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Goons, Gold, Gullibility

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There’s a sucker born every minute—PT Barnum

[Photo of Campaign ads]Are political advertisements on TV a bad thing? Some would say they are downright evil, swinging people’s perceptions and, consequently, poll ratings. The seesaw media battle changes the leading presidential contender as quickly as the month’s top selling shampoo. Worse, while some of these adverts are paid for by the candidates or their supporters, others are government infomercials that cost the taxpayer.

I happen to believe that a strong fourth estate is a good thing, its many voices presenting varied points of view. Give the people as much information as possible, then let them decide. On the other hand, one wonders whether spin-soaked advertisements qualify as information. The revenue is certainly good, but is it really a service or a disservice to the people? Information or misinformation?

Voter Beware

We hope informed choice will make up for any deficiencies in good judgment. We also hope that what Abraham Lincoln said holds true for us: You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.

In order to improve the odds in favor of good judgment, one proposed solution is voter education. Everyone agrees this is important. But step back for a moment and look at the big picture. Any educational campaign would only be truly effective in so far as discernment and more than a bit of skepticism becomes a natural, ingrained characteristic. It’s not just political.

Good judgment doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It isn’t a natural trait but, rather, one acquired through experience and application. Discernment applies to all considerations—not merely political ads. If your ordinary consumer can’t make a “good” choice regarding which powdered milk really provides the best value, then how would he make a choice as to which politico to empower?

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Then there’s the idea that the educated and informed should act as opinion leaders, a hard fulcrum to sway the mass of public opinion. Again, this works to a certain extent and only in so far as the masses may or may not agree with the opinions of the elite. After all, there are real differences across the social spectrum. The lives, points of view and, therefore, priorities are vastly different.

Even then, that is not to say that the informed and educated are necessarily right. The so-called elite do make mistakes too, particularly in the political sphere.

So it would be good to engage everyone, regardless of status, in a truly equal, give-and-take dialog. Bear in mind that, often, street smarts trump college degrees.

In the words of Carl Sagan: But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

Finally, we all have to be careful about faddish flavors of the month. The current in thing, whether in politics or pastries, may be really popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or the best choice.

In politics, we are all too fond of shouting vox populi, when it may be nothing more than mundane herd mentality in action. Shouldn’t we, rather, think before we jump on that bandwagon? Where is that horse leading that wagon? In politics as elsewhere, discernment distills down to trust.

With the holiday season upon us, the commercial hype will be building to a frenzy; buy this, get that, you really need...good governance, anyone? With the May 2010 elections approaching, the political messages will certainly be there. Goodies, gadgets or governance, we have personal decisions to make. Pick the dream of your choice. Try to make sure it isn’t just an illusion, or worse, a disappointing, dysfunctional nightmare.

Suggested Reading: http://www.csicop.org/; http://www.skepdic.com/; Gardner, Martin: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science; Mackay, Charles: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Print ed: 10/09


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