Detachment and Politics

As Wild Bill and I continue to fiddle with Orwell’s ideas while the pseudocracy burns, we have pondered the potential worth of advising readers and viewers of (and listeners to) political media to be at their most suspicious, skeptical, and detached when they are “consuming” the rhetoric of persons with whom they are most likely to agree. Before I pursue the point further, let me take a brief detour into nerd-dom.

Several hundred years ago, when I was in graduate school pursuing a Ph.D., I took a linguistics class. The main topic was Chomsky’s transformational grammar. But we also explored other topics, including etymology. And so I found myself writing a 25 page research paper on the etymology of 20 or so words. One of them was “distinterested,” not to be confused with “uninterested.” If memory serves, I discovered that at one point in the etymological history, the words had “flipped”–the former had meant “not interested,” the latter “interested but detached.”

Detached. Mentally, one takes a step back, so as to have more room simply to observe. “You see,” Holmes tells Watson in one of the tales, “but you do not observe.” Holmes is passionate about his consulting-detective practice and each case, but when the game is afoot, he also detached. Now let’s fast-forward to . . . the case of Sarah Palin and her followers.

According to Norman Goldman, an attorney and talk-show host, the Rasmussen polling service has determined that, for the moment, Sarah Palin’s offical followers–those who belong to her organization–are not detached. For example, a Rasmussen poll discovered that 46% of her official followers now suggest that if Palin is not the GOP presidential nominee, they will not vote for the GOP nominee. I know: there are many questions to ask about such polls. But for the sake of argument and a point about detachment, let’s accept the findings.

Enthralled with her rhetoric and personality, the followers of Palin are deeply interested but have lost one of their best rhetorical friends, detachment. If they truly value her ideas and proposals, they will detachment these from her personality and the excitement surrounding the Palin spectacle. Surely they can find–if necessary–another GOP candidate who professes to believe in small government, hunting, extreme support of “gun-rights” (gun-owner rights), and whatever else Palin supports. If they could get a purchase on detachment, they might also–gasp!–find one thing about which they disagree with her, and what’s wrong with that?

Palin also suffers from a lack of detachment, as do most politicians and players in the spectacle. For one thing, the spectacle demands a consistent performance, even a caricature. So when Palin appeared on FOX to critique the President’s State of the Union, everyone knew more or less what her response would be and how it would be delivered. She would have at least one one-liner, and she trotted out the play on Winning the Future: WTF. Even Greta Van Susteren, lobber of softballs, didn’t laugh. Think of how refreshing it would have been if Palin could have found the detachment to allow herself to agree with one of the President’s points. What if she could have brought herself to agree that if China now has the largest solar-energy project, the U.S. should get more forcefully into that game. But no, she’s decided to occupy the undetached, too-interested, and too predictable position that anything having to do with solar energy is vaguely associated with environmentalists, leftists, and hippies and must be a threat to the oil industry. The detached view is that solar energy is one viable industry to pursue, is not a “threat” to the oil industry, which is chiefly threatened by its non-renewable product.

So let’s practice. Let’s find one pundit, expert, politician, or columnist with whom we find ourselves agreeing 100% of the time. Now detach. As you read, listen, and/or watch, coolly look for one argument or analysis offered with which you disagree. We are seeing (and listening)–and observing, in a disinterested way.


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