Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Art Of Misdirection

  I recently watched a rather entertaining TED talk entitled: The Art of Misdirection.  The talk is presented by a professional illusionist named Apollo Robbins, who specializes in picking pockets. He spoke about the power of being able to cause another person to focus their attention wherever you want. After an impressive demonstration using a volunteer from the audience, he closed by saying:
"Attention is a powerful thing, like I said- it shapes your reality. So, I guess I'd like to pose that question to you: if you could control somebody's attention, what would you do with it?"

  Today's post is a follow up to my initial impression of the 21 hour filibuster-esque speech delivered by Senator Ted Cruz earlier this week. As it turns out, Thursday's publicity stunt amounted to little more than verbal sleight of hand. How so? Well, that's what I want to write about today. Once Senator Cruz had our attention, what exactly was he doing with it?

  Well for starters, he wound up voting FOR the motion he had just demonstrated against. What happened to standing up for what you believe in Mr. Cruz? Why don't you put your money where your long-winded mouth is? The Washington Post reported the response of a prominent fellow Republican:
“I resoundingly reject that allegation,” the Arizona Republican said after reading Cruz’s words aloud. “To allege that there are people today who are like those who, prior to World War II, didn’t stand up and oppose the atrocities that were taking place in Europe, because I have an open and honest disagreement with the process . . . is an inappropriate place for debate on the floor of the United States Senate.”

McCain said Cruz’s words belittled those who served in the war, including his father and grandfather. He then used the rest of his brief speech to defend his record in opposition to Obamacare, which shouldn’t have been necessary: Nobody fought harder against the health-care reforms.

...In the end, Cruz joined the 99 other senators in voting to proceed with the debate on the legislation Cruz seeks to block. He said he would take his stand on the next vote, but that probably won’t go much better for him — in no small part because of colleagues’ disdain for him, which McCain gave voice to after the freshman senator finished his bladderbuster.

McCain ridiculed the “extended oratory” and then recounted his own opposition to the legislation. 'We fought as hard as we could in a fair and honest manner and we lost,' he said."

  Amazing, a senior member of his own party admits that voting and losing that vote over 40 times amounts to losing fair and square. Go figure. Besides, Cruz's speech didn't even count on record as an actual filibuster. It was quite literally just an extremely long, at times strange, side show. The knee-jerk reaction would be to make fun of that technicality, but I think it's more interesting to ask why he would do such a thing in the first place. Why perform such an exhausting charade if you (and your colleagues) know your efforts are not actually going to block anything, and you are planning on turning right around and voting the other direction anyway?

  Fellow Republicans have criticized the stunt as self-promoting, but what is the real endgame here? In addition to building a healthy martyr complex, I worry that taking advantage of the indignant apathy of the average voter may be the real objective behind this week's oratory olympics. In my experience, most people are willing to discuss politics, as long as they don't have to think about it too much. To be fair, trying to make sense of national or even global politics is an easy way to make your head hurt in a hurry. But indignation and apathy are an odd pair, a combination that highlights some interesting aspects of human nature.

  Indignation makes us feel like we are actively involved in an issue, it placates our natural fear of helplessness, it feels like action. Apathy saves us the trouble of actually taking action, it saves us from the uncomfortable experience of challenging our own perspective in order to make a truly informed decision- it is much easier to take up one stance, and stay there. It's seems increasingly rare for people to invest the time and effort to research the valid points made on both sides of an issue. Most people will just read the headlines, form a biased opinion, and never fully realize the extent to which they are being manipulated by the very leaders they are cheering for.

  In order to come up with substantial, real world solutions to complex societal problems, we must perpetually challenge our own views. We cannot remain static, we must make a conscious effort to continue learning, and be willing to let that knowledge expand our vision. The logistics of caring for a nation of over 300 million diverse human beings are undoubtedly complex. As long as we are content being held back (indefinitely) by our differences, we will not progress as a group. And in modern civilization, we need to progress as a group, now more than ever. The world is shrinking, and the core mechanics of human survival are changing. Without the group, there is no food on the grocery store shelves- and I don't know about you, but I don't own a farm. Without the group, we have no jobs, no economy. Without the group, everything falls apart. We must develop kindness, and patience. We must learn to get along, or history will repeat itself.

  It is not hard to let a power hungry organization like a political party (any political party), tell you what to think. It is hard to have an objective approach to problem solving, to consistently seek the most fair and equitable solution for everyone concerned, and to do it with determination and humility. It is not hard to polarize a situation, and then throw a tantrum when you don't get what you want. It is hard to be truly tolerant, open minded, and selfless.

  Observe what happens around you, among your family, friends, and coworkers-- listen to people  talk about society's problems, and notice what they say and do when it comes time to point fingers. It has become part of our culture to treat the office of President of the United States as little more than a high profile scapegoat, for everything that goes wrong during his term. We've definitely had presidents who have done things worthy of reproach, of that there is no doubt. But strangely, no matter how dysfunctional the legislative branch becomes, I find it fascinating that the relative degree of accountability they face, in relation to the magnitude of their failures, is so severely lacking. Consequently, the House and Senate remain essentially free to opportunistically exacerbate our problems, and bear little or no personal consequences. For example: putting an additional 800,000 Americans out of work, while simultaneously calling for economic reform and recovery, would definitely qualify as the type of hypocrisy I am talking about.

  Ultimately, we are the ones who give our representatives the freedom to fail us and keep their jobs. We choose to ignore the complexity of the checks and balances that the constitution of this nation put in place all those years ago. Instead, the order of the day is:
1. Blame the opposition for all governmental failure, regardless of scope, causal factors, or length of history.

2. Make sure to get yourself and your buddies (re)elected, no matter what it takes.

3. Rinse and repeat.

  In today's world of no term limits for legislators, and lobbyists signing the real paychecks on capitol hill... the system is pretty thoroughly broken. One way to change this problem would be for the house and senate to vote themselves out of a job by instituting term limits. Call me crazy, but I'm not holding my breath on that one. If you want to remain in public office, just give your voter base a "worthy target" for their indignation, and you don't need tedious things like facts. Control people's attention, and you don't need to be accountable for your own incompetence. You don't need logic or reason if your constituents are kept busy with mindless partisan bickering. You don't need to heed the majority vote in a democratic system when you can vote on the same bill 41 separate times. You don't even need to do any real work when you show up to work. All you have to do, is live to play the game another day.

  So anyway, the next time a controversial topic comes up, political or otherwise, just remember-- it's the people who are actually solving problems, and doing real good in the world, who go largely unnoticed. Loud does not equal right. Showmanship does not equal sincerity. Bold does not equal brave.

  Why don't the good doers and problem solvers get the kind of attention that comes from holding your pee and reading twitter for 21 hours straight? Probably because they are busy doing good, instead of talking about it.  ;)

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