Alright, so last week in class I was trying to illustrate how our political debates are structured so as to make it look like our politicians are "middle grounders" or "pragmatists" and doing this in the context of the current "debate" over Afghanistan. I drew a line on the board and then I wrote "Pull Out" on the extreme left, "Continue Policy" in the middle and "MORE Troops" on the extreme right. So, pulling out is an "extreme" and more troops is an "extreme" while basically continuing our policy is the "middle ground."
Then I said: "We can draw our own lines. So let me do that." And I drew another line and wrote "Continue policy" on the extreme left, "Pull Out" in the middle and "MORE troops" on the extreme right.
A student in a very animated fashion said that the second line was "wrong." "You can't do that," she said and I complimented her on her intensity but asked: "Why not? After all, isn't one definition of an 'extreme' that it doesn't work or isn't working?" She paused, not quite sure what to say but reiterated that the second line was not correct and therefore not allowed. So, to illustrate further what I had in mind, the following illustration struck me. I drew another line and put "Quit Smoking" on the extreme left, "Continue Smoking" in the middle, and "MORE Smoking" on the extreme right.
I then asked her whether she really thought that "quitting smoking" was an "extreme." Of course, she did not. Then I suggested that that was because there was some kind of independent judgment made on the value of smoking, whereas no such judgment had been made in the first line regarding our "involvement" [I love our euphemisms!] in Afghanistan. In fact, the premise of the first line was and is that our "involvement" is beneficial to us, to Afghanistan and to the world. And it is only on the basis of that premise that the first line makes any sense.
BUT: Is this not what we should be debating? Of course it is. But this debate never takes place because of the way the issue is presented to us ala' that first line. In fact, it seems likely that the first line is used to obscure just what it is we should be debating. Moreover, I pointed out in class that this way of "debating," that is, the first line way, is exactly what happened in Viet Nam time and time again until we arrived at the extreme of having over 500,000 troops in Nam and entertaining a request for still more troops. I asked: "How does one get to an extreme by repeatedly choosing 'the middle ground?'" No one had an answer which makes sense because getting to an extreme by adopting the middle ground again and again does not make sense. It cannot make sense.
We need to find a way to debate the real issues confronting us, not the false issues that are created by those in power that only serve to limit our political debate and render it useless. We need to begin by recognizing the paucity of the debates we are currently engaged in.
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