Sunday, October 7, 2012

Who Lost the Debate?

Answer: Democracy

Anthropologist David Givens, in a fit of idiotic cultural insight, captured, perhaps unknowingly, the essence of our presidential debates and perhaps our whole political landscape, when he said:
If you turn off the sound, you will feel or see what most Americans are feeling or seeing. If you turn the sound back on, the words get in the way of the nonverbal.
Genius! To find out the real message of the debate, as well as its winners and losers, don't listen to what they say! First we close our ears; next it will be our eyes.

It has come to this. Trying to decide issues in a democracy is just too difficult for us. The commentators said this immediately after the debate finished, before we had a chance to turn them off. Essentially I heard, "Boy, there were some technical details thrown in there on some issues. I'm not sure what to think of that. Let's talk about the integrity, honesty and appearance of the candidates."

Have issues such as health care, the tax code, and education become too difficult for a democracy to understand?

[Thanks to Myk for pointing this out to me, and, by the way, Myk, Sue, and I had a wonderful, wonderful vacation that was only marred by its shortness. We also had great fun and conversations with Ellen, Tom and Cookie.]


Big Myk said...

Actually, Givens’ article reflects another broader problem of political reporting: treating politics as entertainment. The question everyone asks about the debates is “who won?” – as if it’s some kind contest for our amusement. But no one asks, as you point out, what did anybody say? Or, as importantly, what are the merits of their positions and proposals. News commentators rarely, if ever, talk about that stuff.

According to Jay Rosen, chair of the journalism department at New York University and blogger about journalism, journalists love to take the view of the political insider, and ask the same questions that the insiders do: “who’s ahead” and “what is the strategy for winning?” It’s a perspective that puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do.”

But, it ends up being a little crazy. As Rosen puts it: you are watching the pundits discussing the election on television, and “one journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that – how will this play with the voters – haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, ‘hey buddy, I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.’” All this talk of how the insiders are going to manipulate the voters to win doesn’t really help anyone make a decision. We do not become experts on the issues or the candidates. Rather, as Rosen’s friend Todd Gitlin once wrote (employing one of the great turns of phrase in our time), news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game allows the public only to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement.”

Big Myk said...

Your post reminds me of the Laurence J. Peter quote: "Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them."