INTEREST, AND LACK THEREOF

There are a lot of things I do not like but very few things about which I do not care in the least. The list is pretty short. Opera. Basketball. Country music. Fishing. Academic analysis of pop culture detritus (No, really, the world is aching to hear your Marxist-Feminist critique of Season 3 of According to Jim). Literature written before 1800. You might find these subjects very interesting and/or they may be very important. That's fine. I just don't care about them. At all. Hey, at least it's a short list and I can admit it.

I'm supposed to like everything about politics. Nothing in the universe of modern American politics is supposed to be uninteresting to someone in my line of work. But despite being a person whose personal Do Not Care list is pretty short and a Official Professional American Politics guy, the frequency with which I cannot bring myself to care about the ostensible headline stories on the news is starting to alarm me.

Take this "Ground Zero" Mosque thing. We are on day three of saturation cable TV and internet coverage. People, I swear on my eternal soul, this stack of Bibles, and the original Shroud of Turin: I could not give less of a shit about this "story" if it took place in the middle of the Country Music Awards. It doesn't even hold my interest long enough to listen to people venting steam about it and to process their opinions. I don't have a lot of respect for talking heads but I have to tip my hat to the people on cable TV for talking about this for three days straight. It can't be easy to do that much talking about something so mind-bogglingly irrelevant.

Many years ago Ted Carmines & James Stimson did some highly influential public opinion work categorizing different kinds of political issues. The simplest meaningful classification is not "social" vs. economic, but Easy vs. Hard issues. Easy issues are easy because it requires no information to have a quasi-meaningful opinion about it. Abortion is an easy issue. Yes, some people are well-versed in the legal and medical intricacies of abortion, but for most people it is a case of For It or Against It. I think it is immoral or I don't think it is immoral. And either way you can't prove me wrong. Gay marriage, right-to-die, mandatory English, and other "hot button" issues like that are good examples of Easy issues. Hard issues, conversely, require information to form a meaningful opinion. Tariffs or environmental regulations are hard issues. That's why we don't talk about them.

To put it mildly, we and our media are ass-over-teakettle in love with Easy issues because god knows the viewing public doesn't have information about anything and wouldn't usefully analyze it if they did. We love talking about stupid crap – Did Obama take a vacation at the wrong time? Should we build a mosque at Ground Zero? Should every candidate wear a flag pin on their lapel? Can the Ten Commandments be displayed in government buildings? – because these issues allow us simultaneously to talk out of our asses and offer an opinion that is as valid as any other. The mosque issue, for example, starts from the shared understanding that, yes, it is physically and legally possible for a group to purchase real estate and build a mosque just about anywhere. From there it essentially becomes "I think they should!" versus "Grr! Over my dead body!" And I would rather watch my rats bat a cardboard toilet paper tube around the cage than listen to, watch, or read that.

When nobody is right or wrong, what is the point of arguing? Who finds that interesting? To me, watching that is like watching a soccer game in which both goals were sealed off with bricks. When it's impossible to score you quickly realize that what is supposed to be an entertaining competition is just a bunch of idiots running around aimlessly.

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42 thoughts on “INTEREST, AND LACK THEREOF”

  • To be fair, Ed, I think you'd rather watch your rats bat a cardboard toilet paper tube around the cage than pretty much anything else. Not a fair comparison, is all I'm saying.

    I suspect the most controversial aspect of this piece is going to be your list of things you do not care about. Said controversy would, of course, yield precisely the kind of fruitless yelling that the column is about. ("What do you mean, you don't like opera?! Have you even *listened* to TRISTAN & ISOLDE?!" "Hank Williams is a *genius*–how *dare* you not appreciate that?!" And so on.) And then we'd simply be proving your point by raising our voices on a useless waste of vitriol against an opponent who cannot be convinced of the justness of our position.

    Which…was very sneaky of you.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    I often hate politics. I probably shouldn't have chosen to study it for a living. Oh well! Too late now.

  • if not for irrelevant issues many rightwing blogs would consist of nothing but a blank page. as for issues (and subjects) which do interest you, Ed, I simply skip the sports posts.

  • Hmm. If you were a religious person, would you care? As a Muslim, would you feel persecuted? As a Christian, would you feel obliged, in some directions? As a right-wing exclusivist Christian, would you feel offended? Must you have a pony in the race before civil rights matter to you?

    I only ask because part of the whole civil rights thing is recognizing that other people are being shat upon generically, in a way undeserved (generally) rather than deserved (specifically); and that if they are being pressured to submit to the dominant culture, that it's somehow contrary to the spirit of equality under the law. Or something. Whether it's exciting and interesting or not. The difference between that which is Important and that which is Personal applies.

    While I'm neutral-against anything public-religious (make them pay taxes, make them liable under the law), it rankles that people think a center for awareness is insensitive. (Insensitive to what? — the comfortable biases of the people who would rather lump all Muslims with the nuts?)

    And for crying out loud, if you can listen to Bad Brains and the Dead Boys and Social D (or whatever), you can listen to Hank (or Patsy, or Kitty Wells, or Son House, or Wanda Jackson) or even Un Bel Di (from Madame Butterfly.) Consider investing some time. Broaden those horizons.

  • In the end, every religious person thinks their religion is the right one. In the Christian tradition, isn't it enough to believe that those who don't choose your faith will spend an eternity in a fiery, agony filled pit of pain and despair? Do you really need to oppress them in the brief interlude before said eternity of pain?

    Seriously, can anyone answer this question for me?

  • I think the only point missed by this post is that these "issues" are raised in the media for the SOLE PURPOSE of creating the argument and drawing a distinct line between one side and the other. That way you can demonize the "other" side; all for political purposes. It is created by political operatives in order to draw distinctions that serve political purposes.

  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    You all should have learned by now that the right wing requires an endless stream of various outrages of the day/month/year/decade in order to keep their followers so emotionally charged that they can't develop the ability to think logically or consistantly. This Mosque thing is a perfect example.

  • Rush Gush is all that wingnuts care about and the media loves that shit. They'll all scream hysterically as long as they get a response, so yours is a measured & logical strategy.

  • It's not so much that they have murdered democracy, it more that they have tortured it into imbecility, let it befoul itself with its own feces, then put a funny hat and clown shoes on it. You can't help but turn away.

    (Nunya, if they were the play-nice types they wouldn't be so tickled by this whole Hell thing in the first place.)

  • Elder Futhark says:

    Does Newt Gingrich have a 1st amendment right to lay down an enfillade of projectile farts every time he shows up on TV? Yes.

    But I find the sight of him offensive. He is a stab in the eye. He is not being senstive to my sensibilities. I demand that he be made to wear a mask made from a taxidermied dog's butthole, with the sphincter strategically located over his wordhole.

    Then, for fair and balanced viewing, Sarah Palin should have her butthole taxidermied, and be made to wear that over her face, but with the cats-eye glasses on. Only then will I be made to feel that 3,000 lives were not sacrificed in vain.

  • Provocative post, as usual, Ed.

    Interesting to me the way commeercially-financed media (i.e., all of them) have transitioned from issues requiring objective information to issues requiring only an opinion. A bigger tent! More cars sold! I've observed it over 40 years–ever since I started noticing. To wit: the transition from "I think" to "I feel" in everyday discourse. To wit: game shows changing (Jeopardy maybe the only holdout) from hard information to popular "surveys" for authority ("most popular answer") and of course news media responding to "controversies" not by seeking out the facts and presenting them to the viewer but by popular polling–the endless, perennial polls, the goddammed polls, the get-the-answer-you-want-by-the-way-you-pose-the-question polls.

    And, Ed: "No literature before 1800."

    Forsooth?

  • I wonder how the peeps at CNN Atlanta reconcile the disparity of coverage between CNN America vs CNN International. CNN International is actually a decent channel, with almost no missing-blond-girl.

  • I think discussion of "easy" issues is a misnomer, assuming, of course, that one wades into the depth, nuance and repercussions of the various arguments.

    Of course, that doesn't fit into the business of infotainment, passing itself off as thoughtful discourse.

  • I really don't know though, Ed. While I agree that most of what the media goes after consists of precisely those Easy Issues, and while the whole mosque thing technically counts as one of those Easy Issues, I think it's a lot more important than it seems at face value.

    It is important because it shines a direct spotlight on the current state of America. How the Republican party and its allies has dropped any and all pretense and has gone into direct, public statements of "Well, we all know they have their rights buuuuuuuut…."

    They have rights, but.

    Consider that phrase for a moment.

    Consider its implications.

    Take some time to internalize exactly what it says about this godforsaken shithole of a nation when people that profess to love the constitution can say, with a straight face, "Yeah, you have rights, but." And nobody has a problem with it. Nobody calls them out on it. Major public media figures either fail to point them out as the raving fascist tyrants they are, or actually *AGREE* with them.

    Remember the Milgram Experiment. Remember how Nazi Germany was recreated on command in a lab, because people completely disregarded the human rights of their victims — all because they were told to do so by an authority figure, one they didn't even know.

    And now imagine how well that works when the authority figure is a widely-known group of people with full access to broadcast facilities, who are already treated lke kings in their own land.

    The actual "issue" of the building of the mosque is a pointless, Easy issue, that I can agree with. But the *REAL* issue is the one that is raised by people's reactions to it.

    Americans, a significant chunk of them at least, are ready, willing, and encouraged to completely disregard the rights of their fellow citizens on demand because of their religion.

    And not one fucking person in the media gives a damn.

  • I think the "easy" vs. "hard" issues dichotomy is a nice little conceptual tool, although it's overly simplistic. I suspect that on a lot of the "hard" issues, you'll find people just as willing to spout unsubstantiated, ideologically driven opinions. Take your example of environmental regulations – yeah, it does require a good bit of reading or statistical training to speak informatively about possible policy outcomes resulting from a hypothetical regulation, but I'd bet that many politically minded folks are no less willing to share their unsolicited, uninformed opinions about the latest EPA regulation. Your call for the media to cover more hard issues is great, but whenever they do cover such issues, it's the same kind of superficial, soundbyte-driven coverage that you see with the easy issues. I think that's more a function of the limits and shortcomings of our media environment than the types of issues being covered.

    But regarding this specific issue, I'd second what John says. I personally wouldn't have given a rats ass about this mosque one way or the other had it not become an issue. I'm not particular fond of Islamic theology. I find its central claims to be as bogus as those of any other religion, and I find many tenets of even the mainstream version to be downright disagreeable. But now that the issue has garnered media attention, as John points out, it's impossible not to take seriously the reactions to it. The debate over this specific mosque has occurred within the larger context of a series of provocative demonstrations about mosques in other cities, as this NY Times article illustrates: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html.
    The rhetoric employed by many of the most ardent opponents has been repugnant. So yeah, taken in isolation, the issue is utterly irrelevant for non-New Yorkers. And yeah, the media coverage has been banal, and the complete saturation of this story over the airwaves says a lot about the state of our media. But taken in a larger context about the rhetorical devices and strategies Republicans are deploying to garner support, I'd hardly say that it doesn't merit the attention of serious political analysts.

  • Seriously though, I agree with Ed. There was no good literature (at least in the English language) before about 1800. Maybe there was fiction, but that's not the same thing. And don't try to tell me that Chaucer is an entertaining read.

  • No one likes Chaucer. Or Beowulf. We only read Beowulf because it is impressive that it survives.

    Brandon, the key word is "meaningful." People can form an easy position on a hard issue, as I think the authors would readily concede, but it wouldn't be equal in weight to informed opinions.

    On gay marriage it doesn't matter how much or how little you know. "I'm morally opposed to it" is as solid an argument as any other, as there's really no way to disprove it.

  • The Ten Commandments issue is not unimportant. Displaying them in a government building implies government endorsement of Judaism and Christianity in violation of the First Amendment. The others, I agree with you.

  • @Brandon: Thanks so much for linking that story, in my fervor for the topic it completely slipped my mind to link it.

    This country, right now, is having several dead-serious protests against the building of mosques where the argument is, quite nakedly, "Muslims not welcome here". And nobody is saying anything about it. Nobody is calling it out for the bigotry it is. People have the right to protest, it is their protected free speech, and I do not for one second believe that they should be stopped from *saying* that they hate Islam, however repugnant their words may be. But if the various local governments *act* upon their wishes, it will result in denying other people their constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedom, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

    If one were to take this story, replace "mosque" with "synagogue" and "islam/muslim" with "judaism/jew", the nation would rightly throw a goddamn fit. But they're just dirty Muslims, you see, and it's okay for people to petition for their rights to be stripped.

    Recall the story of Jerry Klein, and the experiment he performed on his radio show. In 2006, he suggested that Muslims should be forced to wear crescent moon markers on their clothing, passports, IDs and etc. He had several callers to his show that stated that he wasn't going far enough — that they should be tattooed in the center of their forehead, forcibly rounded up and removed from the country, etc.

    And at the end of it all, he revealed his hoax (My paraphrasing). "My god", he said, "You people have just shown me how Nazi Germany happened. You people are actually sick enough to agree with what I just said, and all I did was replace "Jew" with "Muslim"."

    This is the ugly truth about the Land of the Free™.

    And that is an EXTREMELY important story.

  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    Sounds like the Third Wave experiment, which was much better than the Milgram experiment. Nazis didn't do what they did just because someone told them to. And the Muslim=Terrorist has a real-life analogy which led to the Holocaust, namely Jew=Communist/Plutocratic parasite.

  • Ed, did you notice my question about Shakespeare and Swift? You don't consider Shakespeare literature? And "A Modest Proposal" doesn't figure in your political science education? Can't believe you ignore inconvenient questioners here…

    Can't believe "forsooth?" was too subtle a response.

  • I don't really care to read Shakespeare. He may be wonderful and important but I still don't care about it. I'm sure there are lots of terribly important people and things in other fields – archaeology, perhaps – that you aren't the slightest bit interested in.

    And yes, I like "A Modest Proposal." You got me. It hasn't exactly been integral to my education once I understood what satire is and what purpose it serves, but I'm sure there are multiple exceptions to my somewhat arbitrary 1800 dividing line.

  • truth=freedom says:

    @Ed: Just because the media take the easy route is no reason to be disinterested in the coverage. As more than a few commenters have noted, this issue speaks very clearly to whether or not most, or even many, Americans actually understand the meaning of the First Amendment. Obviously, way too many of them don't. The fact that the media are taking the easy road is just another sign of their corruption (not in the take money for doing something sense, but the rotten in their souls sense). By being disinterested you give them a pass on being banally evil. You know: when they came for the Muslims, I paid them no mind because I wasn't one of them.

  • Paul W. Luscher says:

    "Media loves the Easy Issues…"

    Prezactly, dude. After all, these days,its all about sensation, not information. Oh, and presenting it all in the most simple-minded way.

    I mean, not many of them have pointed out the that proposed mosque isn't AT "Ground Zero, but a few blocks away. But that'd be too much information, and after all, gotta keep the audience worked up, to keep the ratings up…

  • Monkey Business says:

    Let's not mince words or play nice. The people that believe that the mosque is offensive or disrespectful don't actually believe that. They believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and should be forcibly expelled from this country. They believe that anyone whose skin color is darker than theirs is out to get them, whether it's by taking their job, stealing their car, or blowing up their airplane.

    The most dangerous phrase when it comes to any argument of this kind is "They have rights, but.". There is no "but". There is only "They have rights."

  • The Man, The Myth says:

    Whamo! I can't offer anything new – but Monkey Business and others hit the nail on the head, this issue shows people bluntly saying, "Muslims can't have a religious facility, its too close to ground zero." Holy cow! What are they talking about? Is that a bit discriminatory? I read a blog that provided the historic context of Cordova in Spain during the time of the Muslim empire. It was a great place of religious learning, Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed peacefully! That is the exact opposite of these assholes like Newty boy are saying. Like someone said earlier: bread and circus.

  • Kitty Wells? You say there was a country singer named Kitty Wells? Oh my. The only reason I pay any attention to country music is to mine the archives for old stars' names I can then use for my pets. Next female cat I get is going to be called "Kitty Wells." You can count on it.

    As for the mosque-that-isn't-even-really-a-mosque issue, you're right. it is stupid and it is easy. However, I agree with what everyone else is saying–this is a very important moment where the haters and bigots need to be put in the spotlight and shamed–but it isn't happening. There's your reason to care.

  • I've brought this up to a few people I know who live mostly in meatspace, as opposed to online, and none of them had heard any details about this.
    And by that, I mean details beyond 'this is a story happening somewhere'. I think if you don't live in lower Manhattan or in the blogoverse, or get all your news from talk radio/Fox, you may not be likely to be all worked up about this. However, those three groups tend to get a lot of media attention, for some reason.

    I know my husband is far more concerned that the coleslaw I'm serving with dinner tonight be up to my usual high standards than he could possibly be about this issue, and if he asked any of his colleagues about it they'd be utterly bewildered.

  • This is what the Republicans call a "wedge issue". I am sure they (and the oligarchy) would rather talk about this then how they destroyed the economy.

    What this episode illustrates to me is how ignorant Americans are of the constitution and the motivations behind it.

  • Easy issues are easy because it requires no information to have a quasi-meaningful opinion about it. Abortion is an easy issue. Yes, some people are well-versed in the legal and medical intricacies of abortion, but for most people it is a case of For It or Against It. I think it is immoral or I don't think it is immoral. And either way you can't prove me wrong. Gay marriage, right-to-die, mandatory English, and other "hot button" issues like that are good examples of Easy issues. Hard issues, conversely, require information to form a meaningful opinion. Tariffs or environmental regulations are hard issues. That's why we don't talk about them.

    I'm not sure I really buy this distinction.

    You get a handful of people who will argue that gay marriage is wrong because the bible says so, full stop. But for the most part people don't act like they think their opposition to or favoring of gay marriage is based entirely on a meaningless gut instinct.

    Look at all the people who argue, for example, that kids need a mother and a father; that's a question of information. Information is what would prove or disprove that hypothesis.

    Or, to come from the other direction, what's stopping people from saying "My gut tells me tariffs are always evil, and you can't convince me otherwise"?

    I tend to think that the difference is less that people don't need information to answer the easy questions, it's that the information they need seems to come easily to them in the course of their day to day lives. Anybody who is a parent, or knows parents, is constantly in the process of acquiring new information about how to parent. Knowledge of international banking regulations is something that most people have to go out of their way to acquire.

    The other difference would seem to be how emotionally attached you are to your conclusion.

    I guess I sort of chafe at the tone of this article is because the whole reason an "easy" question becomes an easy question is that a lot of people like to focus on it, and a hard question becomes hard because a large number of people put it in their personal "This may be important, but I personally don't care about it" list.

  • Reading Shakespeare's plays, like reading anyone's plays, sucks. Sorry, I just does. Those plays were meant to be performed, not read.

  • Christopher, I share some of your reservations with this distinction, although I also see its utility. I think the difference really boils down to those issues whose resolution is ultimately normative or value-laden, versus those that can be tested empirically. Whether global warming exists or whether a particular environmental regulation would reduce pollution can theoretically be tested, assuming that sufficient data is available. Abortion or gay marriage ultimately do boil down to values. I'd probably choose another label than "easy" and "hard" because even on the "easy" issues I think we can objectively distinguish between good and bad arguments. Just because an issue boils down to values doesn't mean that it doesn't take logical precision and theoretical rigor to have an informative opinion on it. The easy label to me kind of implies that all opinions on an easy issue are equally arbitrary.

  • "Muslim" is the new "Communist". It's an easy slur. Like those who charactarize Obama as a a Muslim (and there are many) and/or a Muslim sympathizer. There are millions of Muslims in America, and they constitute a convenient "fifth column" for all the xenophobes and empty patriots.

    If Helen Douglas were running today, I'd have painted her as the "bhurka lady" rather than the pink one.

    No politician ever lost underestimating the knowlege of the American voter.

  • This fits in nicely with the "news as entertainment" model we have seen take over all the major programming sources. Of course, conflict provides the entertainment.

  • lazy-ignorant-elderly-unhealthy says:

    haven't read the comments. the mosque controversy has done its work. a brilliant exposure of religious freedom attitudes in the USA. the promoter could, but won't, announce that he was only kidding.
    it no longer matters what happens with the project. it never mattered. promote greater understanding between confessional groups? i.e, create larger groups of people to push on a rope? all very edifying … here…. but over there … boom, boom, boom, and drip, drip, drip.
    could go on but won't.

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