Saturday, December 26, 2009

Invalidation Nation

The range or spectrum of discussion and debate in the U.S. is a narrow one. One could argue that our nation’s corridor of communication continues to contract, mainly along ideological, religious, and even cultural lines, inculcated via changes that are being pushed by technology.

In my own life, I have experienced the difficulty engendered by the pinched parameters of dialogue. Never one to stay rooted in any one place, I first investigated and embraced fundamentalist religion during my early 20s, found solace in political/ideological right-wing posturing during my late 20s and into my 30s, and then, pendulum swinging back to the left after the previous administration’s failure to clearly articulate their position for waging war. These journeys to and fro across the realm of what’s acceptable have provided me with a unique perspective, I think.

Spending time in multiple (often opposing) camps over the course of my adult years, compounded by not growing up in an environment that cultivated thought and exploration of ideas, propelled me to desire a deeper understanding of movements, organizations, and whatever else I decided to become involved in and with.

Regardless of what my affiliation was at the time, I quickly realized that most of the people around me—family, friends, co-workers—knew very little about my frame of reference at the time. Whatever they might know about my religious choice, political leanings, or books and ideas I was interested in and exploring, was miniscule, and often, laughable, if it wasn’t so deeply rooted in a fierce anti-intellectual sense of pride.

I enjoy observing people. Because I don’t travel with your typical coterie of friends and acquaintances, I regularly find myself in solitary situations, sitting in a coffee shop, browsing in bookstores, or having a drink in a bar, taking in the conversations of others. Listening to friends chit chat, weigh-in on national issues, or make small talk about their children, marriages, television shows, and thoughts on food/fitness, to name but a few of the topics I’ve overheard being discussed during the past 30 days, reinforces my own anecdotal belief that 85-90 percent of Americans know little or nothing about anything substantive.

My previous point begs the question, then; what are the substantive topics of debate that you are looking for?

Well, how about something as basic as how are government works? Rarely, if ever, do I run into anyone, ideological hardliner, or not that can outline our tripartite system of governance. Yes, some of the right-wing types that I seem to regularly run up against, think they have the solution to all of the nation’s ills. They know the problem, and they are quick to tell me and anyone else that government can’t solve them—because Rush Limbaugh, or some other talking head told them so.

A case in point is the current debate (if you care to call Fox News, and the WSJ harangues against anything that will remove the least bit of control from large insurance companies, a debate) over health care reform. What percent of Americans do you think have read one, long form narrative journalistic treatment of the subject? I think I’ve read five, at least, that have looked at various aspects of healthcare, its attendant issues of cost, doctor’s responsibilities in this, technology’s role, etc. Even the handful of colleagues that I rub elbows with in my day job—people that are bright and knowledgeable about government policy—didn’t follow through in reading one of the better pieces, about health care costs, after I sent them the link.

I’ve made a point of trying to read as widely as I can, on as many subjects as I can find the time to pursue, in an attempt to be an intellectual person. I don’t hold and advanced degree, and I have never even risen to the level of D-list stature in my writing, blogging, or any other attempt to get my thoughts on ideas into the public square. However, I can honestly say that for the past 10 years, I’ve tried to take a more nuanced view of the world, although, my initial attempts to distance myself from religion, and right-wing ideologues, found me overcompensating with wild swings to the far fringes of left-wing thought and ideas. This is a nether world just as dangerous, in my opinion, with Kool-aid drinking required.

What I am beginning to understand is that distant regions of thought tend to be places where the ideological weeds grow the thickest, and can deprive you of valuable air and vitality required for ideas to flourish. Better, spending too much time hard right, or lunatic left, diminishes the ability to think critically. This I have come to accept as a fact. These far flung regions require straitjacketing via ideology that restrict, rather than encourage open-mindedness.

This topic of free thinking and ideas is one that I rarely stray too far from these days. I now understand this as a consequence of my time spent deep within the inner sanctums of movements, and organizations that regularly demanded strict adherence to a narrow parameter of ideas and thought. Because of this, I now recoil when well-intentioned, and others, not so benign in their intent, tell me that truth lies only within the circumscribed confines of their religion, political party’s platform, or corporate parameters required for inclusion.

I just picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Undermined America. This is the kind of example of an idea, which Ehrenreich appears to have again trained her investigative antenna towards, which when I’m done reviewing, and reading parallel books, studies, etc, I’ll have a better understanding of. In this case, Ehrenreich sets out to shatter the myth that all we need to be happy and successful, is a happy outlook. That’s total BS, but the cult of Pollyanna is so entrenched in the U.S. that if you dare to offer a contrary opinion, you are immediately labeled as a cynic, crank, misanthrope, or worse. What is frightening, as I make my way through the first few chapters of the book, is how Ehrenreich’s clear-headed prose resonates with me, based upon years of experience being told not to feel the way I feel, or hold my particular view on a particular subject, because it wasn’t in line with what was “accepted.”

The other day, after posting my thoughts about Oral Roberts, I had a discussion with two co-workers. One, a lukewarm Catholic, with his own fucked up brand of theology that he was sticking to, and wasn’t being budged by anyone else; the other, I later would find out, was a true believer, who attended a Baptist church I once visited and found too narrow for my open-minded religious views at the time.

The first one, a fat idiot (I know, a needless ad hominem attack), who regularly throws out his opinions with the kind of dogmatic certainty, honed by a daily diet of sports talk radio, faux local news, and 15 minute liturgies once a week that irritates the shit out of me, said to me, “boy, are you cynical,” when I launched my missive on Roberts and religion.

Afterwards, I felt somewhat sorry about being so forceful in my condemnation of religion, particularly as perpetrated by religious hucksters like Roberts, in light of finding about the latter co-worker’s Baptist proclivities. Not necessarily because what I said didn’t contain a good measure of truth, sprinkled with firm (and accepted) theological underpinnings, but because I actually like him, and have found him to be thoughtful, and open-minded, at least compared to the other blowhard. This is a good example of the censoring nature of groupthink.

Hence, my ongoing dilemma in trying to think my way through life, and routinely, running up against legions of others that don’t. What I find so difficult, is that these individuals that don’t think, and don’t see a problem at all with their irrational, anti-intellectual parsing of the various issues, regularly indict my views, which have been framed, more often than not, by honest attempts at arriving at a nuanced understanding.

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