Saturday, June 4, 2011

talking politics

Miss Manners, with the eloquence and keen insight I’ve come to expect from her column, got down to one of the basic reasons why the “politics rule” of social etiquette makes sense today: it is less that talking politics might hurt someone’s feelings than it is that “politics” has been reduced to a set of base, superficial and ultimately degrading assertions. Don’t talk about it around the dinner table unless you want to find out just how shallow, thoughtless and ignorant people can be. It would be nice to learn more about the history of this rule, its origins and the changing justifications for it, but for now I can just say that Miss Manners is as timely here as ever. When I set out to write this post I was discouraged because I kept coming across material that all of us, regardless of our political opinions, should be able to agree is trash. As someone who revels in the richness to be found in discarded objects, digging around this week led to some disappointing reminders that there are some objects that are truly stupid.

A few years ago, “the world’s smallest political quiz” made a brief appearance on facebook, and it was so transparent that performing a close reading of it was depressingly unsatisfying. The quiz is unabashedly designed to help you discover that you’re a libertarian, asking questions that you’re supposed to be able to answer already (don’t you know that we should end corporate welfare?!) without requiring you to think about some of the more complicated problems raised by any of the issues it cites. The quiz's logo features a mighty green arrow whisking you up to the pinnacle of political thought even as your open-mindedness expands to the outer corners of the chart, and at the end you receive a score for your level of achievement on the quiz. I got a 20% on personal issues and a 10% on economic issues simply by disagreeing with any bald assertion that I thought needed to be qualified before I would be able to give it even a “maybe." I might have been able to get a 0% if only I had more character. Considering that this was a multiple choice test with three choices for each question, statistically speaking I could have done better if I had just guessed randomly.

For sake of space, I'll have to talk about what this quiz suggests about libertarianism and what libertarianism has to do with this quiz in a different post. There is a preliminary point I want to make, one that might help readers to understand what I am doing as I assemble scattered materials for this blog. Perhaps one reason why “politics” seems so shallow today is that the term seems to be used to refer either to the relationships between various political platforms (like the Democrats or the Republicans), or, as suggested by this quiz, to the results one gets by adding up all the items in one’s grab bag of disconnected opinions. The message is that it doesn’t matter in the least how you arrived at your opinions; you’ve got ‘em, you’re sticking to ‘em, and now all you want to know is what to call yourself. If you believe that there should be no National ID card and that people should control their own retirement, you too could be an enlightened libertarian. If you’re indecisive, you’ll get stuck in the quagmire of centrism. And if you refuse outright to subscribe to vacuous assertions, you’re a statist who opposes diverse lifestyles and questions the importance of civil liberties.

What is completely missing in the quiz, what the quiz in fact denies, is politics as a process for proposing ways of organizing social spaces, of describing and shaping relationships between individuals and between each individual and his or her society. That would be a kind of politics that could only be understood in relation to basic ideas about the world and the ways it works, ideas that ought to be critiqued and tested even as they are used to challenge and inform political opinions and platforms. Every "principle" in this quiz can be reduced to a paranoid preoccupation with some indefinite "freedom" from "government," the entire thing depends upon a brute ignorance of any actual forms of social violence or oppression, and ultimately, the quiz doesn't propose any actual politics, any way of organizing social spaces, it only obstinately insists on the need to limit the role of government. It is not that politics are shallow, it is that politics in the sense implied by “the world’s smallest political quiz” demands that you be shallow.

Though I hope to avoid getting so explicit about it as I have here, every post on this blog is, in the alternative sense I’m proposing, political. One of my main goals is to pay attention to what is going on even in those things that seem most benign, especially in those things that seem most obvious, and to be less preoccupied with opinions and labels and more curious about how people arrive at their opinions and how labels change historically.

With that, I'll leave you in the capable hands of Monty Python. Their satirical take on leftist political factions sums up a lot of what I've said here and suggests a possible fate for any degraded and degrading so-called politics.

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