Beware politics of silence

Recessions, ironically, tend to sell themselves. So abstract that anything can be blamed on it, yet pervasive enough to influence everything from your health care to how many “five for $1” deals you can rack up in a month, the scapegoat that is economic downturn has been peddling its wares to the American public for more than a year now.

Not unlike Twitter, everyone has an opinion about the recession — whether it’s almost over, just begun or a socialist conspiracy concocted by Hollywood, Nancy Pelosi and the Clinton family.

The issue of health-care reform is sweeping the American public in a similar fashion.

And that’s just great, isn’t it? As our comrades in civil rights remind us by toting pistols to town halls or making “Obama = Hitler” posters, here in the United States you can assume whatever position you please on any issue. Key word: assume.

Of course, debate that is more inflammatory than informed is no stranger to politics in this country. (Thank goodness I can get all that precious inflammation-reducing lycopene from my favorite vegetable, ketchup.) But today, the two biggest issues on our plate deal with the very minutiae of two of the most prevalent institutions that structure daily American life: health care and finance.

These issues are far more complicated than singular issues like electing a certain leader or bombing this or that country. In reforming health care and the financial system, we will, in essence, be reforming the way in which we carry out our lives, the ways in which government performs critical functions.

Yet in the modern media market, this depth prevents Americans at large from gaining any meaningful understanding of what’s going on, what could go on or what should go on. How is the public supposed to figure out which policies will best mitigate a recession when it can’t explain the subprime mortgages and securities that led to it in the first place?

How are people supposed to tune out the outrageous “death panel” claims when they don’t know what’s actually being created?

Every citizen has the right and the responsibility to inform themselves, but with all the crazy information out there, that task may not come so easily. Before we have a partisan debate about credit or doctor’s bills, we need a common base of information to work with.

The government needs to take a more aggressive step to inform the public about reform and quell deconstructive, confusing and inflammatory outbursts of misinformation. Town halls have been a revolutionary way of getting information out there, but they are evidently not enough. Targeting outlandish conservative radio outlets is one way. And how about including a brochure about the stimulus package and bailouts with that nifty check?

What if we all put down Oprah’s book of the month for a second and got together to discuss health care legislation, or each other’s bank statements? Better yet, have you ever seen the reports issued by the Congressional Research Service? They’re these nice, simple, summarized versions of bills for representatives, to help them understand what they’re reading. How about a Citizen’s Research Service?

Misinformation is getting in the way of progress, and, no matter where you fall in the political spectrum (marijuana legalizer or helicopter wolf hunter), it’s safe to say that no rational, loyal American citizen can afford to sit back and let these issues go unattended simply because no one had the patience to listen and learn.

We need to stop assuming that we know all the facts about where we stand, and, more importantly, stop assuming that everyone screaming at us from across the aisle will never stop screaming. Before we expect extended benefits, we should extend the benefit of the doubt to our opponents — and maybe they’ll do the same. Then we can educate ourselves (and each other) enough to effect some actual change.

If the current administration wants to preserve the momentum of “Yes We Can,” it needs to remind Americans that having the “right” stance on an issue isn’t enough to get your way in a democracy. The Left needs to stop disdaining people who are scared because they don’t understand, and the Right — well, okay, if you can kick Glenn Beck out, that’ll be good for now in my book.

Kelsey McLane is a junior majoring in international relations.