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October 2004
Editorial: Thinking Differently
By Rachel Cernansky


I just returned from a month traveling England and Ireland, a fabulous month filled with friends, beautiful countryside, and of course, great beer. But what I was perhaps most excited about was the opportunity to gain a little international perspective, maybe even insight, on politics in our country right now.

I had a chat with the editor of The Ecologist magazine, talked politics with a number of people here and there, and tried to gauge how the non-U.S. press covered politics. I’d been starting to think—or maybe hope—that the weight we’re all placing on November’s outcome is an arrogant overestimate, another symptom of an American-centric worldview. But, while I didn’t come back with any real profound awakenings, I did come back reinvigorated that yes, people overseas do care who is in the White House. It matters because—well how can it not? Never before, not in modern history anyway, has any leader procured and abused such power, with environmental and social costs that people the world over are being forced, but can’t afford, to pay. I then developed a curiosity for deeper answers to the question of how we are letting such chaos take over our nation. Certainly there are many people asking this crucial question, yet somehow it stops there. We are not demanding answers, of our politicians as well as ourselves. How are we letting this happen?

Observing so many people with political and social issues on their minds was kind of refreshing; how nice to know that people are aware of and concerned with what’s going on in the world around them. Rumblings I heard at a bar even in Dingle, the most remote Irish town I visited, focused on the politics of my country: “Bush…he’s just a toilet.” Right on. And a global study published in early September by the reputed Program on International Policy Attitudes and polling company GlobeScan Incorporated, showed that Kerry would win by a landslide if it were up to those questioned. Yes, world opinion picks Kerry as the favored candidate: out of 34,330 people older than 15, from 32 countries, a striking majority—approximately four out of five, and including traditional U.S. allies—prefer Kerry to Bush. So, what’s wrong with us?

Now of course I don’t know the answer—or I’d be running for president—but it seems that our priorities are all wrong, and that the decreasing intellectual capacity, and stimulation, of the general U.S. population has something to do with it. Which news makes the front page plays probably the largest role in how issues are prioritized in people’s minds, and our image- and celebrity-obsessed media promotes concern for the lives of rich people, the majority of whom are out of touch with the world, rather than for what human rights atrocities are taking place, and what our role is in perpetuating them. (But at least that gives purpose to the growing abundance of reality TV shows; I mean, if you’re going to ignore the world in which you’re living, you’ve got to replace it with some kind of reality.)

People here seem to be content to hear what they want to hear, about a world they’d like to think they’re living in, rather than face up to reality and its consequences. Most activists have long known this to be true, a lesson learned from hours spent trying to engage people in urgent issues that they’d simply rather remain ignorant of. What I find particularly astonishing about current U.S. politics is that the messages people are swallowing wholeheartedly are in fact lies that serve to conceal truths detrimental to their own lives. In a dumbing-down of our country, dialogue is reduced to catch-phrases and flag-waving. Think about (if you still can, that is) how public attitude is generally characterized by an increasing complacency and passive acceptance of just about any issue we as a nation are facing. The cost of the war seems the most obvious example, as we watch it detract from almost every other much-needed social program at home—including veterans’ assistance, for Pete’s sake.

Conversations between Bush and Kerry supporters—or between Bush supporters and anyone else, for that matter—are complete dead ends. It’s a rare treat when people actually listen to each other; to risk a change in opinion is a real threat at such a heated time, when who you stand behind for president almost defines who you are as a person. It’s a dangerous thing to be so stuck in our mindset and understanding of the world. Instead of informed opinions, we have opinions based on how we believe the world to be. Is this the best way for a participatory democracy to flourish? Probably not.

Now, I hate polls, I really do. But sometimes they do prove interesting, and pollsters have shown that Bush supporters are generally less educated than those of Kerry (even if it’s just for the sake of not supporting Bush). So of course it makes sense to weaken the public education system; what an easy way to boost your support! And speed it all up by calling the process “No Child Left Behind,” fooling the victims into thinking it’s for their benefit.

Politics has always been, well, politics, meaning lots of rhetoric; but it’s become all rhetoric, without people questioning what substance lies behind the words and slogans they hear. And it’s only getting worse, as a growing percentage of our news is presented via television to a trusting public, by people who are interested less in journalism than in communicating messages they need viewers to absorb to ultimately boost ratings. It works well; the more TV we watch, the less we (have to) use our brains. We get easier to entertain, easier to fool into supporting a president who isn’t fighting on our behalf. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez put it in a speech last March—no wonder the U.S. Government doesn’t like him!—“Never is domination more perfect than when the dominated people think like the dominators do.”

This morning I heard part of a presidential speech on Social Security and for the first time, I heard Bush utter a sentence I actually agreed with. Context is another matter, of course, but he said, “We need to think differently.” Think differently indeed. Thinking, period, would be a great start.



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