An interesting Facebook conversation with an old friend got started yesterday morning when he expressed frustration in trying to learn the unvarnished facts in or behind the agendas of Ohio’s gubernatorial candidates. Was it just him, he asked, or has there been very little unfiltered information on the candidates’ stances making it through the fog of campaign politics? He went on to complain “TV ads are ruining any chance one has at objectively analyzing these candidates.”
If anything, I’m not one to let a question like that stand as rhetorical. I commented, first, no one should base their voting decisions on ads, and second, access to reliable information is hardly limited. I strongly suggested that a trove of evidence exists in candidates’ histories and prior actions. He replied he was aware of that, but explained he was looking for the easiest way to find factual information untainted “by party influences.” He labeled himself a “slacker” for not finding time to dig for answers (and, laughably, this gentleman is anything but), and asked for a recommendation on a “truly unbiased source” of information on the candidates. That’s easy enough, but one could also infer he was issuing a challenge like “go find Sasquatch” or “get a picture of the Loch Ness monster,” clearly implying that unbiased election info is only a larger-than-life myth.
Well, the easy part is this: there’s a website run by the League of Women Voters at Vote411.org. The League asks the same questions of candidates; candidates provide their stances in their own concise, plain words. The League does absolutely nothing to paint one candidate more favorably than another. There are no prisms, lenses, or filters. No bias. If you want quick and easy info, there’s the ticket.
Now the harder part.
In college I was what was known as a CliffsNotes Scholar. I didn’t want to read hundreds of pages of The Odyssey; I just wanted to cut to the chase and make sure I understood the gist of the story so I could pass Dr. Badal’s essay exam. Years later I grew to discover I cheated myself out of splendid opportunities to expand not just my knowledge but my capacity for thinking by not immersing myself in the work at hand whether it was reading an epic poem by Homer or doing a sociology paper. I didn’t want to work too hard. I just wanted a clean, expeditious list of facts – just the facts, ma’m – and even then I crammed for exams. Now that’s a slacker!
I will bet all the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket that most Americans approach voting decisions in much the same way I studied ancient epic poetry. But we are really cheating ourselves if all we ask from our candidates is a list of promises sanitized for our protection.
Bias exists everywhere in quantities great and small. Why? Because we apply our own biases to everything we think, say, do, or read. Our experiences, our environment, our relationships past and present – and perhaps most importantly, the relationship to our most inner self – have shaped our perceptions of the world. Bias doesn’t start anywhere but with ourselves. Searching for The Great Unbiased Source of Information, it turns out, is harder than finding the Holy Grail.
My advice when it comes to elections is not to wait and cram for it like I did my college finals. Be a good student. You can become informed without becoming a news junkie, but don’t rely on one source for news, information, and opinions. Recognize that pundits should not always be confused with journalists and that radio talk shows are guided first by ratings and then the cult of personality and then ideology; facts often get in the way of a slick presentation. Don’t fall for demagoguery. Remember that not everything on Facebook is true – Abraham Lincoln said so. Don’t always be looking for That One Thing to serve as your blind taste test for political argument – or perhaps more appropriately, your smell test. Don’t get overwrought by the sheer tonnage of political advertising. It’s never going away in our lifetimes. But don’t be afraid to examine what you’re feeling way, way, way deep inside when you actively view a political ad. Be honest with yourself and decide how it lines up with the bearings on your intellectual and moral compasses and then throw that into the mix.
Study your ass off like I wish I did in college when I was supposed to be reading The Odyssey, because when you come down to it, selecting informed leaders through informed votes is the only safe way to navigate the odyssey we’re on every day.