Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt ceiling furore: blame your filter bubble

The US doesn't need a debt ceiling. As others have pointed out, most countries get along just fine without one. But, hey, I doubt I'll find that many people to agree with me so let's just move on.

Let's blame ourselves for all this fuss.

While the consequences of a US default would be very real, and make me blench, there's no sound economic reason for this country to be in this position. I lay blame at the feet of heightened partisanship. Partisan politics created the conditions for this drama. Partisan politics feeds it.

We--citizens, consumers, and voters--create partisan politics. We feed it. We are so used to it we now demand it from our newspapers, TV news, and blogs. It's getting worse.

I can't tell you how often in the last year I've been shocked by the political vitriol of some colleagues and acquaintances (of all political backgrounds and persuasions). People who, when I first met them ten or fifteen years ago, showed a balanced, thoughtful approach to political systems, political reality, and politicians themselves but who now are partisan. More than once in the last five years I've had to say, in my own house, at my own table, to someone I'd invited: Stop talking, or I don't allow that kind of language in my house, or Seriously, shut the fuck up right now.

I'm not kidding. I wish I were. I've had to say such things, to adults I believed well-mannered. Naturally I don't just bring the hammer down without warning. I begin with, Hey, isn't this soup tasty? Which is all a socially graceful intelligent grown up should need. If that doesn't work, I move to Well, it's a complicated situation, which those with a modicum of manners should recognise as a hint. The next stage is Defcon 1: I've found discussing politics over wine often leads to trouble*. Defcon 2: Let's change the subject and move on, which even a mildly dim person with too much wine inside them should be able to parse. But these days sometimes they don't, at which point I move to Defcon 3: Shut the fuck up, I mean it. Not another word. (Defcon 4 is throwing them out of the house. Defcon 5 involves weapons. I haven't had to get beyond Defcon 3 since I was in my twenties and illegal substances were involved.)

Normally well-mannered people have become red-faced ranters, and often on subjects they don't know a lot about. (They use such stock phrases that, in the UK, I can tell which paper they read; in the US, which blog or network talking head they follow.) In other words, these reasonably educated people have stopped listening.

When people stop listening they stop thinking and start believing.

Partisanship can creep up on a person. Watch this TED talk from Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble

The upshot of this partisan stance in citizens is partisanship in voting. Partisan voting leads to partisan politicians: representatives who doggedly stick with their mantras and catchphrases and simplistic promises to their voters.

The world would be a better place if we voted intelligently. If we voted for intelligent people who would think, talk, listen, and learn.

If you don't like what's going on in Washington, think about this: citizens of a democracy get the government they deserve. This is the government you voted for. They are doing what they're doing so you'll vote them in again.

If you want to change Washington, change yourself: listen. Listen to your friends and neighbours, to the poor and rich, the white and black, the old and young, the queer and straight. Listen to the atheists and the religious. Listen to the conservative and the liberal. Listen to the artist and the scientist. Listen to the Other. Loosen your filters.


* I actually enjoy conversations about politics but, sadly, my notion of 'conversation' is at odds with most people. To me, conversation is an opening, an exploration, a game in which we bat a conversational ball around for the joy of it, working with our partner/s to set up long delicious rallies or show-stopping exhibition shots. It can be a delight.
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