I have a theory, and my theory is that the words of TV news hosts and pundits are more toxic than our current president’s.
There are far more of them (words) and far more of them (professional opinionators) on network “news” stations than in the White House. (And yes, I throw those quotes at “news” stations said to lean toward both sides of the political line.)
We are living in a time when the number of strangers’ opinions in our lives has incalculably multiplied. Between the Internet and television, loads of people we don’t know are hooking our attention and telling us what they think, and while much of it hopefully doesn’t get through to our deeper levels, some of it likely does seed itself in our own brains.
After the first Trump v. Biden debate two nights ago, I told this same thing to my mother, anxious over the idea that we’re listening to all these people tell us how to think and what to think about our own politics. She didn’t understand my fear. Maybe you won’t, either.
My mother says she thinks everyone is worth listening to. On a level, I agree with her. Perhaps everyone is worth listening to. But not everyone is worth really hearing—and I don’t mean on some general, all-inclusive level in which we all have a valuable voice and life force—of course we do. I mean perhaps not everyone is worth really hearing for each of us individually at a given moment. Say you’ve been bullied at home or at school about how you look or perform a task. You may listen, in order to learn what the words say about the pain of the person saying them and the world they live in, but hopefully you don’t hear—you don’t let it get through what you know about yourself in your own heart—that you’re lovely just the way you are.
Or a more innocuous example: You’ve sat next to a stranger at a bar or on an airplane. You’ve been recipient to myriad opinions on sports, politics, mutual funds, flight security, airplane food, craft brewing in America, etc. You listen, sure. But with a skeptical distance. Who is this fella? you know to think. You have no context with which to gauge her opinions. You have no interpersonal relationship with which to meter out how seriously you should take them.
I know my mother. I know when an opinion is right over home plate for her, and so maybe just a standard part of her storyline, nothing to be taken too seriously. I also know when an opinion is groundbreaking, out of character, out of her ballpark, and so perhaps something to be keyed into—a deeper truth, perhaps, that she’s ceding to. Something rising from the great pool of wisdom we all tap into now and then. But the stranger at the bar or on the plane? No idea how to know what’s just blather and what’s a key moment. Would you let the political opinion of some dude on a plane change the way you think about and live your life? Change the way you’re going to vote? Maybe, just for fun or because something really struck a chord or you had a really good feeling about her or you like to live on a pinwheel. But would it be advisable to do so? I don’t think so.
Same with TV hosts and pundits. You don’t know them. All you can safely assume is that they were hired by a corporation to make money by looking into a camera and talking. You may know their background—i.e. educational and professional history. But what does that really tell you? How many jobs have you had where every staff member was an ideal citizen? How many schools have you attended where the entire student body appeared as an unwaveringly brilliant army of cookie-cutter gingerbread people? And might one even argue that we should perhaps be more skeptical of ideas from people with elite professional and educational backgrounds, as they have perhaps been able to get pretty far on the merit of their resumes rather than on the content of their characters? I don’t know—I’m just spitballing here. I don’t mean to offend those with elite professional and educational backgrounds.
My thought is that you don’t need a g/d JD from Yale to wisely decide who you want your leader to be, and if you think you do, you might be part of the problem. You don’t need historical context or polls or a fact-o-meter or anything. You just need to know what your daily life is like, what you don’t like, what you like, and what you wish was different. And if this idea threatens you, makes you afraid—the idea of un-famous, regularly-educated, regularly-schooled, lower-to-middle class Americans voting from their own inner knowledge and hearts—then do some soul searching. Because the problem for you probably isn’t people at the polls “without enough information.” It’s about the whole system of society and culture that might lead you to be afraid of that idea. Why would you be afraid of someone doing what she thinks is best? If you worry her best won’t be done in exactly the way you’d like it to be done, you may want to do some work learning to accept that people are different and think differently and experience differently, and that’s just the way it is and--inshallah—will always be—lest we enter a horrid dystopian mind-control era in which people are all forced to think the exact same way, a la 1984.
Oy, I can picture the comments section filled with people giving excellent reasons for why we can’t trust unexceptional Americans to decide their politics for themselves. But I say: Take your fears and judgements, stick them in the darkest corners of your pockets so that you maybe forget they’re there, and stay the course. Consider it a thought experiment.
What do you think? Do you think if you could just talk to every American, reason with her, educate her, she’d see the light and think like you do? Yeah—no. I’m guessing some parents can vouch for how little control we have over the workings of someone else’s mind, even if we live with her her whole life and educate her with everything we know. She’ll still probably think pretty differently than whoever raised her. She’ll form her own ideas from her own nature and experiences, and she’ll trust them more than she trusts those of her parents. And why shouldn’t she? Her parents did the exact same. What makes them more right and her more wrong? Nothing real. What makes you more right and someone else more wrong? Nothing real. But we can’t get into that, now—the non-existence of right and wrong—it’s too radical an idea for this post and this society and perhaps this human world. Let me re-focus.
Folks in the media who are strangers to us are affecting our thoughts and feelings about events we witness (more or less) firsthand, and I don’t think this is good. We’d do better to talk to and listen to people in our own community, who we do and will live with, who we know personally, no matter their politics. These issues discussed on political stages are personal, and though we take TV hosts and pundits into our houses, they do not know us at all, and we don’t really know them.
Truth be told, the situation is even worse than that with a stranger at bar, because on one side, it’s wholly anonymous. The TV folks are speaking into the black hole of a black camera. The conversation is only going in one direction, which means it’s not a conversation. It’s a message delivery system.
Why receive the message? Listen if you’d like to listen, but do you want to really hear? Why care what any of these people think? And again, I don’t mean to say they aren’t worth caring about. Their personal communities and society in general should care about them. What I mean is: Why care what they think about news and politics more than you care about what any other stranger thinks about news and politics? A presidential debate is not a Miró exhibit or a tour of old Moscow. You don’t need someone to interpret it for you. You know what you think and feel the moment it’s over. And that’s enough. That’s the most important thing.
I can hear the intellectuals faint and frazzle: Let normal people think they’re enough?! Let the proletariat in the bayou backwoods and down the dusty farm lanes love and respect themselves enough to think their own reaction to politics is all the information they need?! The horror! They’ll vote according to their feelings and their tiny, poorly-educated minds and the world will go to pot! We need to help control them!
But please. We don’t need a pope to translate our country for us. This is a democracy with a direct line between the people and their leadership. This is a post-protestant revolution world. The population can speak directly to god. They know more than anyone what they need. They can hear it and say it and understand it as well as anyone else. They get to go to the ballot box and decide. They don’t have to go through a hierarchy of priests who will tell them what’s right and what’s wrong and decide for them. In our governmental system, nothing should be holier than a clean line between any American resident and her representatives and leadership. And if the candidates must speak directly to all the folks who will vote for her in a way that is clear, concise and convincing, with no interpreters needed, things would probably be better for everyone.
And by the way, no one needs an interpreter for a Miró exhibit, either. It’s art. There’s no wrong way to look at it or feel about it. And there’s no fundamental knowledge needed to comprehend it that anyone isn’t born with.