Rogue Ink

October 3, 2008

On Writing on Politics

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 6:51 am
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My fellow University of Chicago alumnus and writer John Scalzi, whose blog and writing I admire very much, recently posted on why writers ought to put forth their opinions on politics. Now, I’m not going to go into politics in this post, and I don’t really intend to in the future, unless an intense turn of events goes down and government takes it upon itself to ration keystrokes or something. At which point, I will come out full force for the Free Qwerty Party, and you can quote me on that.

So while I don’t want to write about politics, I do want to write about writing about politics, because semantics are fun.

Scalzi makes the truly excellent point that we should all consider it our duty to be as engaged with politics as we possibly can. We should read papers and watch debates and listen to the rantings of the seniors at the old folks’ home, because nothing is more enjoyable than encouraging someone to speak at length on a topic when they don’t quite have full command of their teeth.

And yeah, we should write about it.

There are a lot of folks out there who ONLY write about politics, which is totally acceptable to us as a society. When writing about politics is your full-time job as opposed to an occasional indulgence, it upsets no one. Strangely, it is the exact opposite for sex. Think about it.

I’m grateful to the people for whom writing about politics is a full-time job. The people at FactCheck are my personal heroes, since I am too lazy to look up how each senator voted in the past or how exactly they pronounced the word ‘tomato’ back in 1997. They are the ones who finally told me who the first person to put lipstick on a pig was (it was Noah. Yes, of the Ark. Little known fact. I imagine it got boring during the flood). I like the good people who write at the New York Times and the Washington Post, for the Village Voice Media all over the United States, for Slate and Salon – heck, for the Onion.

I often disagree with them; I often agree. But I’m always grateful that someone gets my thought process running at all. It is harder to kick-start than a rusty lawn mower, and I personally do not want the job. You cannot have an opinion on a topic if you don’t know about the topic. If someone had asked me at age seven what my opinion was on the situation in the Middle East, I would have had nary a pro or con to contribute. Because as far as I was concerned, the Middle East was located at the center of China. If I had been reading on politics at the time, I might have had an opinion. (Actually, I was reading about politics, I just didn’t know it. Dr. Suess remains one of the best political pundits ever; his medium just happened to be children’s books. The Better Butter Battle is the best description of the Cold War ever depicted in print. When I finally ran into the Cold War in eighth grade history, I recognized it immediately.)

Without political writers, I wouldn’t know what to have an opinion about. And that would be sad for my opinion. It likes to express itself. Frequently in the form of finger paintings, but that’s neither here nor there.

Politics at the Dinner Table

So we’ve established that if it’s your job, it’s totally cool to write about politics. In fact, it is laudable, especially as I find it personally beneficial. The same can be said of making truffles. But what if it’s not your job? What if you’re a plumber or a schoolteacher or an impeccably charming freelance copywriter? Then we get into the whole dinner-table debacle, where conventional wisdom tells us politics is the last thing we should discuss.

The reason you’re not supposed to talk about politics is that, theoretically, it makes people upset. No one wants a tableful of upset dinner guests. Particularly if the ‘upset’ relates to their gastrointestinal tract. If I disagree with the guy to my left about foreign policy, someone might get stabbed in the eye with a lobster fork before the dinner is out. Because clearly, we are incapable of having discussions.

This interests me.

I’m not supposed to write about politics because I might offend some of you. Now, I’m going to give the good denizens of the Lusty Weevil some credit here, because I have written a post on journalistic terms that would try the Offense Meter of Buddha Hisownself. I seriously doubt any of you would be so offended by a post on current events that you would never speak to me again. But this is the sincere argument behind not discussing politics at the dinner table or in the blogosphere – the fear of offending people. Which brings me to the following points – are we really that easily offended? And when did we get so fearful of discussion and debate?

Offensive Writing, and Why There Isn’t Any Such Thing

To me, stating an opinion is never offensive. Offense occurs when I decide that I’m right, you’re wrong, and you should just shut the hell up. Which, while always true, is not generally how I go about putting forth an opinion. I’ll put one out there right now.

“Killing is not always wrong.”

This may or may not be my personal opinion, but whatever. It’s a strong stance, it’s a volatile topic. Did anyone out there spontaneously combust by virtue of my writing it? I seriously doubt it. Though if I’m wrong, I’m in a dandy position to find out whether your spouse has an opinion of their own on that topic, particularly as it applies to vengeance, so please don’t explode, even if you want to. Please? Thank you. Have one on me.

Here’s the fun thing about opinions, though. Now everyone who reads that opinion has to think about it. Some will agree, some will disagree. And while they may know instantaneously which side of the debate they fall on, and why they may never, ever change their opinion from the first day the topic occurs to them to the last day their memory functions at all, now they all have to think about WHY.

How freakin’ COOL is that?

I just made you think about WHY something is. I just made you consider the essence of truth itself. That’s amazing. That’s the power of writing.

Now we can have a discussion about it, like civilized people. (We don’t have to. We can debate all the other stuff in this post, the stuff that isn’t politics, since apparently that stuff is less likely to make you guys explode than the politics stuff.) We don’t have to throw things or scream or make up a drinking game to keep score. We CAN, but we really don’t have to. We can just talk about it. It’s okay. We don’t all have to agree. That’s not the point. The point is that we all think, collaboratively, about WHY.

Back to Politics

The government affects virtually every aspect of our lives. We should be thinking about it, forming opinions on it, and every time we see a scrap of writing on politics, it makes us question our worldview just a little bit. That’s fantastic. There is nothing more amazing than being assured that while your opinions may not be anyone else’s, they are your personal truths. To have a personal truth is to carry with you, at all times, a household god.

It’s no fun to have opinions that have never been questioned by the written word. Writing about politics makes us better thinkers, better people, and better citizens, and if one day I have the ability to do so for a living, I believe I’d be proud to do it. Until then, I’ll be bringing it up at the dinner table. Because ignoring a subject that impacts us all so much is a disservice to the human mind.

And a Final Note from Scalzi Himself

Scalzi wrote mainly about why he would continue to write about politics on his blog. Scalzi writes about pretty much everything on his blog, including books and politics and his family and movies and a whole lot of bacon and cats. Since he’s been doing it forever, Scalzi’s allowed to talk about politics on his blog, since he hasn’t really limited his field at all. But he makes the following note as an author, and I wanted to share.

To go back to fiction writers and politics, there’s another reason I feel obliged to freely speak my mind: Because so many writers cannot. PEN has a handy list of writers currently imprisoned all over the world because they’ve written about the world they live in; it also has a list of writers who had been imprisoned and who, while now released, continue to face prosecution and danger should what they write offend the wrong people. Are there fiction writers on these lists? There sure are. These writers chose to speak about their world, despite the certain risk, and were punished for it by prison terms or worse — and I’m supposed to hold my tongue because someone might not buy my book? Give me a fucking break. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t dare.

This is a more serious post than usual, but the VP debates had me thinking. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the strangely compelling sales guy. Subscribe so you don’t miss it.

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