Consumers Guide to Politics

A Consumer’s Guide to Politics OR How Not to Act Like a Dumb Ass

Americans need to stop acting like dumb asses and start using common sense when it comes to politics. I’d apologize for the crass language, but this isn’t a love letter. I’d apologize for appealing to common sense, but this isn’t a research paper. In this country we have a real problem. Many of us are acting like dumb asses when it comes to politics, all of us are being treated like dumb asses, and decisions are being made out of fear, anger, and ignorance. Most of us are not informed consumers of politics and thus are at the mercy of the people who are trying to ‘sell’ politics to us. Few of us demand clear explanations, convincing evidence, or cooperation. Many of us have accepted that we are fans rather than participants. All of us, as a result, are getting what most of us are asking for. All of us need to find a way to help ourselves out of this predicament. Love letters and research projects aren’t going to cut it. We need a consumer’s guide to politics similar to the guides we have to help people make every other decision imaginable, from choosing a college to choosing a stereo. We might need more, but a consumer’s guide to politics is a good, and simple, place to start. It’s just a list of questions someone could ask when they find themselves face to face with a big election decision, an editorial in the local paper, a college student going door to door with a petition, or a discussion at Church about abortion. It’s a list of questions and a helping of common sense. That’s it. No footnotes. No illustrations. No soundtrack. Although pictures and music would have been great, common sense and a smidgeon of critical thinking is all anybody needs to understand politics well enough to avoid acting, and more importantly being treated, like a dumb ass.

If you want to be an informed consumer of politics, ask these questions. If you know someone who needs help becoming an informed consumer of politics, give them these questions.


The Bottom line
You are acting like a dumb ass if you take a position on an issue without asking any serious questions. If you don’t ask the kind of questions a person asks when he or she wants to learn something, then you are acting like a dumb ass. You may be too busy. You may be comfortable taking someone else’s word for it. You may be subconsciously making reality fit into an understanding of the world you are comfortable with. You may not know that you can ask questions and form your own opinion.

Whatever the reason, too many people who vote or weigh in on political issues are too unlikely to seek to learn anything new or unexpected. Because we are human beings, some of us take advantage of this fact. These folks count on there being a lot of people who won’t ask questions; who can be motivated to take a side on an issue by fear, anger, nostalgia, or apathy; and who won’t demand an argument that would stand up to reason and logic. They don’t need to burden themselves with compromise, collegiality, or stability. Everyone else gets screwed.
The key to avoiding getting screwed is to get people to stop acting like dumb asses and to start asking questions. Any questions at all would be a good start, and the right questions would be phenomenal. Who is telling me I should think this way? Who profits from having me think this way? What is their motivation? What are they really saying? Why do others disagree? If you ask the right questions, we’ll all get the right answers.

What is a dumb ass?
The first thing to understand about acting like a dumb ass is that you aren’t a dumb ass, you just act like one and you don’t even do that all the time. You might believe peace is the only choice, and conflict among nations is never a solution. That doesn’t, however, have to mean that you act like a dumb ass when it comes to abortion or health care. It also doesn’t mean you forgot your wife’s birthday, or yelled at the referee of your six year old daughter’s soccer game. There may well be dumb ass overlap, but it is far from guaranteed.

Second, this is not an exclusive club. Sometimes, it’s me. Sometimes it’s you. It could be everybody and anybody from Obama to your mama. Obama trusted BP to fix its oil spill and Congress to deal expediently, compassionately, and intelligently with health care. Your mama might have trusted that her new friend wouldn’t take advantage of an older widow. You might have trusted yourself and run the wrong way with the football and scored a touchdown for the other team.

Third, acting like a dumb ass doesn’t make you unlovable. People still love, respect, and even want to hang out with people who sometimes act like dumb asses. After all, every single person on the planet has.

Fourth, you need to understand that you can stop acting like a dumb ass. It is not a permanent or terminal condition. There is no need for dumb ass to be written on your grave.

Fifth, acting like a dumb ass is not the same as being uneducated. It doesn’t take an Ivy League degree to be able to act like a dumb ass. In some circumstances, though, it might help.

Sixth, this isn’t limited to just one political party. Your garden variety peace rally is as likely to be full of people acting like dumb asses as a Tea Party gathering. It isn’t as much about what you think as it is about how and why you think what you think.

Lastly, and most importantly, having acted like a dumb ass is not anything to be ashamed of, unless you aren’t willing to own up to it and do something about it. It is far worse to know that people around us are acting like dumb assess and let them keep on acting like dumb assess, a sin many of us have been guilty of for far too long. And the true sin is to take advantage of this situation to pursue a political agenda. The dumb ass is not the one to blame or ridicule. Dumb ass really isn’t the worst label to wear, which is good because we have all worn it. A friend who does something stupid is often a dumb ass: “dude, you’re a dumb ass … what were you thinking?” Friends often point out to one another when they are behaving like dumb asses. In fact, it may be a friend’s responsibility to do so. This list of questions is motivated by a similar responsibility that we as Americans have to our fellow Americans.

What is politics?
I don’t care that you made an insensitive comment about May-December romances to your fifty year old friend who is dating a 30 year old woman. I am, however, concerned if you told your fifty year old friend that he shouldn’t be dating a 30 year old man because their relationship represents a threat to American family values. I am concerned, because politics and dumb asses is a kind of very dangerous anti Reeses Peanut Butter Cup scenario. Before I explain why, I need to define what I mean by politics.

When most of us in this country think about politics we are much too focused on politicians, political parties, and rivalry. Politics in America is presented as if it is a football game, or a number of football games. Only a few of us think we are playing the game. Some (enough) of these few either see themselves as combatants engaged in a winner takes all contest, or at least they present themselves that way to the rest of us.

The rest of us are seen, and see ourselves, as (at most) fans, at least when we remove ourselves from our intramural teams (aka local politics) and turn our attention to the major leagues (state or national politics). Most obvious are the rabid and fanatical ones, in the mold of the stereotypical soccer hooligan or Eagles fan. These fans frequent real or virtual pep rallies, and are frequently worked up into a rage. Anyone who is on the other team, or roots for the other team, is the enemy. Everything they like must be hated. If someone wears the wrong jersey into the porta potty, he or she, should be pushed over. After all, the enemy isn’t like us. Their values are out of whack. They want to kick our asses and put us into work camps. It’s really very simple, very black and white. They are evil and we are good. If we score, it hurts them. If they score, it hurts us. If they win, we lose. It’s a competition. There is little room for compromise. Any of us can drawn in by the simplicity of it. Why wouldn’t we, we’re just fans after all. We are just fans, and dumb asses, something a lot of important people count on.

The truth is that politics is nothing like a football game. There are no fans. We are all players. We are all contributors. We aren’t all, however, engaging in a competition. And all of us are doing more than competing. We, the ordinary people, are involved in politics all the time and in a lot of important ways. There is voting. There are lots of offices people run for, and even the most local of positions influence national politics in some way. People attend rallies, marches, and vigils all the time. People go door to door distributing pamphlets. Others write letters (or e-mails if you are under sixty three) to the editor, or your elected representative, or your favorite documentary filmmaker, or even your favorite actor or musician. Lots of folks donate money to political parties, political candidates, or special interest organizations. Some are even patient enough to complete a survey on a political issue. A lot of folks, unfortunately, comment on on-line news stories. Some of us even talk to our neighbors, the mailman, or a spouse about politics. And many of us, although not nearly enough of us, ask questions. Each one of these examples, and many more besides, are politics and great opportunities for you to not act like a dumb ass.

What happens when dumb asses meet politics?
What happens when people acting like dumb asses meet politics is the Birther Movement. What happens is the internment of Japanese Americans. What happens is talk of death panels and amending the Fourteenth Amendment to restrict citizenship. What happens is that an absurdly high percentage of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. What happens is people turn the placement of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Centers into a debate on the merits of Islam. Essentially, when people make decisions like dumb asses they allow politicians to gain support for themselves and their initiatives by preying upon fear and anger and referencing boogey men like “big government,” “family values,” “sweatshops,” “outsourcing,” higher taxes,” “evil,” “socialism,” or “radical Islam.” There is no need to meet people’s needs or to attack problems with the idea of solving them. The Republican Party’s response to Obama’s health care initiative wasn’t to critique the plan’s ability to improve health care in America or to counter with detailed proposals and suggestions, but rather to label it as socialist and connect it to death panels and the spread of homosexuality. What this did was to deprive the American people of a real debate on health care, and weaken the final product. The people to blame are not the leaders of the Republican party, however, but everyone who responded to these tactics … and everyone who made fun of the ‘ignorant’ people that really believed that Obama wanted to execute old people. The way to deal with someone who acts like a dumb ass is not to ridicule him but to help him see what is really happening. After all, we’ve all been there ourselves, and when we were there we would have appreciated help rather than ridicule. We would have wanted someone to help us figure it out for ourselves.

What can we do about it?
The ultimate solution will involve a political system based on compromise, critical thinking, and transparency. Politics is, or at least should be, a process by which people make collective decisions. The first step towards this pie in the sky goal is to reduce the number of people acting like dumb assess by encouraging people to ask more questions. We need fewer fans and more informed participants. We need informed consumers. What follows is a first step towards that goal. What follows is a list of questions that people can ask before they buy ‘any’ political argument, whether it comes from CNN or the UPS guy.  

The List

When do you use this list? You can use it when you hear a speech or read a newspaper article pertaining to anything from the War in Afghanistan to negotiations on teachers’ contracts. You can whip it out during or after a conversation with a colleague at work about immigration law in Arizona or the Tea Party Movement. You can pull it out before you head to the polls. You can reference it when you first hear about a new crisis. You can use it for kindling if you want. Whatever you choose to use it for, here it is:

1. Can I figure this out?
2. Once I figure it out, am I done?
3. What is important to me?
4. How do I feel about this and why?
5. Do I need to be nasty?
6. Who am I listening to?
7. What does “______” mean?
8. Where is the proof?
9. What does the issue look like in color?
10. What is the other side of this issue?
11. What are the possible short and long term implications?

1. Can I figure this out?
You only need to ask this question once. Regardless of who you are, the answer is yes. You can figure it out. Didn’t go to Harvard? Doesn’t matter. Didn’t go to college? So what. Haven’t ever left your state? I don’t care. You can figure it out. If you don’t figure it out, you’ve chosen not to figure it out.

Figuring it out doesn’t mean knowing enough to construct your own political system. It doesn’t mean knowing enough to write a book. Think about what you knew before you chose you last flat screen television or new car. Was it enough to build a car or a television? Was it enough to write a book? I doubt it, but I don’t doubt that you knew more about that television than you need to know in order to ‘figure out’ a political issue. Figuring it out doesn’t mean being able to create your own democracy. You just need to know enough to ask a few basic questions, and be able to find and make some sense of the answers.

How does one figure it out? Google and the rest of the questions on the list.

2. Once I figure it out, am I done?
The answer to this question will never change, but you should ask it more than once. The answer will always be no. It sucks, but it’s true. It sucks, but it’s important.

Let’s say you read an article advocating more offshore oil drilling. Maybe you even read it pretty carefully, and you might even Google the topic and spend a few minutes reading a couple of other articles. You might conclude that offshore drilling is a good idea. Later, maybe you come across an argument you hadn’t considered, or maybe there is a huge oil spill endangering animals and hurting the economy of a number of states (I know it’s a crazy idea …). You could decide to cling to your position regardless of what happens or what you find out, and work very hard to come up with reasons why you are right. You could, but you’d be acting like a dumb ass.

There are three issues here. First of all, things change. That’s life. Second of all, we are all busy people coming up with opinions and positions on less than full information. No one has time to be an expert on every issue. This means that we may run across additional information after we think we have come up with a position. The additional information might undermine our position. If it happens, we shouldn’t be surprised and we shouldn’t pretend that it hasn’t happened. Third, the goal here isn’t to be right, it’s to fix problems. Don’t think of politics as a place of non-stop competition. Think of it as an opportunity for never ending collaboration.

So, unfortunately, you don’t ever figure it out completely. No one does. No one can. You figure it out for the moment the best you can, and then you stay open to changing your mind.  

3) What is important to me?
You have to ask this question more than once, but not every time you consider a new issue or speech or argument. You have to ask it though. No issue implicates only one principle. And issues overlap with other issues.

Abortion is about life, privacy, control over one’s person, women’s rights, poverty, and sex, among other things. It is easy to imagine someone feeling strongly about the protection of life and about women’s rights, and thus feeling conflicted on the issue of abortion. You may oppose wars but believe in a responsibility to fix your messes, and if so our current involvement in Afghanistan would pull you in opposite directions. An intelligent position on the war in Afghanistan or abortion will require you to have thought about what is important to you.

The bottom line here is simple. Every so often, take a moment to really think about what is important to you. Make a list. Give it a little thought, at least as much thought as you would a grocery list.

For what it’s worth, my list would look something like this:
1) tolerance/respect for others beliefs/practices/values/etc.
2) Freedom from oppression
3) Freedom of expression
4) Economic rights (like the right to a living wage)
5) Efficient (not small or large) government
6) Safety for self/family
7) Making sure we don’t destroy our planet
8) Protecting life

4) How do I feel about this and why?
When you hear a news story, a political commercial, or even an argument from a friend on a political issue, you should ask this question immediately. When you watch a news story on the President’s last vacation, how do you feel? Are you angry? If so, why are you angry? Every time I read an article that is critical of President Obama, my first reaction is to get angry and be defensive. I voted for Obama, and I felt like his election was a historic moment for this country. I want him to succeed. This is why I don’t like to see him criticized. This isn’t, however, a logical reaction. I risk the dumb ass label if I don’t stop and ask how I feel about an article that is critical of Obama, why I feel that way, and whether my reasons are legitimate.

5) Do I need to be nasty?
This one only has a single answer too. No, you don’t need to be nasty, though it is certainly possible. It can be pretty satisfying too. Unfortunately, it gets in the way of solving problems.

Glen Beck might be a buffoon. Al Sharpton might also be a horse’s ass. They might both be racists too. Sarah Palin might be learning disabled. Nancy Pelosi might be the queen bitch. So what? Does any of this get us any closer to solving a single real problem? If true, would any of it necessarily cancel out everything the buffoons and bitches ever did or said?

The person who reads (or doesn’t read) a news piece on line and then posts a comment that you disagree with probably isn’t an idiot, a moron, and/or a faggot. But even if they were, how does any of that form a basis for a real discussion? How does that accomplish anything?

Save the put-downs for the playground. If you can’t, then stick to sports radio or tabloid television or whatever. Political discourse should not sound like your favorite weekly sports radio show. This is important stuff that merits serious and respectful discussion.

6) Who am I listening to?
You need to know who you are listening to, reading, and watching. If you are getting your information from Glen Beck or Rachael Maddow, you should be aware that both are advocating a position rather than presenting unbiased information. You need to know the difference between Fox News, CNN, PBS, and the BBC. People and organizations have agendas, and you should know something about what those agendas are before you accept their logic on political issues.

Would you collect ten random strangers, ask them where you should go for summer vacation, have them write down the answers and place them in a paper bag, select one from the bag, and then hurry home to book your airplane tickets? Would you have them each select a new outfit for work for you, and then go with the selection of the person who can come closest to guessing the number between one and ten that you are thinking about? What about if the question was what school your kid should go to? No. Well, then why is it OK to do when deciding who to vote for President or whether or not we should be at war?

If you were buying a computer, would you only seek advice from someone who works for Apple? Would you only seek advice on oil heat from the representative of your local oil company? Would you accept the opinion of a Cowboy fan on the Eagles chances to win the Super Bowl? Would you consult only a drug dealer before deciding whether or not Marijuana should be legalized? If you answer no to any of these questions, or the dozens of others you can easily imagine, then why would you accept Rush Limbaugh’s viewpoint on whether a mosque should be placed near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York without seeking out other opinions?

The bottom line is that you should know who is making an argument and what biases they might have. 

7) What does “______” mean?
Before you disagree or agree with an argument, you should be sure you know what all the words in the argument mean. It’s not enough to know just the dictionary definition either. You need to know something about what the author of the argument means by that word. You really shouldn’t get too hot under the collar about something if you don’t know what it is you’re getting hot under the collar about.

If you are going to get stirred up against big government by the speeches at a Tea Party gathering, you ought to know what the speakers mean by big government. You ought to know what you mean by big government. If you are willing to risk arrest to protest for peace, I hope you have an idea of what peace is. If you think Obama is a socialist, it would be good to know what a socialist is. If you think he is a fascist, it would be good to know what a fascist is. Before you laugh and say that everyone knows what these things are, take a moment and try defining one of them. You can’t use peace in a definition of peace or big in a definition of big government. Peaceful and bigger are off limits too.

Something else you ought to know is that the author of an article accusing someone of being a socialist might mean nothing more than whatever it takes to get you to be frightened enough or angry enough to join them in disagreeing with/fighting against the ‘socialist.’ Of course, if you take the time to figure out what a socialist is for yourself, it won’t matter.

8) Where is the proof?
If someone grabs you by the shoulder and says, building a mosque near the old site of the World Trade Centers is un-American, you have not been presented with an argument. An argument requires a conclusion along with premises that support it. An argument requires evidence.

It is one thing to say that encouraging abstinence is an effective approach to preventing teen pregnancy and abortion. It is easy to say it. It isn’t so easy to prove it. You don’t want to go easy on people who are trying to get you to believe something. You want to be hard on them. You want to make them prove it.

If someone fails to fully explain their reasoning, makes an appeal to your fear or anger, and/or tries to convince you to go along with them for some reason unconnected with the issue … then they don’t think you are smart enough or they don’t want you to think you are smart enough. They think you are a dumb ass. They want you to be a dumb ass. They don’t want to have to explain themselves. They want you to just accept their judgment on health care or oil spills or whatever. They hope you will live up to their judgment about your worth, or lack thereof. I hope they are disappointed. I want you to be able to disappoint them.

9) What does the issue look like in color?
In 2010 you don’t have to specify that you own a color television. We’re on to high definition, 3 D, and who knows what else that I can’t afford. When it comes to issues of national and international importance, however, we haven’t come so far. There is an axis of “evil.” Any increased government involvement in health care is socialized medicine. Abortion is wrong, because it’s murder. People shouldn’t eat animals, or ever use them to test products that could save human lives. In politics, people are still willing to accept presentations in black and white. Politics, however, really isn’t much different than television. The world portrayed by both is in color. So, any time you are presented with an argument framed in black and white (like Islam is evil or America is always right) you should reject it, and/or you should find out for yourself what the issue looks like in color.

10) What is the other side of this issue?

Do you believe that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion? I do. I don’t, however, think you are a dumb ass if you don’t agree with me. I also don’t think you’re evil, wrong, have nothing to say I could learn from, or have nothing to offer to help address the issue. In fact, there is a lot of common ground between people who sit on opposite sides of any issue, even abortion. No one is in favor of abortions. Most of us could agree that there are steps that could be taken to reduce the number of people who would choose to have an abortion. If we really thought about it and asked a few hard questions, many of us would agree to take those steps, even if it wouldn’t be our ideal approach. Fundamentally, no one’s ideal approach to anything is really feasible. Plus, abortion is not an easy issue. Most issues aren’t. Do you know of a clearly superior way to respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions? What about the right response to China’s industrial growth and the pollution that comes with it? Do you know how to stop the creation of new terrorists? Do you know how to keep illegal immigrants out or how to deal with those that are here? Do you even agree that these are the right questions? Only a dumb ass would think that these are easy issues. Only a dumb ass would call someone a dumb ass for disagreeing with them on these kinds of issues, and then cling defensively to the correctness of their own positions. Only a dumb ass would refuse to ask, or answer, questions about or from the other side on these issues.

11) What are the possible short and long term implications?
If you decide not to go out to the bar with your buddies this Friday night something will happen that wouldn’t have happened had you gone to the bar. You might be hit by a train. You might watch a real life crime drama. You might miss meeting the love of your life. You might miss out on a hangover. It might only mean less time spent picking up puke, but something will be different.

Every decision has an impact and carries with it implications. The burning of a Quran or the drawing of a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad might result in deaths in the short term … and hard feelings, intractable conflict, and more deaths in the future. Torturing suspected terrorists by American authorities might hurt American diplomacy for decades and actually increase the threat of terrorism. Creating strong Unions might hurt corporations’ ability to respond to foreign competition.

If you are going to weigh in on decisions, whether by voting or voicing your opinion in another way, you should be aware of some of the possible implications of your chosen position. If you don’t want to be bothered with that, then don’t weigh in. If you can’t be bothered to ask these questions, then don’t be bothered with any of it. Leave it to those of us who do care to take a little time to ask these questions. That is the only other way to avoid being a dumb ass.

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