My piece in last month’s magazine didn’t result in any public outrage or embarrassment, so the good folks at The Big Issue have decided to let me try again.
Apparently, the end of my column – ‘It’s better to know what the idiots are thinking than to know no idiots at all’ – has become somewhat of a motto in the office over there when speaking about my writing (whatever that means).
Anyway, a little housekeeping: my name is Mike and I play/sing/whatever in a band called Linkin Park. Last month, I wrote about ‘behavioural targeting’ online – how websites analyse what we like and give us more of it, which distances us from opposing viewpoints. This month, it’s all about teams.
In the US, there are two political teams: Republicans and Democrats. There are a bunch of other guys, but like Mac versus PC, the two big names run everything and no one else is playing in the same league.
The general election, however, is a special time when American politics turns the drama up to MTV reality-show level and our international neighbours tune in to gawk at the shouting. The boring old USA turns into the soaring-bald-eagle, purple-mountain-majesties, oh-say-can-you-see AMURRICA.
I know what this America looks like, in terms that are more intimate than the shows my band have played across the States. Growing up, each summer my family went out to rural West Virginia, where my mother was born.
The trees outnumbered the people thousands to one; the nearest neighbour was nearly a mile down a dirt road. Mom’s father was a coal miner. He was the ‘blower’ for the mine, meaning his job was to light dynamite on fire and run out of the cave before it blew up.
Most people I know in West Virginia are Republicans. My grandpa wasn’t in politics, but he played for his team: as a young man in the early 1900s, he was paid by local Republicans to drive around town, find people who weren’t planning to vote and bribe them with money or liquor to vote Republican.
To be clear, nobody in my family condones that kind of behaviour today. But grandpa was fanatical about his team and, since he thought their plan was best for everyone, he tried to help them win.
Today, this kind of behaviour falls in the hot-topic category of ‘voter fraud’. Another version involves casting votes in the name of deceased US residents. Voter fraud exploded into the mainstream at the end of the last election when a Democratic ‘community organising’ group called Acorn was discovered to be submitting thousands of fraudulent voter registration forms. Go team!
So in order to protect the system from fraud, voters and politicians demanded the rules be changed. The solution came in the form of ‘voter ID restriction’: if you want to vote, only specific types of identification will do.
Well, changing the rules means passing laws. And passing laws requires politicians. And politicians are playing for a team. Americans are finding out that the laws ‘protecting’ the system from fraud actually disproportionately affect specific categories of voters. Laws requiring multiple types of ID typically make it hardest for the elderly, young, minorities and poor to vote.
Americans accustomed to presenting their Social Security card, veteran photo ID card or student ID in order to vote will now be turned away at the polls. And if those people are disallowed to vote, who will lose those numbers? Statistics say: Obama.
Thinking back to last week’s piece, I can’t help but wonder if Americans’ ‘team mentality’ is being exaggerated by online technology. The web is capable of figuring out what we like, and capable of surrounding us with more of it.
So when I’m talking about the election, not only might I be more passionate, I’ll also be armed with information. But if I’m undecided about the issues in the election, let’s say I decide to do some research. I may start searching the internet for information to help me make an informed decision.
That’s when it gets tricky: there’s too much information, and volume is turned up too loud. Every link I click is filled with contradicting experts and fanatic know-it-alls posting panic-attack rants, as if Dante’s Inferno has bubbled up on to the internet in the form of every ‘comments section’ (I’m looking at you, YouTube). I want to vote, but how do I decide?
To that end, another story about my grandfather comes to mind. On his farm he grew tobacco which he used to smoke out of a pipe. When I was about 10 years old I asked what he was doing and he explained it to me. He asked me if I’d like to try it and I said yes.
But rather than handing me his pipe, he knowingly rolled a cigarette for me, lit it and handed it to me. I tried it and actually felt pretty cool smoking with him for a couple minutes. That sense of cool ended the moment I accidentally put it in my mouth the wrong way and burned the hell out of my lip.