The Uninformed Patriot

Classic cars interest me. I don’t know much about them, and I wouldn’t have a clue how to rebuild one; but the idea of building one sounds interesting to me, and I think if I had the time, money and tutelage, I might try it. For some people though, classic cars are a passion. I work with a guy who studies the history of cars; he knows every make and model; he has rebuilt many engines; and he spends much of his time studying, learning, and honing his craft. Even though classic cars interest me—and I can even brag about attending a handful of car shows— I would never think to challenge my co-worker’s knowledge. If I did, he would mock me in his good-natured way, and rightfully so. I can appreciate the fact that he is a person who feels so passionately about classic cars that he has made it his goal to learn as much as he can. That type of dedication should be acknowledged, or at least not challenged by a dilettante such as myself.

Similarly, most of us don’t challenge our dentist when he finds a cavity. Most of us wouldn’t tell a lawyer how to interpret the law. And most of us would avoid telling a classically-trained musician the best way to prepare for an audition. For the most part, Americans are pretty good at understanding their limitations and not speaking out against someone who clearly knows more in a respective field. And this is what you would expect. After all, who wants to look stupid?

All of this common sense and rational thought seems to fly out the window the instant we discuss politics. The principles of democracy and the act of voting have instilled in us the belief that every voice is important. Not only that, but because every voice has the right to speak and because every voice receives equal weight in the voting booth that means each voice is equally valid. It’s time that we acknowledge the fact that the quality of each opinion is not equal. Some opinions are based on pain-staking research and serious study. Other opinions are based on gut reactions and what someone heard while half-listening to a radio personality. The fact that everyone has the right to express an opinion does not mean that every expressed opinion is worth taking seriously.

I follow the political landscape closer than most Americans. This isn’t a putdown to the rest of America any more than it is a putdown of me to say I know very little about rebuilding an engine. And because politics interests me, I study it. Every day I read articles, editorials, and public discourse in an effort to better understand current political issues. As with most areas of study, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. For example, most Americans consider gun control a fairly simple issue, regardless of which side they are on. However, things become exponentially more complex when trying to balance issues like public safety vs. individual freedoms, states’ rights vs. federal oversight, public opinion vs. the opinions of congressmen elected to represent the people, etc. We also have Constitutional interpretation and the often-conflicting legal precedents established by state and federal courts in years past, not to mention the historical context of gun ownership and the complicated vision and vague language put forth by our founding fathers. Entire books have been written on the issue of gun control, yet on facebook we see everyone is an expert on the issue.

The idea that “we’re all experts when it comes to politics” was brought to my attention last week while talking with an old friend. We got on the issue of politics and inevitably came to a point on which we disagreed. Knowing that my friend was of another political persuasion, I tried my best to offer a nuanced, bipartisan perspective that I believed would appeal to both sides. My friend failed to find the nuance in my argument and in turn adopted an overly simplistic, yet very popular conservative meme. I tried talking about the issue on a deeper level, but my friend was simply repeating his empty talking point. No amount of elaboration on my part or compromising on my position changed his repeated phrase. It soon became clear that he had nothing of substance to say on the issue and had merely memorized something he saw on a bumper sticker. When his conservative mantra didn’t completely sway my opinion, he called me a left-wing ideologue and accused me of not understanding the depth of his political beliefs. I delicately told him that his political beliefs don’t have any depth. Cue fireworks.

When you accuse someone of not having a firm grasp of politics, they become indignant. After all, here is a registered voter, someone who reads Newsweek every time he visits the dentist. Here is someone who watched 1 ½ of the last three presidential debates and someone who tunes into election night coverage once every four years like clockwork. Who am I to accuse him of being anything other than the cloned offspring of George Will and William F. Buckley? This is a partially-educated American voter for crying out loud. Behold.

It may be easy to dismiss my friend as an isolated case or perhaps another bloviated tea bagger living on a diet of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. But he’s not a hard right-winger, and he’s not a pompous windbag. He’s a normal American guy with a family and a job and a negligible interest in politics. If I accused him of knowing little to nothing about the NHL, European history, or classic cars, he probably wouldn’t protest. I’m sure he knows something about all of these areas, but he would freely admit that his knowledge base is fairly low, and he would not likely debate a hockey fan on the merits and demerits of the NHL lockout earlier this year. But when it comes to politics, he considers his opinions to be quite deep and well-informed, when all evidence is to the contrary.

My point in writing on this topic is not to convince people that they should bow down to my political expertise and accept it as gospel. Rather, I would like to make a simple point: If you really care about politics and find yourself debating the issues from time to time, take the time to understand your position. Don’t just memorize a talking point. If this requires too much time or effort and you choose to know little or nothing, then quietly defer to those who care enough to learn about the issues. Until that happens, I will continue to challenge the uninformed yet passionate patriot. Surely there is a respectful way to highlight the truth and challenge conventional wisdom without offending. I just haven’t found it yet.

– Nathan (with helpful edits from Dylan)

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5 Responses to “The Uninformed Patriot”

  1. It’s not just politics. It’s anything controversial.

    I have a biology degree and taught it in high school. My favorite parts of biology are ecology and evolution, and I took several upper-level university courses on those subjects. I also managed to dominate that section of the Biology GRE. And yet people with next to no knowledge on the subject think they can challenge me on it.

    Aggravating, to say the least.

  2. Evolution is just a theory and trickle down economics has been scientifically proven to work. Anti-intellectualism FTW.

    Speaking of which, my vacation this summer will include a visit to the creation museum. I can’t wait to see the “evidence” for the existence of fire breathing dragons.

    • Dan – I’m so glad you will make it to the Creation Museum. I think I told you I went a couple years ago. I seriously hadn’t laughed that hard in years. The museum is expensive, but the gift shop alone makes the trip worthwhile. I picked up some hilarious t-shirts. The most disturbing part was seeing the school buses outside. (Apparently the Creation Museum is a popular field trip destination for local schools.) The museum does talk about dragons. However, if memory serves me correctly, they say stories about dragons were inspired by real-life human encounters with dinosaurs.

  3. Nathan, well said. I agree with the logic and think you wrote about it very respectfully. It would be great if we could all come to the table with facts and open-mindedness.

  4. Shawn S. Says:

    Seconding Tim’s comment. Sara gets particularly annoyed at the armchair experts in education. Simply voting or having been in the classroom doesn’t make you an expert. Your ‘common sense’ argument may seem intuitive to you but isn’t true to educational experience and outcomes.

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