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David Foster Wallace on Political Discourse

I came across this great quote from a David Foster Wallace interview back in November of 2003 and it so correctly sums up the state of politics and political discourse in this country today.   The state of discourse is something I believe absolutely must change.  In my Outline for a Better America, the first bullet-point section covered discourse.  This was not coincidence, it was intentional.  Philosophically, there is a reason why Free Speech was the First Amendment, and not the second or third.  It is the most fundamental of rights to a democracy.  Secondly, and apt for today, is the fact that discourse itself is so extremely screwed up right now that true discussion and debate don’t even take place.  We still fight ideological debates using the terminology of the Cold War, and many of these highly consequential topical discussions are done in veiled terms, filled primarily with ad hominen attacks and little actual fact.  Worst yet, everything is done in black and white terms, with no room for middle ground.  That grey area is what democracy is all about, yet it just does not exist today.

I am highlighting this DFW quote because it so awesomely sums up my thoughts about politics today and think it is something that resonates with many, and should be taken to heart by those in positions to do something constructive about it.  Here goes:

95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’scolumns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

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