Friday, September 5, 2008

Writing, Politics, and the Great Pumpkin

When I was a kid, I used to watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on television every year around Halloween. I thought the shows were fun and I loved the jazzy piano music by Vince Guaraldi. In fact, whole seasons of my life as a child seem to be set to the Guaraldi music.

But what I didn't realize at the time was that I was also learning some important philosophy from the Peanuts gang. Some of it was common-sensical, like the admonition to stay away from kite-eating trees and beware of Lucy with a football. And some was good advice for getting along with people; advice quite useful to a child with undiagnosed broader autistic phenotype.

I have had cause to consider this sterling piece of advice from Linus in the past few weeks, as I have started a GA in the UNM College of Education Graduate Writing Center:

Linus: There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.
(From: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and quoted on Wikipedia).

Only I think that in the "Arts" parts of the College of Arts and Sciences Linus needed to amend his advice to say "politics that's not on the far left." And I imagine that since one can discuss almost anything else, including deviant sexual practices, the Great Pumpkin is probably not off limits, although religion--at least the western ones--are.

What is interesting about my experience outside of science, is that I am not a conservative. I am neither "paleo" nor "neo", but my views also cannot be defined by the current understanding of the word "liberal." I find the two-party, tennis-court-congress definitions of left and right as restrictive as a straight jacket. My political stances are probably best defined as libertarian with a small "l".

But what I have discovered is that what passes for political discussion in the Liberals Arts is not reasoned argument, or concerned discussion, but rather a frantic mission: define and destroy any idea that does not agree with the TRUTH. And Truth here is defined as something to the left of FDR. In this atmosphere, even asking reasonable questions causes the defenders of the doctrine of Republican Evil and Democratic Socialist Righteousness to start shouting.

For example, in a discussion of the coming storm in unfunded government obligations (Social Security and Medicare), I asked a question: "Where will the money come from?" Simultaneously I had the righteous indignation of three people shouting at once:

"Where are you getting your information!" (I had said that G3 books are not reported to the public).
"Why in my country (Brazil) we take care of everybody!" (If I could have gotten a word in edgewise I'd have asked about their deficit and how much monetary and defense aid they get from the US).
"People are going to have to work more and pay more taxes!" (If I could have gotten a word in edgewise I'd have asked what this person--who is old enough to know better--thinks will happen when our children are paying taxes so high that it is no longer worth it for them to work).

The hullabaloo would have been downright funny except for the sensory-overload feeling I was getting. It was a classic attempt to herd me into the Vision of the Anointed. There was no way to reasonably answer their arguments because there was no way they were going to let me finish a sentence, let alone a complete thought. However, I did have the chance to make two observations about this behavior that will serve me well in the future.

The first is that when people have the TRUTH with a capital "T," they will place you into one of two categories: 'with us' or 'against us.' And there is no straying from these positions. If, for the sake of argument, a person supports gun rights, then she must also be for the death penalty, and against the environment. This need for polarity on the part of the ideologues extends right down to where a person lives. If a citizen lives in a rural area, then that person just has to be poor, white, and "clinging to god and guns."

The second is that if one does not agree with the TRUTH, then one must be at best, unintelligent and uninformed, and at worst, evil. Therefore, it is appropriate to skip over reason and move right to expressions of hatred for "the other side." There is no room for honest differences of opinion among intelligent people. There is no meeting place where different experiences in life can be brought to the table for discussion. This second is probably the most important contribution to shouting down the opponent. Shouting is not an argument, it replaces any argument. But then, there can be no argument with the TRUTH.

Thus, in their attempts to herd me into line with right thinking, the most telling statement was: "Most people are too stupid to run their own lives."
This was really said, and it was said baldly and without apology or equivocation.
That one really made me laugh inside. A wonderful headline for the Daily Onion occurred to me at that moment:


Too bad I do not have the comedic talent to actually write the spoof.
I can see it, though, staring Dan Akroiyd and Chevy Chase as the profs--rubbing their beards and trying to figure out how to survive out there in the "real world" a la Ghost Busters.

That was fun, but I digress.

The need to polarize issues and the refusal to listen to one another is rampant across what is left of the political spectrum of ideas in the United States. Some say that it is generational. Some think that it has to do with the formation of wholly separate value systems. I suspect it is both. And.

This is why, although I have certain reservations about John McCain, and there were certain issues that worry me that were not addressed in his speech last night, I found that I was very hungry to hear what he said about bringing a wide variety of competent people into his administration. Even Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, when opinions were extremely divided, understood this need.

What I don't know is, will the Anointed on the Right be too rigid to accept that?
What about the anointed on the Left?

We have a lot of big fish to fry in this country at the moment. Listening to the rhetoric, I wonder if we can focus our attention on those or if we will become even more atomized by wrangling caused by our convictions that our side has the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth.

I worry for the future of the American experiment.

But I have learned that Linus was right. From now on here in COE, I will consider religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin are out of bounds.

But secretly, as Halloween approaches, I am on the lookout for a Pumpkin Patch that is Sincere.


Kaber said...

I loved Charlie Brown Holiday Specials!!! they were the best part of the Holidays@@

christinemm said...

Brilliant post!

I am in the camp of being able to discuss and 'agree to disagree'. I can discuss without trying to convert a person over to my way of thinking. I can respect a person who holds different views than me.

However I have found over and over that many people who say they want to discuss things indeed don't want to discuss. They want to convert. Or argue. Others cannot even respect the other view. Many cannot even examine or explain why they hold their view or don't know the facts behind what they are saying.

Luke said...

Polarizing and categorizing are problems whenever there are two major sides to an idea. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to keep my brain engaged and consider the subtleties and reasonable points of the other side, I often fall short of really engaging the ideas.

A good reminder to take up the challenge of being able to listen and discuss. And perhaps also to know when such a thing is not possible.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I see what you mean Luke and when it comes to politics there are often many different perspectives on an issue, and when you are talking about the sum total of issues that any one person thinks about, it is unlikely one can categorize them a priori.

And your last statement is most apropos! Sometimes it's just not worth it.