Tag Archives: Politics

The World Is a Knee-Jerk

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I feel in the dark. Not only does the future of the United States seem murky, but what ability I possess to trust my fellow man seems to be crumbling more than it ever has in the last eight years. No doubt this is because of our economic situation, but I am more concerned with the portrayal of “truth” and our ability to recognize it. I know it sounds crazy to think about the abstract when brick and mortar are on the line, and we all face unemployment. We must remember that we live in a time where we can trust neither Lehman nor AIG, McCain and Obama dig into one another on the World’s stage, and a home loan can drive a person to suicide—the truth is just as important as ever. We must ask ourselves: can we trust our “superiors?” How can we select people to trust? How can we recognize the truth at all?

Take the Presidential Campaign as an example. Both sides seem to take for granted that the majority of voters are ignorant and uncritical. The McCain campaign has called Senator Obama “dishonorable,” “dangerous,” and “risky.” Thirty-five seconds is too short a time to get at the truth—to prove that Obama is dishonorable. If John McCain himself flew to my home just to tell me, “my advertisements are meant to inform the voters about the issues,” I would laugh a hearty laugh and slam the door in his face. The McCain camp, then, is only trying to push my buttons. Then again, is there anything more to language than pushing another person’s buttons?

If the American people demand facts, politicians present things in a fact-like way. The problem is that many things are complex enough that they can look false from one perspective and true from another; truth doesn’t look like a fixed thing. To expect real “facts” is a tall order. Who is going to verify these facts? How can we trust the fact checkers? Can we say anything that is impervious to doubt? What would the undeniable truth look like anyway?

If a potential voter demands empathy on the issues, the candidate tries to “show empathy”. How do we know that the candidate really cares about Darfur? Even if he (she) does, he still has the enormous burden of making people believe it! Trust, faith, and beauty are the case here. How could a presidential candidate inspire trust? They could do it with images; they could do it with what strikes the viewer as beautiful, or what simply “looks right.”

All we have left are our impressions of things.

CNN has taken the focus group in an peculiar direction with their reaction meter that looks somewhere between a biometric meter and a seismograph. Both images (of bio-metrics and seismographs) make sense here. During each debate so far, CNN-selected Ohio voters keep their fingers on a dial and record their reactions (negative or positive) as they happen.

This sends a strong message: not only do the words of each candidate need attention but we ought to keep a close eye on the opinions of our “peers.” Are we expected to gauge our reactions by using CNN’s added bio-meter? Or are we supposed to formulate our opinions based on all of the information combined?

Indeed: our impulses, our feelings, our impressions of people, our initial thoughts are what the politicians play like fiddles. This isn’t news. Perhaps you’ve experienced empathy and admiration for Senator McCain when he claimed to have postponed his campaign to help on Wall-Street; this emotion could stick to your ribs and remind you of just how much you love John McCain. Just how long this feeling will last has something to do with: (1) McCain’s word choice, (2) the opinions of political pundits, (3) the opinions of friends and family, and (4) where you place yourself within that mess. We end up reacting—for better or worse—just as we all have in the past.

The world is a knee-jerk. Our partially-involuntary reactions to the world outside drive the stock market down, cause riot in the streets, and keep pollsters employed indefinitely. What we must do, then, is try to figure out what truth could even mean in this world of ours.

Getting Lucky

I do not claim to be a great political mind—when it comes to “being well rounded,” political theory is an edge that needs to be filled in—but Quentin Skinner’s recent comments on Machiavelli struck a chord. His discussion of “fortuna” in The Prince seems particularly useful. “If you’re going to attain greatness, somehow you’ve got to be lucky,” Skinner explains, “One of the really deep points Machiavelli wants to make is that there is no such thing as a successful politician who hasn’t been phenomenally lucky […] the question for Machiavelli is ‘how do you get lucky.’” Like a startled cat, or a confused hound, my ears are raised.

I think of the current candidate for President of the United States: Barrack Obama. If Obama hadn’t stood against the Iraq War efforts in 2002, would he have been considered Presidential candidate material? Without the confusion following 9/11, perhaps there would not have been an opening for such a campaign. In some sense, Barack Obama is on a wave generated by the trends in this country; his current success can surely be attributed to knowing when to act and how to act, but it must be attributed to the state of current affairs.

Such stories concern me on a personal level. A great thinker might be born into the incorrect time and burn at the stake, while the dullest-tool-in-the-box may be born into an era where ignorance is considered humble and honest and he may become leader of the next social movement. These sorts of occurrences happen often enough. As a writer, I ask myself, “what wave can I ride? Is it even possible for someone of my personality to become as prolific as Nietzsche?” There are millions of blogs, and so what are the chances that this one will become successful?

The question, as I’ve seen from Skinner, is how a person comes to have some control, understanding, or even a vague foresight over the fleeting possibilities of luck. It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone disturbed over this question, for what source could we consider reliable to inform us about luck? To consign a bit of any outcome to chance seems to take power out of our hands. After all, our current lack of knowledge about the future doesn’t translate into a perpetual ignorance—many of us all want to feel as though it is possible to know everything, even if we cannot in our current state.

To this I respond: we must admit that not everything, as of yet, is a reality. Further still, not everything can be a reality simultaneously. Making choices as to what exists and what does not also includes knowledge of the world. Knowing one position may make it impossible to know others. The lucky or (in Skinner’s language) those who get lucky cannot just act any way they would like, at any time they would like, toward anyone they might like (or despise!). The truly fortunate know which waves to ride, how to stay steady, when they will come, and, most importantly, when to ditch the wave and avoid death. Perhaps we don’t need to know everything, since that may not be possible in the first place, and it may just be enough to know to “wing it.”

It can be argued that luck is nothing but a revelation despite ignorance—some event occurs at the benefit of a lucky person who happened to be at the right place at the right time. We all have, as children, found an unclaimed bill laying on the floor. Whatever denomination it was, we all knew what it meant: free candy, free food, free arcade rounds. We call it good luck, and all of the kids in the playground would call it the same. It may be tenable to say that it is only because of a lack of knowledge that children would call this luck. Science, skill, understanding, would yield a more consistent result. Let us ask, then, what if one child happened to have the ability to know every situation in which money were misplaced? That child would have the ability to be lucky at every possible occasion. Would that make the situation any less “lucky?”

I think it would not: there is still an element of chance involved, even with absolute knowledge. Even if I know that a highly coveted twenty-dollar bill is teetering on the edge of a person’s back-pocket seam, there is no guarantee that the money will fall. Luck, good and bad, is a series of happenings that we cannot guarantee; “getting lucky” is a matter of knowledge and manipulation. None of us are God, after all, and there are no guarantees.

Perhaps the scientist presses her luck doing experiments; artist takes a chance with each brush stroke; and each step of life is a gamble. Kinda makes life seem more exciting, doesn’t it?