09 September 2011

Crisis of faith

     My kingdom for a horse of veracity. 

     The elected leaders of the free countries of this earth are empowered not only by the laws they uphold and create, but also by the faith of those who have sent them to do these things. The faith that a person elected will come together with the other elected representatives of the people to wisely consider all sides of an issue before laws are made or enforced.  The faith that these elected men and women will represent the interests of the constituency that sent them to office and not a constituency of cash or ideology. The faith that these are open-minded people who have been sent to office.  I have lost that faith.

     I recognize that there is a dose of Pollyanna in my thesis, but it does not invalidate my argument.  We send people to the county seat, the state capital, and Washington, DC with the faith that they will govern the country in our interest. It troubles me to listen to and read stories about politicians too busy staunchly defending positions designed not to do what is best for the people that elected them to office, but positions that are most likely to get them re-elected to that (or higher) office, whether by direct voter pandering, or indirectly via cash donations from corporations or other groups with a vested interest in furthering their own goals via legislation.

    There's a fallacy in modern American culture that we each know what is best for us in all things and that no elected person in Washington, DC is going to tell us that what we think is wrong.  If we knew what was best for us McDonald's, Marlboro, and ExxonMobil would be vastly different companies.  We don't know what is best for us.  This is why some people become experts in a certain area, so they can tell the rest of us what is best.  Most doctors wouldn't know how to repair a motor any more than the majority of programmers would know how to re-sect a bowel.  We must have faith that the expert knows what she is doing.  Our faith is that elected officials turn to these experts when a question arises and then proceed thus educated. We elected them to make these decisions for us, not to blindly do the will of the majority; it's in the constitution, even.  The United States of America is a representative republic, not a democracy. 

     This faith is destroyed when our representatives use belief, outdated thinking, or "experts" who come bearing large gifts and a skewed viewpoint in lieu of true consideration of all the facts before them, whether it's a farm bill or a nuclear arms reduction treaty.  I have observed this behavior on the part of elected and electorate, and after some thought I can suggest 3 actions that can be taken to lift us from this downward spiral into mediocrity.  These need not all three happen, though my third suggestion is at once the easiest and yet the most imperative to implement.

     First dismantle the two-party power structure.  How many of the recent "crises" would have been the dry items of parliamentary procedure if there were not two political parties on the floor of the Congress, in the Oval Office, and on every news program, news magazine, radio show and Internet site battling for ephemeral points against the other side?  I don't advocate demolishing the current parties, but law and tradition make it hard for a third party to obtain any real say in the ongoing governance of our nation, from the White House down to City Hall. The electorate will have more of a voice in representation if not forced to choose between one of the two true parties.  Three, four, five parties all governing together would be required to build consensus. The question is whether it is better to have a noisy sub-set of a party playing the role of spoiler, or having some additional party that must receive some concession before legislation could be passed?

     Second, install term limits. The president, many governors, mayors, &c. are all subject to a limit on the number of terms they may serve.  Why are senators and representatives allowed to run for and stay in office as their minds grow ever more rigid in their advancing years, opinions formed on reflex and what was received wisdom 30 or 40 years ago rather than what is now known to be true? Why are these people allowed to continue to grow their personal power and be more like regional nobility than people sent to do a job? A person who knows he has a deadline, a limit on his time as an elected official, is more likely to want to get something accomplished than someone who is more concerned about what vote will see him re-elected and continuing to receive donations, supplications, and fealty.  Plus, we wouldn't have to listen to any more straight-faced lying from the elected who insist they will only serve one or two terms before stepping aside, only to be up for re-election twenty years later. An official thus removed from re-election worries would be freed from an obligation to be seen as a mouthpiece for the majority of her district.

     Finally, and most importantly, we must better educate the electorate.  This is beyond an argument of whether or not our schools are failing, crumbling, falling behind China or indoctrinating our children to be cogs in the wheel.  Children don't vote, but adults do.  Adults aren't school children and they get their information not from teachers but from news anchors, and thus the news media must be reformed.  Nationally speaking, governance of this country has become another spectator sport, where Republicans face Democrats in a World Series of Superbowls(tm) for the World Cup of Power every time something comes up for debate in congress.  This trends down to the local level, with local radio stations and newspapers following the lead of their larger regional and national counterparts.  The sport plays out over the course of any debate or election cycle on any network with someone on their payroll with the word "News" in their title.  They want ratings, and Americans (who are hungry for action and bold words) tune in for be-suited heads -- political and journalistic alike -- enumerating talking points, half-truths, misinformation, and sensationalized recountings of events as they unfold, complete with speculation and prognostication.  With so much content for any one side of an argument it's easy to pick a side and fall into an us versus them mentality.  As an exercise for the reader, listen to a partisan sports talk radio show and listen to a partisan political radio broadcast; as most of these are call-in shows, that is an added bonus.  The similarities in the hosts (proxies for coaches or senators) and the listeners (fans/electorate) are many.
     Too much faith, it would seem, has been placed in these opinion-givers.  A newsman was once considered the "most trusted man in America". For decades men behind desks told us in serious tones what was happening or had happened, and because it was easy to do so, it was lucrative to do so, and we are taught to be susceptible to it, they began telling us what to think.  How many of you listen to or read a news story wondering when they are going to get to the part that tells you what you are supposed to think about this item? Because we also self-select for things that initially appeal to us we return to that particular trough of news again and again, seeking that comfortable viewpoint that confirms our bias, whether it's the truth or not. Reading an opposing viewpoint may cause us to become argumentative and irrational; as if someone had just called your favorite tennis player a no-talent hack unworthy of retrieving Navratilova's net balls.  And so we spiral downward, one channel screaming one party's side whilst the another shouts the opposite.  A third channel picks sides based on whomever's well-coiffured head is currently in our homes (in 1080p 5.1 surround sound) while countless news sites, bloggers, radio personalities, and other networks distort the truth to meet the story they are trying to tell, the narrative to feed to that chunk of America that will buy whatever they are selling on their station, or get people to keep reading what they write on their web site.

     I see the loaded commentary, agenda-driven speech-making and question-dodging doublespeak coming from all sides and I search for the unvarnished truth so that I can make up my own mind. The left and the right battle in the open air and the fourth estate has chosen sides and I find that I have not gained anything but lost my faith in our leaders. I still have my faith in the USA, but not in her stewards we the people have chosen for her, because an electorate too distracted by half-truths & whole measures and a two-party oligarchy more interested in themselves than in the greater good of our nation have made it come to pass that a capable statesman will not rise.

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