Thursday, July 10, 2008

Right Turns

I just finished reading the book "Right Turns" by Michael Medved. It's about his life and how he went from being an liberal activist to a conservative champion. The book is intriguing, and he has definitely had an interesting life.

I like that he often used very reasoned arguments, pointing out possible holes and addressing those as well. He uses data and talks about the sources of the data. As a technical person, this is something I can appreciate. Whether you agree with is conclusion or not, you can see that he is well-trained in the skill of debate. He also complains a number of times with arguments or statements taken out of context, and I agree that this is a frustrating thing that is often done in politics. However, I don't know any talk show host or political group that doesn't use soundbites, or that prefers to talk about the spirit of their opponent's speech rather than exploit one particular comment.

One thing that kept me from taking things too seriously is his tendency throughout his life to do things for the publicity rather than because they align with his beliefs. As a writer, movie critic, and radio host it's his job to be controversial, but this stops me from taking anything he says at face value.

I think I'll address a few issues throughout the book that I thought were interesting in some particular way:

In chapter 9, Medved states that the highway provides a better education that the ivy league. He spent a lot of time hitchhiking and enjoyed his time in the midwest, but disliked the people at Yale, who he viewed as elitist. He criticizes the people at Yale and people on the east coast in general for generalizing about the people in the midwest. The first thing I noticed in this chapter was the irony of him making a negative generalization about all east coast people, since his problem with them is the tendancy to generalize about another group of people. Also, having grown up in the midwest and lived on the east coast for six years, I can pretty safely say that there are good and bad people in both places. Though each may have their own jokes or suspicions about the other, for the most part, people don't really think less of people from other parts of the country. I do think it'd be useful for people from the coasts to visit the midwest more, however, only because I think they're missing out on some beautiful places. Or maybe the impetus is on the midwest to develop its tourism industry more aggressively.

In chapter 10, he talks about meeting John Kerry in college and disliking Kerry's superior, calculating personality. However, it seems like Medved is pretty calculating as well - working in politics this is a clear part of the job description - and he often shows his skill in these areas throughout the book. However, in this chapter, he also talks about the importance of volunteering and teaching and the value you can get from paying attention to the people you're trying to help. This is something I completely agree with - it's not useful to go into a situation assuming you know more about everything and are going to help people - you should also be humble and aware of the many things that you could learn from them. I've found this to be true whether studying with other students at MIT, mentoring failing students at a local high school, or living in a rural Indian village - if you give them a chance, other people can teach you a lot.

One of the big themes he discussed in the book, though I don't remember the chapter, is the idea of practical vs. idealistic political action. I don't have a clear decision on what I think about this - it's easy for me to see both sides. On one hand, I agree with Medved that you need to be practical if you want things to get done. In a slowly moving system, you may compromise and take baby steps in a better or at least less-bad direction. You need to live in and deal with reality. On the other hand, when there are things you really believe in, compromise can seem impossible - it can be better to know that you tried your best for something you really cared about rather than just gave in and became a cog in the machine. Just think what a horrible movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" would have been if Jimmy Stewart had been practical and had either joined the curropt group or left DC. Ralph Nader argues that if you are voting for things you don't really believe in, how can you ever expect to see change - things don't have to be good, they just have to be less bad. It's definitely an interesting issue.

In Chapter 13, "Publicity is Power", he talks about his ill-thought out plan to try to ban ROTC from Yale's campus during the Vietnam War. He admits in his book that though he was the leader of a number of anti-war rallys, he didn't fully understand or think about the consequences of his actions. I think this is something that happens at both ends of the political spectrum, and is something that really frustrates me - people do something because that's what they think they should rather than because they really understand and believe in it. In particular, I think its awful that people were so anti-military during the Vietnam War - you can disagree with government policies, but it makes no sense to direct your anger towards people who are doing their job. I remember learning about the Vietnam war in high school, and a man spoke to us about his experience. He told us that the first thing he did when he returned to states, before even leaving the airport, was change out of his uniform. Even then, I remember thinking what a sad and nonsensical situation that was. Most reasonable people would agree the military is important, and soldiers do not get to choose which wars they want to fight in, (especially when there was a draft!) so why would people be so angry towards them? Anyway, back to the general point: I think people need to be more careful to understand the issues they are pushing for and the practical effect that their actions will have - both on people and institutions. I often see people in the street asking for signatures for various petitions, and I feel like there is no way I can sign my name to a cause that I haven't studied, and where the only information I get is in a five minute speech from a person who obviously has a stake in me agreeing with one side. You can't know everything about everything, but I'm certainly trying to do the best I can to be informed.

One thing I thought was odd was a statement in Chapter 31 - "A More Christian America is Good for the Jews". He is discussing his thesis that an increase in religiousity, including evangelical Christians, supports the Jewish way of life, partially because it promotes the same basic values. There are three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would have expected that with his open-minded consideration of how Christianity and Judaism can support each other through common values, he would also have included Islam, which has the same foundations and very similar values as well. However, the only time he talks about Muslims in the chapter is to mention "the current reality of tens of millions of murderous Muslim extremists who menace Jewish lives and institutions in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and around the world". I thought it was odd and irresponsible to only acknowledge the violent and extremest sect of Islam. Violent extremism exists in all religions, and though I understand he is particularly sensitive to this topic, being Jewish and having relatives in Isreal, I would think as a rational and seemingly considerate person, he would mention the importance of the tens of millions of responsible, kind-hearted, principaled Muslims all over the world, fighting for the same values and rights that he believes in.

I was not a big fan of chapter 33 - "Never Apologize for Partisanship". His idea is that you should surround yourself with likeminded people and be supported in your beliefs. I think this is an awful idea. I also think it completely contradicts his comments in Chapter 9 that people on the east coast need to learn more about people in the midwest. It's difficult to be uncompromisingly partisan and also to keep an open mind to people in other parts of the country and their ideals. I think its important to respect other people and their beliefs, and the best way I've found to do this is to actually talk to them and understand why they believe in what they do. And I don't mean talk to them in a patronizing way or listening to people of your own partisanship talk about straw-man arguments of the other side, I mean really finding a person that you respect and then learning about their views. This is one thing I felt that I was lucky to be able to do when I was in Minnesota - there were a variety of political beliefs around me, and I could hear each person's point of view. When I went to college, I continued to seek out new points of view. However, along the way, I've seen that it would be easy to end up in a group of like-minded people who have no real understanding or respect for the other side. I refuse to believe that half of America is right and half is wrong, or half smart and half stupid. Both sides of the political spectrum have important insights, values, arguments, and beliefs. It's this conviction that causes me to read both "Audacity of Hope" by Obama, and something like "Right Turns" by Medved. I don't think that declaring partisanism and ignoring the other side would make me a better person, in fact, I think it would likely detract from my understanding of our country and my own beliefs. To be fair, despite being a conservative talk show host, Medved does talk about having at least one close friend and a family member that are liberal. He also tells a story in which he debated someone on the show that he disagreed with, but then later invited him home for dinner and shared a meal and nice conversation with him. I think these are good examples of how to act.

The last chapter of the book was on "Do-it-yourself Conservatism". In this chapter he promotes taking local action - picking up garbage in your own neighborhood or working with your church, rather than always trying to create society-wide government solutions. I had mixed feelings on his idea here, because I didn't think it was well developed. I definitely agree that it is important to understand and be active in your local community and that when you believe in something, the first steps you take should be to change your own actions and immediate surroundings. I also agree that if you support wider change, you should carefully consider the goals and effectiveness of your proposed solution (that's what good policy-making is all about!). I just believe that there is still a place for trying to reach more people or make a bigger change for something you believe in.

For example, he says that to fight homeless, people support programs that provide feeding, but do nothing to address underlying problems. But what does he propose we do to address those "underlying problems"? For public education, he says that people support enacting standardized federal tests, but ignore the troubled home environments that cripple underachieving students. But what does he propose we do to help solve "troubled home environments"? He suggests that parents choose home schooling or at least get involved in the local school. I think those are admirable things, but it seems unlikely the the students coming from "troubled home environments" are going to have parents interested in providing quality home schooling or joining the PTA. Are those students just out of luck with this do-it-yourself method? He suggests that if you're concerned about congestion or commuter traffic, you should take the bus or ride a bike. I agree. But if the federal government never increased the size of freeways or spent money fixing roads and bridges, would that really be a good solution? He suggests that if you don't like the values shown in Hollywood movies or on TV, than rather than signing petitions, participating in boycotts, or writing letters, you should just change your own watching habbits. I tend to agree - let the market run its course, since you can choose not to be exposed to a film or TV show. However, this suggestion comes from a man who wrote books and gave multiple speeches about "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values", which seems slightly more active than just changing your own behavior. He also runs a daily radio show, which he describes as do-it-yourself because he's making one argument at a time, but that also seems somehow different to the "change your personal life and actions" that he proposed earlier. I don't really disagree with his actions or choices here, but just don't think this concept was very well defined.

Now this has really gotten to be a long review/ response, and I'm sure not many will make it this far, but if you're still reading, let me know what you think (via email is fine if you don't want to post a comment). Though I didn't agree 100% with everything in the book, it was a really fun and interesting read, and I would recommend it to others. Enjoy the stories of his interesting and varied life, and use it as a springboard to think about your own experiences and beliefs.

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