manipulation as well as the media simply being lazy and not doing its job)

  3. Mel says:

    Thank you for writing this. I loved the part about the overheard conversations in trendy TO night spots – you’ve isolated one of my primary reasons for wanting to leave Toronto/the city. But this isn’t a localized problem – it’s everywhere. If only people could stop getting all their ideas from television and movies, if they’d stop letting TV do all their thinking, stop allowing news to define the issues, and just *think* and privilege our own POV’s rather than defaulting to what we’re *told*. I’m rereading Orwell’s 1984 at the moment and it’s a great reminder of what life would be like if we didn’t have the freedoms we take for granted. Sadly, too many people don’t cherish those freedoms until they are taken away.

  4. Ahmed says:

    Maryin Jacques wrote a thematically similar article in the UKbased Guardian recently,,1287822,00.htmlI personally think a great deal of the problem lies in our atomization as a society- the “me”ness which stops people from enagaging in communal activity like voting or caring about things which have no direct affect on them, because after all how important is one vote? In the UK the problem is even worse. General election turnouts are typically about 70%, often 50% or less for local elections. I thought the war in Iraq would have energised things somewhat but i fear it has made no change at all. It is of course possible that participatory Democracy isnt the best way to run things any more…

  5. An election turnout of 70% is pretty good. In this federal election just 60.5% of eligible Canadians voted. The Ontario provincial election last year turnout was about 58%. I believe local elections are lucky to get 30-40%. In the United States federal elections get around 50% turnout.

  6. Jeff Coon says:

    I take part in an on-line group that is examining the concept of citizenship. ( I just discovered a group “Envisioning San Diego”. My twin daughters just left to work for a year in orphanages one in Romania and one in El Salvador.The choice between Kerry and Bush doesn’t get me excited, but I am encouraged by movement toward a greater collective intelligence at the grass roots level.

  7. Jeff Coon says:

    Ahh, my point, I see lots of encouraging signs out there!

  8. Actually, studies show two things about attack ads: a) everybody says they hate them, b) they work. They’re the most effective form of political advertision possible because they evoke an emotional response, rather than asking a question. They TELL, they DIRECT, they don’t suggest or wonder, and people more than anything respond to a sure voice. Doubt is considered weak, and any form of doubt – be it civilized debate or be it simple openmindedness to alternate possibilities – plays very badly in the media, and evey worse emotionally. (John Ralston Saul has a lot to say about doubt.)Think of it like a car crash. Everybody’s milling around, wanting somebody else to take responsibility for the situation. Everybody assumes somebody else has called 911, and when one person says “Right, then, let’s get those people out of the burning car,” suddenly everybody’s galvanized into action. Unfortunately, today’s voices are saying “Nothing to see here, folks.” So everybody’s just walking away.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Dale: Thanks for the reference to Carter. He appears to be a Gurdjieff supporter, whose work I’ve read, and have some sympathy with, especially when he describes how malleable the human mind is. Reminds me of ee cummings’ “a world that is doing its best every day to make you everybody else”.David: I think the media is more cheap than lazy — investigative reporting is expensive and their shareholders would be delighted if the public was content to hear about Michael Jackson’s nose instead of the root causes of the conflict in Iraq. Unfortunately, the ratings data encourages them to do this. I think most people are overwhelmed and want the issues to be made simple, and reassurance that most of the problems will go away if they’re ignored or addressed with simplistic solutions. It takes energy and time and commitment to be informed today, qualities in scarce supply.Mel: The scariest thing is that many of those freedoms are already gone. Americans’ tolerance of gerrymandering and the Patriot Act, and Canadians’ acceptance of the police’s treatment of anti-‘free’-trade protesters attests to the loss of rights and freedoms we once took for granted.Jeff: I’m pleased to hear of examples like your daughters. What they learn and bring back and tell others will have a multiplying effect that will touch and change probably hundreds of others. Because of the power of personal experience, they will probably do more to make the world a better place than the most eloquent and popular blogger, or politician.Renee: You’re right, but (a) people respond much more to what they see and experience directly than what they’re told, even in the most skillful attack ad, and (b) we tend to believe what reinforces our preconceptions, and while attack ads work on those inclined to believe their messages, and move those people to vote, I’m less sure they effectively change anyone’s mind.

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