Why care about politics?

Most blog post titles that are questions are not really questions, which is to say that they're rhetorical questions. Seldom does an author ask a question genuinely--and I suppose this applies to traditional print media just as readily.

Take a work like Descartes' Meditations--one of my favorites, even though I disagree with so many of his conclusions. The text is rife with questions, not a few of which are answered either by expressions of ignorance--"I don't know"--or further questions--"But what do we mean by...?"

And yet Descartes is not a skeptic; he writes with answers to most of these questions in mind. However--and this is the key point--the Meditations is modeled after actual meditations that Descartes had--purportedly in a large bread oven to keep warm--stretches of time when Descartes genuinely posed those questions to himself, not certain of an answer.

Of course the order of the Meditations--which is deliberately designed to help guide a reader through a similar thought process--does not perfectly mirror Descartes' actual thought process. So the questions posed therein are not even recollections so much as deliberate fabrications inspired by his memories.

Nevertheless, this is about as close as you get to genuine questioning in the written word. This makes sense though, because most people don't start to write about something that puzzles them until they've figured it out. Even those that do, myself included, often find that the writing and rewriting process itself can lead them to answers--and the final product only comes after the author reaches her conclusions.

So, what is the point? (A rhetorical question, of course.) Why value genuine questioning? Because--and of course I have an answer prepared even though I don't know exactly what it is yet--it indicates a willingness not to take for granted the many lies and distortions thrown at us on a daily basis.

Certainty is easy, both in terms of intellectual effort and emotional satisfaction. Uncertainty is just unpleasant. Descartes talks about it as being trapped in a vortex, unsure even of which direction is up. (Such experiences of physical disorientation are typically rare but can be extremely frightening.)

Thus it takes a kind of courage, both intellectual and affective, to be willing to question oneself on a regular basis. Such courage is admirable--which is to say that I admire it--and authors who display it are usually worth reading if they have minimal literary talent (which far too many do, but you come to grow fond of their quirks).

But the title of this blog post is not "What is the value of questioning?" but rather (scroll up if you don't believe me) "Why care about politics?" As you might have discerned, I attempted to ask this question to myself genuinely, and see what it has produced: an analysis of an entirely different, more fundamental, question.

And yet there is something to be taken from the answer to my previous question. Maintaining this vital capacity for critical thinking is greatly aided by seeking out marginalized viewpoints (some of which a majority of the population is sympathetic to, and yet which is artificially excised from mainstream political discourse).

Consider what happens to those who do not actively seek out these sources of information. Let's take the American case, since it's the most familiar. I have a lot of students these days who take no interest in politics. Perhaps they are disgusted by it, but I imagine more of them just see no real connection between their own lives and the political theater and backroom dealings of the powerful psychopaths who lord over us.

Whatever motivates their apathy--perhaps nothing ever motivated them to care in the first place, so habit is their only reason--by living in this country you are constantly consuming media and you hear bits and pieces of things. Much of what you are going to hear is propaganda, lies that the political and economic elites want you to believe so they can maintain their stranglehold on power, i.e., the imposition of their will on the rest of us through violent force or the threat of it.

The biggest of these fictions is that the state is the only "legitimate" source of violence, and that all violence by non-state actors is necessarily "illegitimate". America goes further, and wants to claim that all of its violence is legitimate, and that all violence directed against it or its so-broadly-defined-as-to-be-meaningless "interests" deserves the moniker "terrorism".

(For more on this point, I'd refer the reader to recent posts by Glenn Greenwald, whose intellectual courage I greatly admire. I also wish to add that I am generally not a fan of violent action against the state for the reason that I believe it to be less effective than non-violent resistance; even should it resolve a short-term problem, in the long run it just perpetuates a senseless cycle of murder. Let the state keep its monopoly on violence, so long as there are alternatives to bloodshed that can lead to real political change. But I would strongly contest the notion that "legitimate" violence is exclusively the province of the state.)

So, I guess if I had to give a tentative answer to this question, why care about politics?--to put it another way, why keep reading about political news when it's always bad news, makes one feel frustrated and impotent, seems always to get worse and worse, etc.?--I'd have to say as an antidote to the constant stream of bullshit that spews forth from traditional media and partisan hacks of both sides.

Once you recognize that the people in power will unflinchingly lie to your face--and often do so--simply to fuel their ambition and avarice, once you learn to take everything that politicians and businessmen say with a shaker of salt, you free a place in your mind for truth but also a space for imagination, for alternatives, for a broader notion of what just might be possible.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

Though I loathe the phrase "politics is the art of the possible" for the way in which it is often used to quash any idea that falls outside the narrow ideological spectrum allowed by the Blue and Red teams, it is not so pernicious an idea if we are willing to question what human beings are truly capable of.

We should never forget, as Greenwald reminds us in this talk (plus answers to questions, all highly worth listening to), that any structure that has been created by human beings can be destroyed and remade by humans. I would add to that the possibility that human beings can also remake themselves should our natural limitations impede the creation of just and peaceful politico-economic arrangements.

If you care about your future, or the future of your progeny, it would be folly not to care about politics.