Monday, June 14, 2004

Don't Know, Don't Care
A survey came out over the weekend with some interesting data on how young people in America relate to politics. The Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute found that only 19 percent of American college students think politics is very relevant to their lives; 43 percent think it has little or no relevance. At the same time, the students rate 9/11 as a more important event in American history than the JFK assassination, the stock market crash of 1929, or Pearl Harbor.

The second piece of data certainly seems to confirm the first. To believe in the transcendent importance of 9/11, but at the same time to dismiss politics as mostly irrelevant to real life, is evidence of how widespread the mistaken notion is that 9/11 was an out-of-the-blue event no one could have predicted, like a meteorite crashing through the roof on a clear day. (If you go back and reread news articles and commentary pieces written while the Twin Towers were still smoking, you'll quickly see that millions of Americans experienced 9/11 in just that way.) What's harder to figure is the continuing belief post-9/11 that politics is irrelevant. If 9/11 was the wakeup call people thought it was at the time, surely such a transcendent event might give one pause to reconsider how one's government does its business both domestically and abroad. Why hasn't it? Certainly, our culture's tendency to absorb everything, no matter what, and spit it back at us processed, defanged, and as just another facet of the status quo, is a major part of it. (I'll link again to a tremendous 2002 essay on the subject by Thomas de Zengotita in Harper's.) Some of it is likely due to the American default position we learn in civics class--that our government is trustworthy because it's small-d democratic and thus it would never intentionally steer us wrong, so we needn't worry about it. Some of it is a flat failure of critical thinking--for all the emphasis placed on thinking skills in public education these days, people seem less able to think critically now than they could a generation or two ago. In other words, we aren't always able to match effects with causes, even simple ones. More complex ones--like the ones involved in contemporary politics--require more time and effort than many people have to spare, or are willing to devote.

What we do about this is a problem. Leon Panetta's soundbite solution is pretty generic: candidates and educators must do a better job of promoting political and civic involvement. How, specifically, do we do that in a culture where so many other things seem so much more interesting? Howard Dean, Joe Trippi, and others in the progressive universe would tell you that the Internet is the key. John Kerry is trying to adopt Dean's Internet strategy, but his campaign is clearly not as comfortable with it as Dean's was. The Kerry campaign doesn't seem to respond to events as quickly as the Dean campaign did, and its e-mails soliciting funds have the feel of old-fashioned snail-mail fundraising letters. To a recovering Deaniac, it's just another bit of evidence that at a critical moment in history, when we had the chance at real change, we lost our nerve. If the Internet is really the key to energizing people, especially the young, then our failure of nerve in 2004 is nothing short of catastrophic.

Nevertheless, among the students in the Panetta survey, Kerry has a solid lead over Bush in presidential preference. Kerry even leads when Ralph Nader, favored candidate of the critical-thinking-impaired, is factored in, although a quarter of those surveyed say they're undecided. But will the students who favor Kerry actually turn out to vote? We can guess that Bush's student supporters will. In the typical university setting, which is not generally going to be congenial to Bush, wouldn't those who self-identify as Bush supporters be somewhat more likely to engage politically than those who simply get their political opinions from the air that they breathe? And won't they be more likely to make up the next generation of committed activists? Thus, I think the Panetta Institute survey is cause for real depression. If 9/11 couldn't transform young Americans into fully participating citizens, and John Kerry can't play Pied Piper in the right key, what's left?

Recommended Reading: LA Weekly reports on the Take Back America conference held earlier this month in Washington. Dean and Trippi are prominently featured--but reporter Brendan Bernhard wonders if all the talk of united action to defeat Bush won't eventually lead to more polarization, as everything in life, from choosing a vacation destination to picking a long-distance provider, becomes a political act.

Speaking of political acts, officials at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks fired a student DJ last week for celebrating Ronald Reagan's death on the campus radio station. Over the weekend the inevitable backtracking began, as campus administrators reinstated the DJ pending an investigation, and made all the appropriate noises about defending free speech. It turns out, says the station's GM, that the DJ was fired for entirely unrelated reasons and not for what he said on the air. Everybody who believes that, raise your hand. Now, let's see a show of hands from those of you who believe the guy got sacked for failure to follow the national media's reverential lead.

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