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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ignore the narrative, process is the point of elections

Possible column topics whirled around my head while re-organizing my library this week. There is something humbling about being the caretaker of many great volumes of philosophy, science, politics and literature. It's not just the dusting involved -- though I confess it can be tedious -- rather it is the sheer magnificent weight of great historical thinkers that makes one feel as significant as a dirty penny in a jar of new nickels. Especially when one lives in an age of spare change.

With a Templeton  Rye in one hand and a homeless copy of "Moby Dick" in the other, I was struck by the notion that no one knows ahead of time just how important their work will be when viewed in hindsight. Nor should we focus so hard on outcomes that we short change the process. Had someone told Melville he'd die broke, he might have chosen another line of work. Had he known his work's future worth, he might have written a sequel ("Moby Dick 2: They Still Call Me Ishmael") gutting our love for the original. 

We live inside the big picture we help to create. We spring from cultural traditions we maintain as much as change. For better or for worse, we build the future from the bricks of the past and the mortar of right now. The quality of our work will be judged by generations yet unborn to parents and grandparents yet to be. We have an obligation to do our best because the only condemnation the future can ever teally saddle the the pastwith is that "the people of that time didn't try hard enough to be better."        

So as we approach Nov. 2, I feel ethically, if not morally, obligated to discuss the election. First up, broad strokes. In bombastic times, I feel the need to make my positions as entertaining as possible without yielding too much dignity to populism. But then I remember that popularity, populism and politics are all rooted in the same notion of people-pleasing. It is no coincidence that people love to watch and vote for the next "American Idol" pop singer more often and more consistently than they pay attention and vote in boring local, state and mid-term national elections. These merely effect our lives. 

It's about perception, investment and return. Even if one pays each time to vote for the next "idol" and their choice doesn't win, most viewer-voters don't feel they've wasted their time -- ironic as this might seem to Ruben Studdard fans. This is because no one perceives that they've been robbed. They were going to watch anyway. No one lives or dies by the outcome and if their contestant wins, they feel a part of that success. A week later, they can forget all about it and move on to the next reality/talent show. 

Politics and talent shows can both be entertaining, but political contests rarely result in victory for the most talented participant. The only commonality between talent shows and politics is they both make good use of narrative to change the outcome.

"A narrative" is just a fancy way of saying "a story" without it sounding like a complete fiction. We all have a story, but how we tell it changes how we are perceived. Sometimes, people fudge the details, highlight their best points or just lie with varying levels of success. Sometimes, storytellers are so good at telling their story it doesn't matter so much what the truth is. Anyone who's read Hunter S. Thompson knows this.

An entertaining story overshadows dry issues and confuses voters. Political action groups depend on it to get their way. They're convinced of their righteousness so it doesn't matter if you are too so long as you vote the way they want you to.   

Political victories can be hollow ones. Even the best are about as hair-raising as paying your bills on time but the long-term goal of a stable democracy is worth our diligence. 

This election, please familiarize yourself with the issues. Vote your conscience, ignore the noise of outside influence and remember that process is the point with history our only judge.   

Greg Jerrett is a freelance writer, marketing consultant and not a paid spokesman for Templeton. He can be contacted at gjerrett@gmail.com. 

1 comment:

chicagobears said...

Thanks for the shot of clarity and voice of reason leading up to election day, Greg.

I have been feeling rather impartial to these midterm elections, I think mostly because of the fact that I am so tired of all the mudslinging and the attack ads.

It's unfortunate that our political system has been resigned to – for the most part – a populartiy contest, but I still have an obligation to cast my vote. Thanks for the motivation.