Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Memes: A Quick Guide to Stereotyping Politicians

When the media disagrees with a candidate/person/celebrity they have basically 3 different memes they can run with. They can say, "this guy's an idiot, listen to his accent." Which was the meme with W (I suspect that W's IQ was within a standard deviation of Obama's, but that's how a meme works). They can say, "This guy's evil/devious, look at how he tricks the hoi polloi into voting for the wrong person!" Which is what many conservative media types have tried to do with Obama (my dad seriously believes that Obama has a diabolical plan to destroy the US and usher in a new age of Socialism/Communism). Or they can say, "This guy's insane...dangerously insane!" This is a tough one to pull off on male figures, since usually when a guy goes insane he moves to a cabin in the woods and sends mailbombs. It's a lot easier to tar a woman as crazy, since the meme of "men stupid, women crazy" is pretty universal in this country.

There's double-standards in meme generation all over the place, but the easiest rule of thumb is that no progressive/Democrat will get memed as stupid (seriously, Joe Biden says more stupid shit in a month than W said in all 8 years of his presidency and gets a free ride), and it's unlikely that any conservative will get called devious (usually when a Republican is accused of evil genius, the accusation is accompanied by an accusation of a lack of principle. This is due to all progressives believing that only idiots have non-progressive opinions, and therefore smart people who work for conservatives are doing it for the evil evil money). Lastly, in the unlikely event that a male political figure is accused of being crazy, that guy's gonna be batshit nutty (see Alan Grayson, complete lunatic).

People talk about how politics in this country are more bitterly divided than they've been since the Civil War, and I think the casual application of these sorts of memes are a big reason for it. Conservatives are tarred with being heartless, racist, homophobic, anti-poor, and theocratic. Liberals are tarred with being sneaky, untrustworthy, diabolical, anti-religion, and of evil intent. Moderate are tarred with being fickle, non-committal, and selfish. The problem with these memes is that they are all largely untrue. Conservatives *genuinely* believe that the best thing for minorities, gays, the poor, and the G-dless are conservative policies. Furthermore, there are compelling arguments that this is true. Liberals *genuinely* believe that progressive policies will fix whatever wrongs we still have in American society, and that sometimes the only way to help society out is against its will. These beliefs are buttressed by the fact that they were all accurate and true at points in our history. Moderates usually have a set of core beliefs that they are not moderate about (I know some folks who are completely dead-center politically, right up to the point that Abortion becomes an issue, at which point they are *adamant*), but generally go by their gut where most issues are concerned.

There are important issues that are not being debated by Americans right now, thanks largely to these memes. The most obvious issue, is the budget. Progressives don't think balancing the budget is an issue at all, Moderates want us to make moves towards balancing the budget, but not to do anything rash in trying to accomplish that goal. Conservatives want the budget balanced *right now* without raising taxes. To Conservatives, Progressives seem completely out of touch with an obvious reality (we're spending more than we can afford to). To Progressives, Conservatives are trying to punish the poor and destitute by taking away their important safety net and giving its cost to fat rich white people (probably with monocles). There is no discussion because both sides are talking about the issue as if it were two completely different things. Conservatives brush off the idea of a safety net, and Progressives brush off economic reality. Moderates seem to be saying, "I want a balanced budget and all of our safety nets," which I attribute to the fact that most Moderates don't give two craps about these sorts of issues until the issues blow up.

Another perfect example of memes replacing an important discussion is Gay Marriage (tm). This issue is actually very complex, and very important to society. It boils down to this: Gays want to be able to marry farm animals, which would obviously cause G-d to smite all of the U.S. like he did to Sodom and Gomorrah, but Christians won't let two people in love marry one another because those Christians are secretly gay and therefore homophobic. I think that captures the relevant memes appropriately. There are certainly some genuine homophobes who think that homosexual acts should be illegal, and the idea of condoning them through marriage is a travesty of justice. There are also some genuine heterophobes who want gay marriage to be legal so that their lifestyle can be publicly acknowledged as equal to (or better) than the outdated heterosexual lifestyle that they despise. However, by treating all opponents of gay marriage as homophobes, and all proponents as heterophobes an important discussion has been completely ignored. Pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial societies all have delineated male-female marriage as an important foci of life. As our society moves from post-industrial to information-based, the old roles are becoming less rigidly important. This has lead to an enormous uptick in divorce, remarriage, and single-parenthood. We need to be talking about what a family is and why it is important so that we can pass down a coherent set of American values. There is some compelling evidence that a family consisting of a mother, father, and children leads to those children being more successful as adults (financially, socially, and emotionally) than in alternatives; just because women don't need to be housewives anymore does not mean that families should be discarded. On the other hand, our laws give distinct advantages to married couples. There are no situations that bring about legal ambiguity for married couples, but committed gay couples face considerable hardship in retaining custody of adopted children and exercising visitation rights in hospitals, amongst other things. Instead of discussing how we can extend common courtesy to homosexual couples while still retaining the relevance of a critical pillar of American society, we get insults and ad-hominem attacks.

Debate is a critical feature of a free society; without being vigorously debated, an idea cannot truly be tested before it is acted upon. There may be some degree of equivalence in tactics between the modern Left and Right, but their ideas, beliefs, and values are markedly different. Ideologues rarely debate their beliefs in an open fashion, but Moderates are exacerbating this crisis by looking at both sides, identifying them as sides of the same crappy coin, and not demanding a real debate. Memes are allowed to grow because nobody questions them. Civilization is at a crossroads (the arrival at which seems to be a generational occurrence), but instead of explaining why we should be moving in a given direction it is easier to shout about how terrible the people who want to take us in a different direction are, and nobody is calling this behavior out. Support for our *system* of governance is at an all-time low in this country; if people don't start standing up for this Republic, we cannot keep it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On the politics of the Millennial generation

One of the more interesting facets of having friends from all walks of life is being able to watch as disparate views converge in the same place. Since we live in a perpetual election season nowadays, I've been finding myself commenting on politicians, laws, and our political system more and more often. In the context of one such discussion (regarding the twitter-esque nature of a new Obama campaign website), I got to thinking about how my generation (the Millennials) got to where we are right now (which is increasingly anti-PC and libertarian).

I think our generation all pretty much *want* to be good govt. liberals, I suspect (I know I still feel like one), but through a combination of PC bullshit that's gone way too far, and the epic fails of the Democratic party (and W's "Compassionate Conservatism"), much of our generation has become jaded of the political process. I think we're becoming libertarians not for the traditional old reasons (we're high achievers who don't want to pay taxes), but for new ones (we're not incompetent, but don't want the govt. taking our tax money to pay for people who are). Much of our current "great recession" has been caused by well-intended legislation that has had horrifying unintended consequences; I would wager that unemployment would be down a solid 2-3% if it weren't for stuff like sarbox, Obamacare (sorry, can't call it "the affordable care" bill if it's never going to resemble something affordable), and Dodd-Frank. People aren't all idiots, and anyone with a job in the private sector (especially the financial sector, or healthcare) is likely to realize that these bills - passed as panaceas to our national ills - don't work the way they're supposed to.

Where a Millennial starts to go libertarian depends on the individual, but it matches a pretty simple pattern. When a Millennial cares deeply about an issue and the govt. passes legislation on that issue, that Millennial has a better than good shot at becoming disenchanted with the govt. For example, if one is inclined towards granola and organic produce, the thought of facing jailtime for a garden, might make one skeptical of the intentions of local governance. Now, there's no amount of money you could pay me to get me to drink unpasteurized milk, but wtf is the govt. (federal, state, and local!) doing raiding a dairy with a SWAT team? When people see this sort of malarkey, they get (rightfully) disenchanted with the competence of all levels of govt. The same sorts of things are happening in every corner of our lives; govt. gets involved and makes a giant mess of things.

Even things that should be unambiguously positive, like increased access to higher education, get screwed up when the govt. gets involved. The cost of a degree has gone up faster than inflation, and faster even than the rate of increase in housing prices during the housing bubble. If you look closely at that graph, you'll note that the curve leaps upward during the George W Bush years, when his "compassionate" brand of stupid poured money into Pell grants. Basically, govt. spending on education (which is good, right?) only results in two things. Firstly, it raises the price of getting even the most valuable of degrees. Secondly, it subsidizes useless degrees. The cost of getting a degree in underwater basketweaving is comparable to an engineering degree. The govt. guarantees student loans, and student loans cannot be defaulted on, even through bankruptcy. Which means that there is no risk for a school to increase its costs. It makes sense to take out a loan to get a degree in accounting (or engineering, etc.), since that degree leads to well paying jobs. It doesn't make sense to take out a loan to get a Womyn's studies (or comparative religion, etc.) degree since it will take a lifetime to pay off that same loan. If it weren't for govt. guaranteeing these loans and giving out Pell grants, it would be financially irresponsible for most institutions of higher learning to even offer degrees in many of the humanities. Thanks to the govt. we all get to subsidize the most idiotic of studies.

The govt. gets involved, and things get screwed up. We all see it with some regularity, and so when a politician says that a new law will do X, Y, and Z, we either know better, or we get bedazzled by his florid prose. One might fool enough of the people for one election, but I suspect that we've wised up since then....