I stew about this all the time. Just had a discussion with someone last night over dinner over whether U.S. television viewers are pure Play Dough in spin doctors' hands, or whether critical thinking and questioning can make a difference.
Sophists would claim that words can be shaped to accomplish any desired result, with enough skill. Does it follow then that an audience is simply a mechanistic button to be pushed by the likes of Karl Rove? If that is the case, I argued at this wonderful Bangladeshi restaurant, why is the Bush Social Security pitch foundering?
I mean, when folks in the media (I work in TV news) saw the study showing that people who supported the invasion of Iraq believed more factual inaccuracies that had been clearly enunciated in multiple sources (in other words, "fact points" that could be easily checked and verified, confirmed) than people who were better informed and basically COULD pass a short multiple choice current events quiz, our incredulous response was something like, "wow, people will believe anything, even if it is wrong."
In other words, large numbers of people ARE Karl Rove's Play Dough.
It was also interesting to look at the correlation to where the folks got their information. Turns out Fox News viewers routinely FLUNK those short current events quizzes, while NPR listeners score the highest.
So the question is, why is the Social Security button-push "persuasion" failing? It is using all the same rhetorical techniques that Karl Rove has used to rewrite every PR and spin doctor textbook in the country. Why isn't the Play Dough cooperating?
Perhaps, as the columnist considers below, audiences never were Play Dough. Or in the immortal words of someone we know too well, "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me… can't get fooled again.
Speaking just between us - between one who writes columns and those who read them - I've had this nagging question about the whole enterprise we're engaged in.
Is persuasion dead? And if so, does it matter?
The significance of this query goes beyond the feelings of futility I'll suffer if it turns out I've wasted my life on work that is useless. This is bigger than one writer's insecurities. Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn't already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?
The signs are not good. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling "talking points." Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let's face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.
By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what's right in the other side's argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.
The politicians and the press didn't kill off persuasion intentionally, of course; it's more manslaughter than murder. Persuasion just isn't relevant to delivering elections or eyeballs. Pols have figured out that to get votes you don't need to change minds. Even when they want to, modern media make it hard. They give officials seconds to make their point, ignore their ideas in favor of their poll numbers or showcase a clash of caricatures, believing this is the only way to make "debate" entertaining. Elections may turn on emotions like hope and fear anyway, but with persuasion's passing, there's no alternative.
There's only one problem: governing successfully requires influencing how people actually think. Yet when the habits of persuasion have been buried, the possibilities of leadership are interred as well. That's why Bill Clinton's case on health care could be bested by savage "Harry and Louise" ads. And why, even if George Bush's Social Security plan had been well conceived, the odds were always stacked against ambitious reform.
I'm not the only one who amid this mess wonders if he shouldn't be looking at another line of work. A top conservative thinker called recently, dejected at the sight of Ann Coulter on the cover of Time. What's the point of being substantive, he cried, when all the attention goes to the shrill?
But beyond this, the gap between the cartoon of public life that the press and political establishment often serve up and the pragmatic open-mindedness of most Americans explains why so many people tune out - and how we might get them to tune back in. Alienation is the only intelligent response to a political culture that insults our intelligence.
I know I've been bad with posting news of my trip and arrival in Missoula, but here are some photos of the stunning scenery I've been looking at since I got to Big Sky Country.
I've been busy with the start of school and building blogs like mad, but I did find time this Labor Day to take the dog out to the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area and climb a ways up Blue Mountain on some horse trails. I was out there just at Home on the Range, or something like that. Not too high, but it did give me a nice view of the Missoula valley, which was once a massive inland lake larger than any of the Great Lakes, kept in place by a glacial dam during the Ice Age. Neat, huh? When the glacial dam busted through, it sent a 500-foot wall of water all the way to the Pacific, or so they tell me (I'm from Alaska, where we always try to BS the new people in town).
On some of the mountains around town, you can see past shorelines of the lake, but sorry, not visible from any of these pictures. If you see a flash of water in some of the shots, that's the Bitterroot River, which runs into the Bitterroot Mountains, which I hear are big and gorgeous. That will be my next destination!
We also have a confirmed Lewis and Clark campsite here (confirmed because of the chemical content found in the latrine, heh), with bicentennial events running Sept 8-11, which was the exact time that Lewis and Clark slept here and used their latrine, 1805. Woo woo.
There were snow warnings in the passes and fresh dust on some mountains. And unbeknownst to us, a bunch of boulders had actually collapsed in on one of the tunnels the day before (according to AP) and closed the trail. But an outing of UMT J-school grad students and faculty mostly had a bit of a cold wind to contend with at the top of the trail, and a 1.7-mile curved tunnel with no lights but our own head and bike lamps to get us through. Wooo-eeee-oooo! I should look up the exact number, but 7 tunnels or so, and about as many trestle bridges, including that one looong one you see in the pictures. Way cool! My inner clock was messed up tho, because we kept crossing back and forth on the Montana/Idaho state line, so we kept gaining an hour, losing an hour, gaining an hour, losing an hour...
The weekend before Thanksgiving I went to a neat unpretentious ski place in the Bitterroot Mountains to the south, called "Lost Trail: Powder Mountain," off a tip from some folks at the ski shop. That weekend only two places were open (the other was over by where I took that bike trip from the other photo album, Lookout Mountain). What terrific luck! The lodge is rough and a crowded mess with people clomping all over, total nostalgia from skiing at places that don't assume everyone is filthy rich. Locals tell me last year there was so little snow, Lost Trail was the only place that could even stay open. Reminds me of Alyeska in Alaska in the late 1970s, long before anyone even thought of putting in a tram. Only thing different was I didn't see anyone skiing in Carhart coveralls like they used to in Alaska.
It turned out to be a stunning day, and I had so much fun I'm going back here the Sunday after Thanksgiving, rather than the closer Snowbowl, which is only open at the very top and still doesn't have much snow. But Lost Trail got a bunch of new snow the last few nights, so it should be great. I'm hoping the back mountain lifts open up too.
Last ski trip in Montana, unless I go again. I wanted to go at least once to one of the famous Montana ski places, and Big Mountain in Whitefish was just right. What amazing views of Glacier National Park to the east and clear into the Canadian Rockies to the north! I stayed at Pine Lodge in the cute little town and took the free Snow Bus up the mountain. In the pictures that follow, you'll see the odd effect of a temperature inversion that left the valley in the single digits and socked in with fog, but gave us in balmy upper 20s and gorgeous sunshine on the slopes. A few other things you should know: The fog/cloud deck and snow frosts up the trees into strange shapes, like those above. At Big Mountain they call them "Snow Ghosts," and clearly a lot of folks love the tree skiing among the ghosts. I stayed on the groomed runs, as the freezing and thawing made the rough stuff too challenging. Intermediates were great fun, and really easy too, as the mogules I'm more used to were groomed down to corduroy. Not icy at all. It seemed to turn intermediates into steep granny runs, but they were definitely steep. Hey, I never fell once, and skied hard right up to darkness and closing lifts.