How to Think about Politics – Principle 1: Is it more important to think or to feel good about information?

I have my favorite news outlets.  NPR is nice.  I also like BBC, CNN, and I’m more than happy to read the NY Times and the Denver Post.  I feel that these news agencies are relatively objective in their portrayal of information, and relevant to local, national, and international affairs.  I believe this because over a long period of time I have found that these news agencies bear out the facts of their reporting, and they don’t try to bulls-t me. 

All liberal organizations, you say?  Listen Rupert, every news agency has a marginal amount of bias because they are ultimately run by human beings, but good reporters and good journalists know when their opinion is appropriate and when it isn’t.  I actually really appreciate Australian news agencies, where they will report the news and occasionally the anchor will break and say something like “and a more appalling thing I cannot imagine.”  Great.  I can tell when it’s commentary and when it’s news.  At least you aren’t trying to hide it. 

When it comes to bias, there are two major news organizations I typically avoid but for the fact that I at least want to be aware of what they’re saying.  MSNBC and FoxNews.  Both of them are perfectly fine until it comes to politics, and then their standards are completely unacceptable to me.  I understand that news agencies have limited time and have to make choices as to what they report and how they report it, but both of them run heavy partisan commentary right on top of political journalism, and they both display a ridiculous bias towards their respective sides.  FoxNews is by far and away the worst. 

Regardless of your media outlet choices, I believe very strongly that the burden of separating fact from nonsense is still on the reader, and as such it is very important to judge news agencies and their reporting as objectively and fairly as possible.  After all, just because FoxNews is heavily biased towards conservative politics doesn’t mean what they are reporting isn’t true.  However, be aware that getting political news from Fox is akin to getting information on a car you want to buy from the dealership.  These people have a reason to mislead you.  That reason is called “money.”  That doesn’t mean all news agencies do it.  News agencies can choose to sell one of two things:  integrity or sensationalism.  Don’t be cynnical, both can work.  Walter Cronkite made a career off of selling only integrity.  FoxNews, well…you, senator, are no Jack Kennedy. 

Realize though, that as bad getting info from a news agency you disagree with is, more dangerous than that is getting information from sources that are heavily biased to AGREE with you.  Some people love Hannity and others love Bill Maher.  Think of how much more likely you are to absorb bulls-t if you think it would be awesome if the things they said were actually true.  For instance, Bill Maher has referred to George Bush as “the devil”. Everything Bush did is evil, according to Bill Maher, and he’s always got some statement about why Bush was so bad.  He’s also really funny, and it’s tempting to go to him for information if you are a young liberal because you not only get what appears to be “the truth” but you get it in a funny, edgy way that makes you feel good about how you got it.

We’ve all done this.  I used to think everything Bush Jr. ever did was wrong.  Then Obama continued a few of his policies that I strongly disagreed with.  Uh oh.  So are they now good?  Is Obama bad?  Which is it?  It’s neither.  It’s a false presumption to assume that because Bush Jr. did something it should be “bad” and because Obama did something it should be “good.”  If I would have reviewed these things more closely I would have made a decision for myself and judged the messenger accordingly.  It’s not only normal that a candidate you support does something you disagree with, but it should be expected.  More importantly, IT’S OK THAT YOU DISAGREE WITH SOME THINGS A CANDIDATE YOU SUPPORT SAYS.  LOOK AT THE PACKAGE, NOT A SINGLE ISSUE. Be comfortable with that reality.  It’s the one we live in.   Besides, if they do enough things you disagree with, you can always not vote for them and you should be able to say exactly why that is.   That’s so much better than voting for someone because you’ve wilfully indulged in easily digestable partisal lies.    

Ultimately the question is very simple:  Is information more valuable to you if it makes you feel good and secure in your beliefs, or if it paints a more accurate picture of the world?  For instance, I happen to be pretty liberal.  I would love to believe that George W. Bush went into Iraq either to get oil, because he was ‘conducting a crusade’ against the Muslim world, or that he was simply a revenge-mongering warlord.  It would allow me to dislike him very easily.  The problem is, it’s not true.  He went into Iraq because he believed they had WMD’s and he believed that we have a moral obligation to depose a man who was most certainly a horrible homicidal dictator.  Now history did not bear out the WMD’s, but at the time everyone thought he had them.  Everyone.  Any one of us may very well have made the same decision at the same time in history, and even without that, I still think it’s morally laudable to depose a murderous regime.   What I disagreed with was HOW he went about doing it, like not showing the American people the evidence for WMD’s, having little international support, and no exit strategy.   Plus, I think his attitudes regarding religion and domestic affairs were completely shallow and at times absolutely appalling, but I will not use those facts to  indulge in lies because they feel good to say.     

Look, at the end of the day, I can’t converse or write if I know deep down I’m bulls-itting myself.  Of course people develop and change, and sometimes that means admitting that you were wrong.  That’s not only OK, it’s healthy.  I’ve never understood why a politician changing their opinion over time has become such a villified thing in politics today.  If anything, we should be applauding a politician who changes their mind after careful consideration of data and facts.  That’s a good thing.  However, there are also lots of people in this country who think that it’s more important to feel good about walling up your long-held beliefs with whatever you can find regardless of the truth.  Many, many people do.  Think of how many people you know who only listen to Rush Limbaugh.  They don’t care if what he says is true as long as they feel good and validated by what they’re hearing.  Incidentally, this is how songs like “Barack the Magic Negro” become acceptable to otherwise non-racist individuals simply because they don’t like Obama’s other policies.  And it’s not just conservatives, either  How many people do you know would vote against oxygen if Obama said it was bad?  I’ll leave you with a great exchange between 20th century philosopher and scholar D.T. Suzuki and an audience member at a lecture he gave.

Audience dude:  Dr. Suzuki, everything in this world takes so much thought.  Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we were just dogs and didn’t have to worry about all this?

Suzuki: (after a brief introspective pause)  Sure it would.  But it would be a dog’s life.     

P.S.  Every once in a blue moon there comes across the political spectrum a candidate who objectively is “that stupid.”  These larger-than-life personalities are the George Washingtons and Carlos Hathcocks of pure ignorance and stupidity.  Sarah Palin is, in my humble estimation, one of these assholes.  I can think of no other national candidate who has so thoroughly or consistently displayed levels of ignorance about even the most elementary school understanding of science, logic, critical thinking skills, and the language which she purports to have grown up speaking.  This is a woman who opened her Vice Presidential campaign with the statement 

“As for that VP talk, I tell ya’, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me, ‘what is it exactly that the VP does, every day?’  We’re used to workin’ real hard, and we want to make sure that that VP position would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and what we’re trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the US before I can even start addressing that question.”       


I actually cannot go over the number and subtlety of things wrongs with that statement, but I think we all know that the quote above is merely a selection of a massive list of ignorant bulls-t that woman has spouted out over the past four years.  And not just bulls-t, but contextually verifiable bulls-t on video and audio recordings in full view of the entire world, AND IT STARTED ON DAY ONE, MY FRIENDS.  This woman had the political support of millions of voters too, mind you, which gives you some perspective on how many people are interested in feeling validated rather than do even the most meager thinking.   What I would like to do is combine it with another quote, which I think will ultimately demonstrate how this woman wholly embodies that willfully ignorant feel-good attitude that is everything that is wrong with contemporary politics in this country.

“I answered {John McCain} yes {regarding being the VP},  because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

What is noteworthy about those two quotes.  Well..

She openly admits that she has no idea what the VP does.  OPENLY.  And when she was asked to do it, she declared that she didn’t even think before saying yes.  THAT’S HOW YOU AND YOUR DAUGHTER GOT PREGNANT, LADY!  I mean, f-king SERIOUSLY!  Imagine if someone asked you to build a tennis court, and you said yes without ever stopping to consider the fact that you don’t even know what one looks like, much less how to build one.  Yeah, it feels really great to say ‘yes, I can do anything,’ but that’s also how people lose $95,000 in real-estate scams.  This is our country people.  We have to take it a little more seriously than that. 

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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