Tuesday, June 13, 2006

On the Edge of Cynicism

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - When I'm not busy writing or watching a DVD or doing something else, I sometimes reflect on how little in-depth knowledge I really have about politics in general.

As some of you readers might have gleaned from the lack of political content in my blog, I'm not a particularly political person. Oh, I occasionally follow certain national and international political stories in the news, of course: with a president as divisive as George W. Bush has been for over five years now, and criticism mounting against people within his administration and in Congress, it certainly isn't easy to avoid at least hearing about stuff going on in Washington. But I don't act political. I don't belong to either of the two major political parties, nor do I seriously involve myself in political activities like campaigning for a particular candidate I like. Nor do I really follow political news with quite the same intensity as I do entertainment news or news in my own life.

And, at the risk of sounding like my usual whiny passive self, sometimes that bothers me a bit.

The university environment encourages a lot of things that encourage growth in intelligence of its students, but one thing it especially encourages---and almost demands---is an engagement with the politics of the day. Frequently in my classes I've heard both professors and fellow students rail against what they perceive as a general apathy among most Americans as far as knowledge of politics is concerned. By implication, to not take an interest in political news is to be just like most other apathetic Americans. (Obviously, there are plenty of other, most likely better, reasons to follow political news, but that's one of the main ones, it seems, that have been trumpeted in some of the classes I've taken during my three years at Rutgers so far.)

I certainly don't want to feel like an average politically apathetic American.

And yet...sometimes I can't help it when I feel, from reading the newspaper or watching one of the news networks, as if nothing much good ever really comes out of Washington politically. I sometimes can't help it when I feel as if I can't trust any promise a politician might make, especially during a political campaign. And I especially sometimes feel like all these political and world issues are so complicated, based on histories of conflict and resentment, that I'd much rather just say "whatever," sit back, and just greet every new report of violence with an air of indifference: "Here we go again."

Maybe subconsciously I feel that it's more comfortable to be cynical. Saves me the trouble of having to actually try to have some kind of emotional investment in some political issue---and especially saves me the trouble of having to try to defend a position in some heated argument.

Maybe that's what leaves me cynical about politics sometimes: the heated arguments. And not only because I'm pretty much one of the crappiest debaters you will ever see. Sometimes I see two or three people going at it over, say, the death penalty, and I think: Man, how can you be so dang sure of the rightness of your position? I know I never seem to have my mind made up about anything; and yet you insist on arguing that your position is the right one? All these major political issues that many politicians try to simplify for us are really so nuanced that sometimes it just boggles my mind---and leaves me feeling as if maybe ignorance is bliss when it comes to politics.

This descent into self-confession was inspired mostly by today's New York Times news article about yet another instance of violence between the two Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas in Jerusalem. Again?, I couldn't help but think when I saw the headline this morning. Can't those two groups just talk things out and try to reach some kind of compromise through dialogue without resorting to violence?

Perhaps a naive attitude, I'll admit. But so many of these long-running ethnic conflicts seem based on histories of petty land squabbles and long-ago resentments that after a while, I can't help but say, "Why can't you all just let bygones be bygones?" In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: look, I understand that Palestinians want to feel like they have a home and all, and I understand that some of the land in contention have some kind of religious and historical signifiance to Israelis (correct me if I'm wrong). But is land really worth all the blood that has been shed since, I guess, the Six Day War in 1967?

At least, that's the way I see it. The truth is, my knowledge of all the issues surrounding this conflict isn't very deep. My knowledge of a lot of political issues isn't all that deep. Certainly not as deep as my knowledge of, say, movies.

One of the things for which my mom occasionally criticizes me is that I care only about movies, and not enough about anything else. I don't think she is right, but she isn't totally wrong. I'll admit, I've never really delved too deeply into politics---even when I was in a political debate class in my senior year of high school---as much as I've explored the world of movies. The arts have always been what grabbed me; politics, by comparison, have always struck me as perhaps important but mostly depressing. That's probably a deliberately ignorant attitude on my part, but it's how I feel. I know that whenever I open up a newspaper in the morning---if I have time to open up a newspaper!---I'll usually go straight to the Arts section first. I have to force myself to read through one of the front page stories---although it's certainly not an impossible feat for me.

Sometimes this fact worries me. In the back of my head, I know that I really do need to know a bit more about what's going on out there in the political world than I currently do now. Even with the film criticism I hope to write in the future, such knowledge may be important. If all I know is a world filtered through movies, my view of movies as expressed through my film criticism might possibly be entertaining to read, but it most likely wouldn't be all that interesting or even thought-provoking or enlightening. And film criticism without such qualities is, frankly, useless. I don't want to feel like I'm doing something useless.

If only there was much to get excited about in politics. Every day it seems like more corruption, more fearmongering, more empty promises---more opportunity to simply throw your hands up in the air in defeat. Sometimes I yearn for a world without all the division caused by politics.

But knowing that that's too much to hope for, I do my levelheaded best, I think, to stay mildly involved in what's going on. I usually don't have much thought or strong opinion on what's going on, but I usually have a general idea what's going on. And while that might not make me equipped to speak intelligently on political issues---something which sometimes gets me down---is there a whole lot wrong with keeping such a distance, as long as one still tries to stay reasonably informed?


Anonymous said...

You might want to use your interest in films to broaden your knoweledge of political conflicts. Since you mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, why not check out the film, "Promises", a doumentary from 2001 directed by Carlos Bolado. It might give you some insights into this seemingly never-ending conflict, and the hopelessness of it all. The fact is that the divergent intersts of the Palestinians and the Israeli's combined with the general animosity generated through generations of war, conflict and death may well serve to keep this a perpetual arena of dischord and violence. Israel fears for their security while the Palestinians, desperatly poor and discouraged, fight among themselves (Hamas vs Fatah). Anyway, there are many films that can give you some ideas and help you understand the conflict there---this is a pretty well done one, in my opinion.

kenjfuj said...

I appreciate the help; maybe I'll check out this film (is it available on DVD?).

I dunno, I guess I just wrote this post because I felt the need to write something about the news article I read yesterday morning about the growing violence between Palestinian factions. Of course, as I was writing it, I realized that this was gonna be basically another whiny post in which I'd complain about something---my lack of engagement with politics---that should probably not be such a big problem if I was more of an active person instead of a passive one. Sometimes I just have a tendency to complain too much instead of act; this is something my mother has picked up (and, knowingly or not, she sometimes exploits it to her advantage).

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is on DVD. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002 for Best Documentary, I believe.

If politics is not "your thing" than that is ok; film can be, nothing wrong with that. My thinking is that you can combine the two a bit, because quite often there is a perceptive and insighful film about some of the hot political topics and this way you can gain some understanding while watching a good film.

"Complaining" is not altogether a bad thing especially if it makes you think or spurs new ideas and opens doors. At least you are speaking honestly from the heart. No one can fault you for that, even your mother.

kenjfuj said...

I definitely agree that good political films can be sources of insight and can also provoke thought---and, if it entertains you, a plus.

But for both fiction and nonfiction films, I find that I have to be careful. There are some films that seem on the surface like serious political dramas, but there may be something about them that seems unconvincing, or maybe I just may not necessarily buy the filmmaker's sincerity, you know what I mean?

For example, last year's Syriana may have been intriguing and at times enthralling, but I'm not sure how seriously I can take its overall view of the corrupt politics of oil when writer-director Stephen Gaghan throws in a heavy-handed speech in which one character basically stands up for corruption.

And of course there are Michael Moore's "documentaries": entertaining and impassioned films, but---and I'm sure many intelligent people probably recognize this---not necessarily the places to go for accurate information.

On the other hand, there's a film like Steven Spielberg's Munich: it tackles a difficult political subject but tries to do so from both sides in a way that I wish every political film did.

Anyway, I'm not sure if you've seen all the films I've mentioned, but your comments made me think about some of the political films I've seen, and some of the thoughts that have run through my head as I've reflected on them. But essentially, I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is important to know the motivations of the film maker especially if the film is about a comtemporary event or world hot- spot. Michael Moore surely is biased in his views and this is important for anyone seeing his films to be aware of.

Films such as "Munich", open up recent events to people who might not even know about them and now they have the opportunity to learn and read or research further. Spielberg did this with Schindler's List also.

A few recent films, all on DVD, of a controversal, political nature are:
Turtles Can Fly
Death in Gaza
Paradise Now

Again, its important to know the background of the film makers in each case and understand the context and message they are sending. All of them are biased in their viewpoints, but they will get you thinking.