The Modern Survival Guide #9
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But if I can convince you, and you can convince your friends, then pretty soon we’ll have a movement, and world domination will be ours!!! Oh, and in this article we’re talking about politics.
Let’s get one thing straight before we get started: this isn’t an essay about my personal political views regarding actual policies. Nothing in this article is designed to make you lean Republican or Democrat. This is simply an attempt to make a few things clear about politics in general. Cool?
This is in two parts: part 1 to convince you that politics is important, and part 2 to talk about how to navigate it.
Part 1 — What Happens in Washington Does Not Stay There
OK, so a thing that just shocks me is that many, many people don’t seem to appreciate the following statement:
Whether or not you are interested in politics, politics affects you.
This should be jaw-droppingly obvious, but apparently it’s not.¹ So for those readers who really have never liked politics, lemme set the stage here.
Politics defines everything.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you think you are interested in politics. Whatever you are interested in is touched by politics. Whatever you think of as “normal” is the way it is because of politics. The things you don’t like are, in many cases, hated because of politics. So if you value your life, or want to change it, pay attention to politics, at least to the level that you know what’s going on.
Let’s take an example. Look at this picture:
There’s nothing at all political about this picture. Nothing. It’s a parking lot on a nice day. You can’t get more mundane. Right?
No. Absolutely, positively wrong. Everything in the picture was affected by politics.
The asphalt in the picture is formulated according to common standards set by the state department of transportation, and was developed based on government research grants.
The paint (on both the pavement and the cars) is quality controlled and tested for toxins by the Environmental Protection Agency. Same for the glass and plastic components.
The cars are quality-controlled and tested for safety, efficiency, and reliability according to standards set by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and in some cases the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, all according to laws set by Congress. The steel from which the cars are made is subject to import/export tariffs. And the cars themselves are licensed and taxed, and regulated by both the federal government and the state.
The trees are subject to biological import/export controls set by multinational agreements. Pesticides used on them are subject to standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and possibly the Farm Bureau. The bees and other insects that pollinate them are monitored and controlled by multiple state and federal agencies.
The parking lot itself is owned by a corporate entity, which brings in the entire body of property law, which is enormous. And the corporation is required by law to have insurance on this particular parking lot, since it serves a residential community.
The air is monitored by state and federal environmental protection agencies, and the laws protecting its quality affect industry for hundreds and thousands of miles around.
And the cameraman? Well, he was allowed to take the picture because he was allowed sufficient freedoms of action and movement, not to mention enough rights to property to own a camera.
If you think all that sounds like a lot, well, its is. If you think it all sounds kinda controlling, well, it is. But it’s all political, your elected representatives decided it, and it all adds up to that picture.² Now… Decide whether you like world represented by the picture, even superficially. You have just made a political decision.
Politics touches everything. Saying “I’m not interested in politics” is exactly the same as saying “I’m not interested in drinking water,” or “I’m not interested in books/TV/video games” or “I’m not interested in sex.” Politics doesn’t care whether or not you are interested in it. It’ll touch you regardless, because politicians are interested in all of the things that touch your life, and they all have opinions, and they all have power. What happens in Washington does not stay in Washington. It ripples around the world, and no matter where you are, or what you are doing, it will touch you.
Part 2 — Navigating the Political Seas
I hope I have made a sufficient impression on you to gain your attention. Moving swiftly along… great, so politics affects everything. How does one go about paying attention to politics and figuring things out?
There are a few things to recognize immediately: Everyone in the political arena wants something (often from you: votes, money, attention, or all three). And everyone in the political arena is prepared to skew your view of the world to get what they want.
In order to navigate this, I think there are five key elements to politics:
- Understanding what’s going on,
- Judging based on facts,
- Identifying the grey areas,
- Understanding that nothing is ever solved, and
- Understanding that everything can change.
The first key to understanding politics is to have an idea about what is going on in the world. This means that, when seeking to understand politics, some analysis is almost always in order. You can’t EVER take anything at face value. It is usually necessary to get other people’s opinions and expertise, if only because you can’t know everything. Most people usually accomplish this goal via the news. And this means you have to watch out for partisan news and opinions, because they are out there, they are insidious, and they are targeting you.
Here’s a quick, dirty, simple test for you: Pick your favorite news site. Scroll through the news feed. Read the headlines. If you automatically agree with everything being said there,
You have found an opinion site masquerading as a news page, and worse yet one tailored to your demographic. You like the articles because you’re meant to, and your opinion is actively being manipulated. This is a partisan page at best, and a propaganda outlet at worst.
Real news does not often engender the agree/disagree response (because a headline like “200 Killed in Raqqa” is just a factual statement), or if it does, you should probably be able to find something that you disagree with somewhere amongst the titles. The world is big, and complex, and poorly understood; if a group is reporting everything truthfully there’s almost certainly going to be something in there that you don’t agree with or don’t understand (which is often much the same thing).
The best judge of a news site or program is as follows: does its reporting align with your actual experience of the world? If they report the headline “The President is a Criminal and Will Be Impeached,” check to see if the President gets impeached in the next few weeks. If he isn’t, maybe don’t put quite so much trust in that group. That’s an extreme example, but the core emphasis here is to find something you can verify, and then verify it. That will help you find sources of news you can trust, and trusted sources will help you understand the world.
This brings us to the second key to understanding politics: find facts, accept them, and judge people by them. Finding facts is getting increasingly hard, and fake news is everywhere; fortunately there are guides that can help you spot it, and groups that monitor it. It’s easiest in this day and age to first discard those things that are presented as fact but are demonstrably wrong. That leaves you with a universe of solid facts and grey areas where nobody really knows what’s true.
And unfortunately that’s as good as it gets. The solid facts you should verify through multiple sources, and then accept. The grey areas… well, there you get to make up your own mind.
This leads to the third key point in understanding politics: most politics occurs in grey areas. Let’s take two examples: taxes and abortion. I know, we jumped straight in, right?
Taxes: Nobody knows what the “correct” tax rate is. Different people have different goals (like “fund the government,” “stimulate the economy,” or “shift money to this thing I like”), but no one actually knows what precise number will optimally achieve these goals at any given time. If they tell you they do, they are lying. It’s too complex for people, although supercomputers or artificial intelligence may eventually figure it out, and in any case what one person deems the “correct” tax rate depends entirely on their personal goals for taxes.
So tax policy sort of stumbles along and get changed rather arbitrarily from time to time. Most tax law arguments center around politicians articulating a personal philosophy, not around what tax rate is objectively best for the country. It’s a massive grey area, and that means that philosophy dominates the debate more than fact. The philosophy of “I really don’t want to pay taxes, even if that hurts the country,” is very popular, for example.
Abortion: Raising this topic is also known as “how to break up friendships” and “things not to mention at the dinner table at Thanksgiving.” No one wants to talk about it because it is a hugely divisive issue. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that means I think it’s a major grey area issue (because if it were cut and dried, people wouldn’t get as up-in-arms about it).
Abortion is either a woman’s right to choose or murder, depending on your medical background, religion, philosophy on contraception, and philosophies on the emergence of sentient life. It’s hard to see abortion as a “grey area” issue, because most people have a very particular and immediately expressible idea about it. But it is, precisely because people disagree so readily and violently on the subject. If facts or philosophy could definitely help us, we’d have settled it by now.
Religion is very little help here, objectively speaking from the standpoint of national politics: everyone interprets their religions differently, and everyone thinks their religion is right. This isn’t conducive to consensus. Science is of even less help; scientists aren’t even sure that consciousness is a thing, never mind when it starts or what constitutes a “human being.” And life philosophers aren’t much help because they all disagree with each other. And those are… basically the only options. So the abortion fight grinds on.
Grey areas foster political battles and decisions precisely because they are important issues for which people do not hold a unified opinion. They tend to engender recurring fights and provide opportunities for division. What’s important to remember here is that, despite the fact that grey areas defy facts, people (and especially politicians) will always defend their side tooth and nail. Usually the side with fewest facts is the most adamant in their beliefs. This is precisely why consensus is so difficult to achieve in democracies, and why compromise is so often the order of the day.
This leads to the fourth key element of understanding politics, which is: very few major issues are ever really “solved.”
People have a very hard time with this concept. In our normal lives, problems often get solved and go away. They are usually replaced by other problems in short order, but these too can usually be addressed and go away. Or our problems kill us and we go away, and in any case that’s problem solved.
Politics doesn’t work like this. Political issues come up over and over and over again. They are immortal. We debate taxes every year. We debate abortion every year. We debate environmental standards every year. We debate defense spending every year. We debate race relations every year. And so on. Political issues are recurring because they are grey areas, they are not limited to lifespans, and we don’t have hard answers. That means we just have opinions, and my opinion is always right; your opinion can go to hell, and your cockamamie proposed law can follow it.
This is why we have politicians. Someone has to address this stuff all the time. Otherwise we could all just vote once a year and go home.
The fifth and most important key element to understanding politics is: “normal” can change overnight. Because politics occurs in a mass of grey spaces, where facts aren’t of much help, what we think of as “normal” is more like a common convention than an actual rule.
This is why political commentators are obsessed with the concept of “stability.” You’ll often hear or read people who say things like “That dictator is a bastard, but he stabilized the region!” What they mean is “That guy’s awful, but he established a new normal, and it seems to be holding.”
“Normality” is important because it fosters planning. Whatever your normal conditions are, being “normal” makes them predictable, which means you can anticipate things, which means you can make forward plans.
All societies, including ours, are built on this concept, from the first brick to the tallest skyscraper. Civilization requires normalized conditions so that farmers can grow crops, bankers can lend money, and people can feel comfortable taking jobs. You defy “normal” at your own peril. And most politics exists to change the definition of “normal.” Politics is therefore perilous.
To establish “normal” is to dictate reality. Consider: seventy years ago it was “normal” to have segregated schools in the American south. It was considered a natural order by the ruling groups. These days we (or at any rate, most of us) consider such a thing an abomination of racism. What changed?
Politics changed. Culture changed. People changed. Together they changed “normal” for millions of peoples’ educational experiences.
According to family lore, desegregation literally killed my great-grandmother — she saw a black child drinking out of a common water fountain and had a heart attack. Her views died with her, and her “normal” was phased out.³
Understand that this is the goal of all politics and all politicians. Not killing grandmothers; that was a special case. But rather, changing the world by changing the “normal” by changing the politics. That’s why it’s important and it’s why you have to keep an eye on it — the new normal might not be to your liking.
This all boils down to a few final points:
- Pay attention to politics.
- Pay attention to politicians.
- Understand that politicians always think they’re right.
- Understand that they may not be.
- Understand that their views will change the world regardless.
And politics will make a lot more sense.
¹I was once told at a family dinner, “You should be less interested in politics. There’s lots of stuff in the real world you could focus on.” I pretty much facepalmed.
²Just be glad that photo didn’t include power lines, the explanation would have taken all day.
³Thankfully. I don’t want to give the impression I’m in favor of segregation or anything like that.