Monday, September 10, 2012

A "Both Sides Do It" Pedagogical Failure: Romney's Race-Baiting versus Obama's "Beer Politics"

The school year began a few weeks ago. As is my charge, I am teaching several courses on American politics. This is a fun time time to be leading these seminars because the presidential race provides many rich examples of the concepts we are discussing from the literature.

When a head-scratching moment occurs--one of those pedagogical failures we occasionally talk about here on WARN--I like to share it both as 1) therapy and 2) because sometimes you just have to bow to the absurd.

The Right-wing media has created its own reality. This alternate universe is also swallowing up many young people with its comforting suckers and tentacles. The stakes are high here: if you can capture a young person, socialize them into a political worldview, then naturalize it, the chances are pretty good that you can win the generational struggle. Every culture has to reproduce itself or die. The New Right and the Tea Party GOP are no exception.

In one of my classes there is a nice guy; he seems well-intentioned and very sincere. I also do not doubt that he will turn out to be quite bright. However, last week he offered up a comment that shows how even the most well-intentioned people--and in particular, the most naive and trusting--can be sucked into the spin machine that is the Right-wing media echo chamber.

We were talking about Mitt Romney's specious lie that Obama is giving welfare away to lazy black and brown people. I located Romney's ploy in the context of the Southern Strategy, and how Romney and company have all but admitted that their race-baiting antics are a means to an end, where the goal is mobilizing angry, racially resentful white voters against the country's first black President.

Our young student looked curious and confused. He raised his hand and made the point that "both sides do it."

In keeping with my use of the Socratic method in seminar, I asked "for example? how and why? what evidence do you have for this claim?"

He replied, "Romney is a Mormon and Obama has been obsessively talking about how the White House makes it own beer, and also mentioning beer all of the time as a way of making Romney look boring and to make voters believe that his religion is 'weird' because Mormons are not allowed to drink."

He was very direct and transparent in his belief that these examples were equivalent, and that there was some underlying grand plan behind Obama's "beer initiative."

I pivoted with a question, "do you want to suggest that one's choice to drink beer or not is the equivalent of race in how it determines life outcomes, structures our society, or shapes elections and voting behavior?"

He considered my point. "No. I don't think so. Race matters more."

"Okay," I replied. "And what of the fact that the Republicans and Democrats have fundamentally different voting publics? Could Obama's Democrats use white racism or white racial resentment to mobilize white voters to support him or the party?"

Curious, and the unbelievable nature of his claims still not registering, he said, "probably not."

At peace, thinking we had a teachable moment of shared consensus and discovery, I shared how "both sides are in it to win it, and will exploit any likely avenue to win. The question becomes do you play with something as toxic and explosive as lies about race and racism in order to win an election."

The young man raised his hand again, "but both sides still do it. It isn't fair to just talk about Romney."

I am told that I have an expressive face. In that moment it must have communicated "epic fail" as I raised my brow Mr. Spock style and moved the conversation forward.

Yes, this story is funny. There is dark humor here too: this classroom exchange also suggests something about the power of the media, a person's social networks, family structure, and how political ideologies are learned behaviors that key off of brain structures where some of us are made more "liberal," while others are made more "conservative" and/or authoritarian. Our exchange was also an example of a phenomenon wherein conservatives are much more likely to twist and rewrite the facts in order to fit their standing moral priors and beliefs.

Ultimately, I have no doubt that the facts of our exchange, and how they do not fit empirical reality, were lost on this young conservative. Can the spell of family, the Right-wing media (and confirmation bias) be broken for young Republicans? Or is the spell to deep, the slumber too heavy, for them to ever come out of their waking dream, what is a living political death of responsible citizenship?


freebones said...

whenever people say this, it infurtiates me. we aren't talking about all examples. we are talking about one!

if this guy was REALLY annoyed or saw a problem with this beer business, he would bring it up outside of a context where he can use it to deflect criticism.

Anonymous said...

There is hope for them. Remember that kid Jonathan Krohn? The kid's going to have to figure it out on his own. You're obligated to teach and be patient with the little assholes. I laugh at their foolishness. I don't have the patience to teach dim witted undergrads.


Black Sage said...

Or is the spell to deep, the slumber to heavy, for them to ever come out of their waking dream, what is a living political death of responsible citizenship? – ChaunceyD

Indeed, that should’ve been a teachable moment for this Gop/Tea Party chap. Although you hit him in the face with great example of the difference between the two party’s strategies, sadly, it appears that your response didn’t truly register with him.

As most of us know, young minds are quite impressionable, gullible and easily steered in the direction of repetitious, specious and argumentative claims. This holds true sometimes even when the lid has been blown off of the faulty reasoning (like you did) and exposing a youngster’s precarious and untenable position.

He’s still a lad and there may be a glimpse of hope for him to begin to think critically on his own. Personally, I doubt that he’ll recover though. Why? Because he’s probably watched too many episodes of the O’reilly Factor.

Invisible Man said...

The spell of family, the Right-wing media (and confirmation bias) cannot be broken for young Republicans by a Democrat and vise versa. Democrats as a whole are equally disingenuous if not more so then the Republicans/Tea Party. And as there is a Blue Team and a Red Team, there is both a right wing echo chamber and a liberal echo chamber and both have cables running to one power source. Its called Wall Street, more to the point the financial, insurance and military industries. If you are willing to start by talking about the almost complete control that the above industries have over America, especially the white house and the congress, then your chances are good. If you want to continue with the Blue Team is better than the Red Team, then you simply perpetuate the same games.

majii said...

Ah, but I contend that at the present time in our nation's history, the Blue Team is better than the Red Team. It is the Blue Team that delivered on HCR, financial reform, student loan reform, food safety, etc. Never would the Red Team have delivered on these measures because it would not have received permission from their Big Business masters. A false equivalency, imo, is only a means by which some avoid admitting what is staring them in their faces--there are quantifiable, visible differences between the two major political parties.

Invisible Man said...

Majii, Guess what? I've been actually paying attention to the policies of our President as opposed to the DNC talking points that continuously get posted on face book. The Read Team wrote Heath Care Reform( starting with the Heritage Foundation) and then revised it( The Healthcare Lobbyist) after being invited to set up camp inside the very the White House itself. Then, the Blue Team and Red Team passed it, giving the Blue Team credit for it. There has been no Financial Reform( I guess you have not being paying attention to the latest JP Morgan Chase scandal and the LIBOR scandal) and Elizabeth Warren, the only person in the Obama Admin fighting for financial reform got fired. Now, I'm being some what general here, but I am willing and ready to discuss the substance of these issues if you are ready to move beyond talking points.