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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dom,

The degree to which I "care" about politics is that I know about large political outcomes (I was aware that Obama was elected, the very next day!) and on some occasions I have a strong opinion about an issue that politicians will decide. I think we need to refine exactly what it means to "care" about politics - I suspect that many people who care in one way do not care in others. Probably people can be ranked on a meaningful (if crude) unidimensional scale based on how many expressions of caring about politics they show.

On to the normative question of whether we *should* care about politics. I think that your last sentence is sound - if you care about the future, you should care about politics. Why? Even if you cannot do anything, as a lone voter and citizen, to change the political process, you can prepare for what is going to happen in the world by keeping up with what laws are changing, etc. And for those who are more optimistic (or less lazy) than I, you can also sometimes change things.

But I think that this reason for caring about politics is very different from the reason that you spend more time on: that caring about politics is "an antidote to the constant stream of bullshit that spews forth from traditional media and partisan hacks of both sides." I don't see any necessary connection here. Many people who I know who "care" about politics (read political news quite a lot, vote and encourage others to vote, are "up" on political happenings) get their political views from the bullshit stream that you mention. No doubt you know many such people yourself.

And so maybe at this point you'll agree that you weren't thinking about those people, and you meant that we should "care" about politics in a more intellectual sense: we should seek out accurate information about the world, rather than listening to what ignorant or self-interested others (the government, the media, certain people who we know) tell us. Here I'd agree with you, but is that caring about politics, or is that just truth-seeking regarding the issues that happen to also be discussed by politicians?

Well, you might say that one is part of the other, but I have to disagree on that point. I do not really "care" about politics, and as such, I avoid the bullshit stream. I almost never watch political TV news or read internet political news. I do not listen to politicians (speeches, etc.) or analyses of those politicians by pundits. I do, however, seek out accurate information about aspects of the world that interest me, and at times, those aspects happen to overlap with the aspects that politicians deem important (for their self-interested reasons!). And so I have little need to conteract the bullshit stream. Turning the TV off would appear to serve the same (main) function as "caring" about politics, no?

Unfortunately, your secondary reason remains: knowing what is going to happen - what laws will be enacted, etc. And so I probably lose out by not caring about politics more. But I think it's worth the headaches!


Dom E said...


Excellent points. I myself noticed the disconnect between my last sentence and the earlier parts, but I got lazy and just decided to end it--I needed a break from writing and thought I should post what I have or I'd probably never come back to it.

Unfortunately, my thinking and writing have become rather sloppy. I no longer spend my time surrounded by intellectual peers who challenge me; I haven't even read any serious philosophy in something like 2 years. I have other habits that also likely serve to atrophy my mind.

But I should stop making excuses. I definitely did not take the care to define "care" or "politics", and that was particularly slipshod. You do a nice job of picking out my meanings, but I should try to clarify what I intended.

The motivating question here was really, "Why should I continue to read political news and blogs, especially when they can harbor feelings of frustration, impotence, and cynicism?" I tried to make this into a more general question, to increase its salience, but while this may include my working definition of "care", it still leaves the "political" part undefined.

I suppose I have at least two things in mind when I talk about political news. The first is what you might call political theater (campaigns & elections, backroom dealings, important pieces of legislation and judicial rulings, major speeches, etc.), the unconcealed activities of government officials, legislative bodies, courts, bureaucrats, etc. This I actually believe to be less important than the other sense, in large part because so much of it is packaged for mass media consumption, awash in bullshit (and I use Frankfurt's technical sense of the term, of course), lies, and propaganda.

The more important stuff is what our government doesn't want us to know about. I particularly focus on foreign policy, but there's plenty of concealed corruption in domestic quarters. Any journalist worthy of the name deals with this stuff, while those who cover political theater more often than not just end up parroting official talking points.

So I guess what I want to say is that people should care about the nasty, Machiavellian side of politics, about uncovering truths that are deliberately concealed--behind an ever-increasing wall of state secrecy--concerning how we treat human beings here and abroad. Whether or not you believe there are rights being violated, you can still say that our government causes tremendous amounts of harm, directly and indirectly, domestically and internationally.

Dom E said...


Shedding any remaining allegiance that I had to the Democratic Party was extremely liberating for me, but I also think it grants additional credibility (at least for the majority of us who does not swear blind fealty to Red or Blue). For one thing, it doesn't require me to defend the actions of one side against the other. I don't even like to think of myself as "leftist" anymore, because I just find left/right so useless a distinction.

So my only political agenda (besides all the transhumanist stuff) is that American citizens be aware of the things that their government does in their name with their tax dollars. It doesn't matter which Team currently holds the mantle of power. The system is so immersed in corruption that I don't believe acting within the system--donating money to campaigns and voting--is ever going to change anything.

Of course not everybody wants to change things. There are many who either benefit from the corrupt status quo, or who at least find it comfortable. I find it relatively comfortable, although I still feel like an outcast in this society; and I yearn for radical change, as you well know. (Though I don't know precisely what to replace the current system with, and I often change my mind about it, I do believe that what is needed is a far departure from what we have.)

But even from the standpoint of a person who desires stability--a general lack of change in the conditions of day-to-day life--there is still value to becoming aware of the concealed conflicts and corruptions which ultimately undermine that stability. Tyrannical usurpations of power tend not to last terribly long; states that would become empires sow the seeds of their own collapse.

I'd like to see a peaceful dismantling of US empire, perhaps as Britain relinquished its empire, with relatively little bloodshed and in such a way that still left them a major player in the world. I highly doubt that will happen. America will not abandon its global empire without lots of kicking and screaming--and this is true regardless of who is president or which party controls Congress.

My hope is that if more people are aware of this, perhaps we'll achieve a critical mass that can put an end to the madness before we start WWIII. That's really why I want people to "care about politics".

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the clarifications, Dom, and no worries - even if you say that it's operating way below its optimum, your mind is still one of the sharpest and most articulate that I have the pleasure of dealing with! It always surpasses what my memories lead me to expect, and makes me wish that we talked more often.

Your clarifications make perfect sense to me--by caring about politics you mean getting accurate information about what political actors are actually doing. The question is: why is *that* valuable?

I see two possible reasons, both somewhat present in your clarifications. First, there is possibly some inherent value citizens knowing what their government is doing - it may serve to increase accountability, for instance, so that citizens can exercise their democratic rights in a fuller way. Second, our government does some pretty horrific things, and sunshine can be an effective disinfectant. These both make sense to me.

One of my concerns, as you might guess, is: do *I* need to start caring about politics, or can I be a free rider? Both of the reasons for caring about politics that I've listed seem to let me off the hook somewhat. So long as there is a critical mass of people (including some who have some power) who follow what the government does, it doesn't seem to matter too much whether I join. (I don't have much power to squander.) Also, so long as I'm not interfering with the political process too much (voting, expressing political opinions publicly) my continued ignorance isn't keeping me from exercising my democratic rights more thoughtfully than I am now.

Of course, I said "let me off the hook somewhat." I think it's clear enough that it would be a morally good thing if I supported more government transparency (cared about politics) and did what I could to publicly express concerns about the grossly immoral things that our government does at home and abroad. For my own sake (wanting to be at least a minimally ethical person) I hope that those two morally good things are nonetheless supererogatory rather than obligatory (if those categories even really exist).

Ah, I guess there's no real escape from politics that doesn't smell of one vice or another (sloth at the least!).