Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why Conservative and Liberal Radio Isn't Good for You

I could have called this post "The Hermeneutics of Political Radio," but that might have sounded pretentious -- my point, however, really does relate to how certain political discourse interprets facts in the world. This morning during breakfast I was listening to the left-wing Air America radio network. Al Franken was away and two commentators were sitting in for him. As the hosts weighed-in on many recent events, one uniting theme soon became apparent, "George Bush and people who like him are only evil and dumb, all of the time." Which is to say, today's uniting theme on Air America was the same as yesterday's, and the day before. If a Republican were to do something apparently commendable, the interpretation of that event would fall into one or more of the following categories: (1) "Yes, but the commendable act was a publicity stunt, his heart wasn't really in it as we can clearly see by his past actions." (2) "It's about time he did something commendable, but this won't take away from the greater damage of his past actions. How dare he think this one act redeems him?" (3) "Victory for us! Our side exerted enough pressure to get him to do the right thing! So really, we're the ones to thank." (4) "Hey -- commendable acts like that were invented and perfected by OUR side - now HE'S trying to take credit?" (5) "OK, this was a commendable act -- but the exception proves the rule! The stark contrast between this act and the normal way our opponents conduct themselves highlights how generally uncommendable they are." The driving interpretive grid is this: whatever the event might be, it proves that "Republicans and what they do are always bad." Conservative radio operates by the same rules: all facts, all news stories, one way or another, prove the absurdity and villainy of liberals.

What's wrong with these kind of intepretive systems? Most philosphers and theologians recognize that we all operate with complex cognitive grids through which we pass all of our experiences. This is necessary so that we can quickly categorize what is happening around us, make decisions, etc. We can't avoid having presuppositions, even biases -- in fact, we'd be immobilized without them. Sometimes this is called the "hermeneutical spiral" - the proper, gentle circularity with which our presuppositions help us make sense of the facts, while the facts also shape our presuppositions. However, our ability to arrive at the truth is endangered when our presuppositions cannot themselves be corrected by the new discoveries, nor admit exceptions to general rules. A kind of craziness results when the hermeneutical spiral is interupted is this way, when our interpretive grid cannot be challenged by any number of contrary experiences, and so, our minds become shut off from the possibility of knowledge of certain things. For example: "Are all Democratic party leaders evil secularists?" ("Yes!") "But Democratic senator Barak Obama admits that his party is too secular and should allow more religious language in public policy debates - surely he is not an evil secularist." ("Wrong! We know he's an evil secularist because he's a Democrat.") Philosophers also call this "begging the question" -- using your conclusion as evidence for your conclusion. This is not to say that, for the sake of argument, the basic Democratic interpretation of the world is more correct than the basic Republican world view. Nor is it to say that one could not, with intellectual honesty, host a radio show that discusses national events from the vantage point of one such political perspective. Rather, the test of political craziness might be to ask, "Have my opponents ever gotten it right? If not, might they sometimes have at least meant to get it right? Can I speak for more than sixty seconds about an area of commonality bewteen us?" The most successul politicians (and people) are able to build on commonalities, give credit where credit is due, admit past mistakes in their own belief or action, find ways to work with opponents, etc., all without going soft on their own convictions, goals, and general presuppositions about reality. The radio shows, by contrast, tend to enforce interpretive grids that are actually, on these terms, crazy, because all facts, all the time, prove the host's grand narrative to be true: on all counts we are morally good and epistmemically right, and they are morally bad and epistemically wrong.

The Bible has another word for this state: blindness - the morally blameworthy state of making yourself unable to see relative value in others or faults in yourself. Christianity says that the reason we are drawn to such totalizing political visions is a problem with our hearts: we desperately want to see ourselves as good and respectable, and the easiest way to do this is to find an opponent who is always wrong, always morally corrupt, always so much worse than we are. Like a drowning person, we elevate ourselves by pushing the other guy under water. My own faults are made so much smaller in the face of the heinous faults of the opponent. For example: "They're blaming our guy for X? Well, X might have been a mistake, but their guy did Y! How can you blame us for one instance X when they do Y all the time?" And, while, Y may really be much worse than X, X is still wrong and, morally speaking, requires an unqualified apology. Being a Christian, among other things, involves actually believing that on your best day you are a moral and epistemic mixed-bag. Put differently, it means saying that apart from all the legitimate good you may have done in a given day, you have so fallen short of God's perfection that your sins required the death of Christ to atone for them. Those who really believe they have need of Christ to cover their daily sins are moving toward the cure for all kinds of blindness, including political blindness. Such people may still have a specific political vision, yet they won't be able to speak or act morally superior to everyone who disagrees with that some part of that vision. They'll make a case for their interpratation of the truth, but will less likely do so with words or a tone that suggests only idiots would disagree. They'll see sinners on both sides of the isle, and will include themselves in that number. Their need to see their oppenent as thoroughly dumb or evil will be diminished because they have already admitted to their own intellectual and moral failings: as Christians they believe God alone is all-knowing, not them, and he has moved to forgive them from their own failures through the sacrifice of Christ for them. Such people, when acting consistently with their beliefs, won't spend much energy drawing attention to their intelletual or moral OK-ness, nor, espectially, will they they need to push others down in order to lift themselves up. In a sense, Christ has already allowed himself to drown in order to bear them up.

Of course, all of these thougths about politics apply to the politics within our families, our churches, our schools. Common sense can keep us from some of the crazy politics we may be tempted to engage in, but the gospel is the most intellectually sound and spiritually powerful cure. Only it addresses the real heart of crazy politics, the compelling idol that we always get our way and that we be seen by God and others as right and respectable.