Tag Archives: politics

7 Tips for Gaining Perspective

After last week’s election didn’t go the way conservatives wanted it to, many of them publicly, frantically despaired, declaring the end to America as they know it and forecasting disaster for the near- and long-term future.

Now, I wasn’t thrilled with the election results. To say the least. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling upset, troubled, even a little depressed about the direction America seems to be going politically. But I don’t think there’s any reason to despair. Because at the end of the day, American politics in the 21st century is just a small piece of a much bigger world, and a tiny blip on the narrative of history. It’s helpful to have a little bit of perspective. Christians, for example, should remind themselves that our God is sovereign and his purposes are and will be accomplished regardless of the laws and legalities of men. Furthermore, Christians should remind themselves that the church is and always will be (or should be) a stronger source of communal identity than our political party.

Putting things in perspective doesn’t diminish the importance of politics or the significance of what happens in elections; it simply serves as a helpful corrective to our tendency to get wrapped up in matters that are (by comparison) narrow and fleeting.

I worry about what happens to people when they lose perspective. I worry about America today, which I see populated by many people who are perfectly satisfied to subsist on a diet of perspective-reinforcing media that confirms but never challenges what they already believe. I worry about people whose perspective is so small that they can only see the immediate benefits of what voting for such-and-such will do for them now, while neglecting to think about the longterm impacts for their children and the world at large. I worry about the short-sightedness of a nation where political entrenchment is more important than preventing an imminent economic disaster. I fear for a people who are uninformed and uninterested in learning about what goes on in the rest of the world.

I think we would all be better off–and our world would be better off–if we were intentional about broadening our perspective a bit. And to that end, let me offer these seven suggestions for ways one can gain a healthier perspective:

1) Read. Read books, articles, poems, lyrics, anything. Read a lot. Read things that don’t reinforce any of your already-established opinions but instead open up the world to you a bit more. Take advantage of the library.

2) Travel. If you are lucky enough to afford to do this, DO IT. Travel is, I think, one of the single-most significant ways that a person can broaden their perspective on the world and better understand their own provincial experience within it. I still remember how drastically my perspective on the world changed the first time I traveled abroad (doing a study abroad program in Southeast Asia).

3) Expand your movie-going horizons. Watch foreign films and documentaries. They can be amazingly engaging! There’s nothing like cinema for opening up one’s eyes to another part of the world, another culture, perspective or curiosity. If you’d like a recommendation, let me know!

4) Worship in new places. If you’re a Christian I’m not saying ditch your home church and church hop. I’m just saying that it can be healthy to break out of your worship comfort zone. Worship in churches of various traditions. Visit a Messianic congregation, a Coptic Christian church, a Korean church. Get a sense for how wonderfully diverse is the body of Christ.

5) Get to know people different from you. If you’re a conservative, befriend a liberal or two. If you’re a Christian, befriend some non-Christians. Have spirited conversations with people who will challenge your beliefs. Make sure your network of friends is not homogenous (one single age group, one single ethnicity, one single religion) but is as diverse and yet as genuine as possible.

6) Go places and do things that make you uncomfortable. Serve the homeless on Skid Row. For a time, live somewhere where you’re a minority. Ride the bus. Try foods that might sound disgusting to you. Shop at Wal-Mart. Go to the proverbial “other side of the tracks” on occasion. It will be good for you.

7. Pray. Ask God to bring people, ideas, perspectives, and experiences into your life that challenge the status quo and help you grow. Pray that you’ll not be complacent and “satisfied” with where you are and what you know, but that you’ll always want to explore further and understand more. That your primary aim will be to know the truth and be governed by the truth, and not just to have an easier life.

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Why Partisanship is the New Normal

The ferociously partisan atmosphere in America these days isn’t limited to Washington D.C., though it certainly is epitomized there. No, the divisive, bitter ambience in this country exists everywhere, from sea to shining sea. A few minutes on cable news or a cursory scroll through one’s social media feed at any given moment (but especially on days like this) confirms it. And it’s getting worse.

“Moderate” is increasingly a relic in American culture. The ouster of Indiana senator (and moderate, bipartisan-minded Republican) Dick Luger is just the latest evidence of this. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats are getting more liberal. The country’s middle ground is quickly becoming no man’s land.

Issues like gay marriage are further entrenching both sides. The day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a ban on gay marriage, President Obama  ended his “evolving views” stalling and admitted to supporting the opposite view, thrilling liberals and stealing some of the spotlight from what happened in North Carolina. For Obama and his ever bluer base, opposition to gay marriage is seen as gradually eroding. The expectation is that soon enough gay marriage will be completely acceptable in society. But there are signs that, for red state America, the opposite trend is occurring. Voters in North Carolina–a swing state that went blue for Obama in 2008–actually voted for the ban on gay marriage by a larger margin (61-39%) than expected, and seven percentage points larger than the 2006 margin (57-42%) of another gay marriage ban in fellow Southern swing state Virginia (also went blue for Obama in 2008). This appears to be another sign that the red base is getting redder on wedge issues like gay marriage, even while the blue base is becoming bolder and louder on such divisive issue.

Why are we experiencing such unprecedented ideological divergence in our culture? Why is it looking–tragically–as if the recovery of a middle ground and a bipartisan, cordial public discourse is increasingly unlikely?

It may sound obvious, and it may be old hat by now, but I believe a huge factor contributing to all of this is the Internet. Namely: the way that it has fragmented and niche-ified our media consumption. For former generations, “news” was the thing everyone watched at the same time at night on TV. It was the local newspaper. There were far fewer options, so everyone tended to learn about the news from the same sources. Some big cities had multiple newspapers with slightly divergent political bents, but for the most part normal folks didn’t have easy access to “news” with a decidedly partisan bent.

Not so today. Now, we have 24/7 access to it. Whatever one’s political leaning may be, an entire personalized media landscape can be constructed to reinforce it. There are TV channels, YouTube channels, websites, tumblrs, blogs, e-newsletters,  newspapers and radio stations for whatever political opinion you may have. Everyone processes media narratives that are as infinitely different from one another as snowflakes. Each of us has a totally unique combination of blogs we follow, news sites we read, and social media connections who shape our media intake. No wonder “consensus” is a thing of the past. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. We live in our own iNews bubbles of self-perpetuating, fragmentary and volatile media flows.

And it creates a snowball effect. Given the choice, liberal-leaning folks naturally will spend more time watching MSNBC and filling their Twitter feeds with people of a similar bent. Conservatives will naturally choose to watch Fox News and populate their feeds with advocates of GOP-friendly ideals. In a world where it’s as easy as clicking “unfollow” whenever someone says something that challenges our beliefs, our “feeds” of self-selected narratives of reality will make us neither educated nor enriched; they’ll simply make us more ardent in the beliefs we already hold.

In this “million little narratives” world of individually curated and (often) hyper-politicized media experiences, it’s easy to see how fringe groups and all manner of Anders Breivek-style zealotry may develop. It’s easy to see how ideology-oriented communities can become dangerously insulated and prone to “no compromise!” hostility to the Other. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so bad at talking cordially with those who are different than us. There are just so few forums for us to learn how to productively converse with a plurality of differing voices. And even if there were, would we willingly enter those forums when there are unlimited options of lesser resistance at our disposal?

I think we must. The landscape of new media, I believe, is such that society is only going to become more divided. There will be more turnover in Congress. Less ability to “reach across the aisle” without dire political consequences. It will not be easy to recover cordiality, and the values of respect and moderation in the public square will be lost, to disastrous effect. That is, unless we each make a point of combatting this in our own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this:

  • If you watch news on TV, watch a different channel every night, even if it pains you.
  • Don’t just pack your social media feeds with people who agree with you. Curate a diverse plurality of voices.
  • Avoid commenting on articles, Facebook posts or other online forums when you are angered or upset. Take time to think it over, and if you still want to say something, say it with care and nuance.
  • Just say no to the social media “instant commentary!” impulse.
  • Do you have at least some friends who have different political views than you? You should. Engage them in friendly, loving debate.
  • Avoid watching the “crazies” too much (whether on Fox News, MSNBC, or any other channel… you know of whom I speak).
  • Read books on complicated subjects, not just news articles or tweets.
  • Learn to value humility and (gasp!) be willing to change your views on something, if reason (not peer pressure) leads you there.
  • Read Marilynne Robinson.

And on that note, a wise quote by Marilynne Robinson’s stellar, prescient essay for our times, “Austerity as Ideology“:

Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase…

In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems like a thinning atmosphere. Who would have thought that a thing so central to human life could prove so vulnerable to human choices?

Taking Glenn Beck Seriously

I have to admit–every part of me wants to just completely ignore the fact that Glenn Beck exists. I want to accept him as a cheerfully wrongheaded caricature of some ghastly mutation of conservatism, and nothing more. My attempts to block him out of my mind were thwarted this weekend, however, when everything on the Internet pointed my attention to his Washington D.C. “Restoring Honor” rally. Suddenly, it was all very real. Were there really that many people packing the national mall cheering on Beck’s calls to reclaim America for “God” (is it his Mormon God? A Christian God? A blue deity from Avatar)? How was this joker the focal point of one of the largest political gatherings in recent history?

The significance of this man’s apparent following–I mean, just look at the ratings of his various TV and radio shows–demands that we take him seriously. Unfortunately, almost every commentary, tweet, or passing remark I’ve read about Beck since the rally has been either completely sarcastic, pointlessly angry, or simply dismissive. The discourse surrounding Beck by his many critics is as infantile and unhelpful as the man himself.  Beck is not going anywhere and his followers will not diminish by us simply pointing at the whole thing and calling it preposterous.

That huge crowd was there in D.C. for a reason. They believed in something enough to be there. Was it Beck and his charisma that drew them? Was it his (shudder) civil religious fervor that maintains Christianity is about individualism and anti-social justice? I’m not sure. But I know these are important questions. The “masses” here may be mostly white, middle-class, pro-military tea-partiers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have brains. It doesn’t mean we can just joke about the whole thing and expect that their children will be more nuanced and all will be well.

Beck and his pop-polemics are just a natural outgrowth of a culture that has embraced division as some sort of high Hegelian virtue. No one really takes the other side seriously any more, out of intellectual laziness and an alarmingly delinquent aptitude for things like nuance, moderation, charity, and friendly dialogue.

Until both sides are willing to take the other seriously, even the Glenn Becks in the lot, there will only be more stalemate, more pointless sarcastic rants and hateful Facebook posts complaining about the unfathomable ignorance of this or that person. There will only be more extreme polarity, exacerbated by a media system that thrives on soundbite bickering and black-and-white divisions.

I’m not sure what the solution is to get us out of this quagmire, but I think it probably starts with someone who is willing to stop talking and start listening to the other. It starts with the abandonment of the notion that progress is about winning a tug of war match over America’s soul. It starts with someone–anyone–writing a serious analysis of Glenn Beck that doesn’t cynically dismiss him at the outset as a lab rat run amok. Has anyone read such a thing? Please, send me a link.

Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers new film, Burn After Reading, suffers from the fact that it followed No Country for Old Men, last year’s best picture Oscar winner. By comparison, Reading looks a tad lightweight—a goofy black comedy without the obvious “prestige” elegance of No Country. But I think that Reading is a very good, concise, underrated film. And perhaps the Coen’s most timely movie ever.

On a filmmaking level, you have to appreciate the razor-sharp economy with which the Coens make films. In No Country, they showed just how evocative a film can be when its most crucial, waited-for moments are only implied (as in, the moment when Javier Bardem lifts up his shoe at the end of the film). In Reading, they do the same thing. The Coens use an effective narrative device—C.I.A. officials being “briefed”—to comically tell us how the most horrendously violent scenes unfold. It is often said that good filmmakers “show” rather than “tell” a scene, but in the case of violence, I think that the Coens have found a way to effectively render it in our minds without always showing it. Certainly the endings of Reading and No Country are effective in this way.

But I also appreciated Reading for other things: its great cast (Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins are especially fun), for one thing, but also its strange, quirky ability to capture the zeitgeist of America (well, Washington) in 2008.

The film has a resigned feeling to it—an almost nihilistic sense that everyone is stupid, selfish, and self-destructive. It’s a dark, cynical film, but it captures a familiar weariness that I think rings more true than ever today—in these days when Washington seems more inept than ever, more self-serving, and more prone to make a problem worse by trying to “solve” it in a quick and easy manner.

Burn After Reading never directly addresses one political party or another, and certainly it may be interpreted as a critique of the 8-year-long train wreck that has been the Bush years, but I see it more as a commentary on Washington D.C. in general, on bureaucracy, on the failed systems of power and secrecy and cover-ups that have made this generation of young Americans the most cynical ever about politics.

No Country felt timely as well, but not in a way that felt particularly American. Reading feels completely and utterly about America—about big, dumb, angry, short-tempered Americans who are scared about the future, paranoid about the present, dubious about anyone or anything “official,” and perpetually engaged in a downward spiral/comedy of errors.

At a time like this—when faith in America is dropping with the stocks, when many of us are losing all interest in the election and just wish it would end—perhaps Burn After Reading is not the best film for us. But then again, maybe it’s exactly the film we need.