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Thursday, March 22, 2012 01:20 am

Boycott cynicism and fear

One recent evening, I participated in a discussion about crime and punishment with a large group of civic-minded professionals. In such discussions, people’s thoughts inevitably explore matters of virtue and necessity, fear and profit.

The broadcast media’s role in creating a cynical and fearful public, as a byproduct of the pursuit of profit, has been well established by many researchers. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good by Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a superb overview of how the relentless “horse race” tactical coverage of modern political campaigns creates voter apathy and cynicism.

This year we still are mired in this brand of debased politics. After 20 – 20? – debates in the Republican primary, perhaps we have tired of skilled character assassination. Yet a large portion of voters undoubtedly will succumb to rage, or temper tantrums, as gas prices continue to rise. That was a predictable problem that we could have talked substantively about how to avoid for, oh, about two years now.

Fear also still contaminates many of our public-policy decisions. Barry Glassner’s book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More, demonstrates the existence of this profitable fear-mongering, while also criticizing the special-interest groups on the left and right who choose to use unethical tactics in pursuit of their agendas. We spend too much on punishment and not enough on prevention and education, too much on national defense and airport screening and not enough on the basic survival infrastructure of our cities.

Parts of our culture are so debased that our only practical recourse is a temporary self-preserving quarantine. Each citizen needs to take active steps to boycott the 24/7 television and talk radio diet of advertising and so-called political dialogue. A steady diet of manufactured insecurity and lies is not healthy.

We must quarantine ourselves from the unhealthy sectors of our society, thereby eventually shrinking their size and influence. But we also must engage energetically with the healthy sectors. We must devote less time to entertainment and more time to learning, producing and being good citizens.

Each citizen can design a personal strategy, but unless millions of American citizens make different decisions about how they spend their days, this nation’s downward spiral into despondency is only beginning. We have to take individual responsibility, once again, for practicing the craft of democratic virtue.

I offer this list of possible responses to our civic malaise. These are not the only effective options, and perhaps are not the best possibilities, but they are choices that make sense to me.

First, I no longer donate money to national campaigns. I’m simply tired of paying for television advertising, especially since my wife and I canceled our subscription to cable television years ago. Instead, I donate my surplus resources locally to help my neighbors.

Second, I ignore the horse race coverage of politics and focus on the actual problems and policy choices that we face. When I learn more about specific issues, I call my elected representatives and ask them to take specific actions, or I write an argument that I share in a public forum. This democracy will be healthy again when more of us are writing constituent letters and opinion letters in our words and above our signatures.

Finally, I focus on practical actions, knowledge and skills. I’m trying to learn about my small city’s economy so that I know exactly which economic policies will help my community. I will grow food, a lot of it, in a personal garden.

I look forward to the day when most Americans are too busy to wallow in cynicism and fear.

Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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