Staying in touch

The culture of hostility and indifference toward politics is unhealthy.

By Sharan Shetty

Politics suck.

There it is: probably the only consensual opinion of our generation, the lofted and lauded children of the new millennium, the oh-so-optimistic builders of society’s future. Our skills, besides an incomparable technological familiarity: a black belt in apathy, a knack for no longer caring, and a curious acuity when defending our own indifference. A little exaggerated, I admit. But the point—the general stigma that all political notions retain in our frantic, furious college lives—remains, and it’s starting to become just a wee bit of a problem.

On Saturday, for example, the House of Representatives approved arguably the most massive health care reform in the history of our nation. They passed a policy, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, that overturns the foundational assumptions of what health care is and can be. Not many of us care. What’s worse, the pervasive opinion is that it won’t affect all that many of us. Yes, the health care debate has been heavily involved, but with a critical caveat. Over time, this involvement has been perpetuated not by the general public, but by the ideologues and commentators, the activists and protesters. The common man, much less the common college student, is nowhere to be seen. You’re more likely to hear Bill O’Reilly’s opinion on the matter than your neighbor’s—and this is a problem. The ideas of the artificial politician and artificial advocate—the stereotypes of the self-serving, ineffective nature of politics in general— have become engrained, embedded in the social conscience, and it isn’t doing much good.

Now, I’ll be honest. We have been inundated with health care hullabaloo for quite some time now, whether it’s been the looming possibility of reform or the looming possibility of no reform. It makes sense that, after the 15th time we read about the 15th stalemate in the Senate, we call it a day and vow to sustain a politics-free diet for the rest of eternity.

But this is big. Even though the Senate hasn’t proffered its approval yet, the mere fact that the bill passed, that an idea so fundamental was converted into action in such a big way, that a political campaign seemingly executed its vision—implies that something monumental is occurring in our country. The bill has colossal undertones, such as the public option, or the fact that abortions not caused by rape can no longer be funded by the government’s public health insurance plan. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that it will reduce the federal deficit by more than $100 billion over the next 10 years. It also costs $894 billion. This bill is important. It is influential. And it is controversial.

Yet many have responded with cynicism. Instead of constructive conversation, we have declamations of the political system and denigrations of the partisan separation. When I tried to ask a friend what she thought about the health bill, she said she had learned to stay out of politics for the sake of “two main reasons: convenience and comfort.” The discussion that we so greatly need is smothered under a blanket of fear, a fear of exclusion and categorization and hate. A fear of judgment.

Oh, you have an opinion? You think that abortion is wrong, or that public health care is inherently flawed? Well, you better keep your mouth shut, because if you even whisper a word against the political zeitgeist, you will (a) get a dirty look from the hipster-activist kid at your house table, (b) get a dirty look from the pretty girl you were trying to impress at your house table, and (c) be met with such a menagerie of malaise you will want to run south of 61st Street and never come back.

This isn’t an affliction specific to the University of Chicago. But it can be seen here, from the scarce voter turnout at Student Government elections to the fact that on any given day there are probably more people on campus waiting in line for a C-Shop milkshake than actively expressing their political opinions in an educational manner.

Our generation, in colleges across the nation, is growing up and entering the world at an indescribably pivotal time. But despite being at the cusp of a global power shift, politics still holds, for most of us, the taint of deception and lies and insignificance. We have seen in just the past five years the election of a black president, the rise of the Eastern economies for the first time in half a millennium, the blossoming of homosexual and feminist rights once thought impossible, and the burgeoning growth of a global interface in the Internet—and still we remain rigid, passive to the world-changing events that surround us.

It has been one year since Barack Obama was elected. A whole year. At that time, it seemed like the youth of this country were once again compelled to listen and speak, once again ignited to emerge from apathy into action. That fire has since diffused, and most of our peers have settled back into their routine, roundabout schedules, with politics and its meaning gradually sifting down the list of priorities until everyone is, as Roger Waters would put it, comfortably numb.

Taking the initiative to engage ourselves in what is happening, in what surrounds us in the here and now, is crucial to our future happiness. No matter how much we hate the supposed reek of the political sphere, we must always maintain a dialogue. If not, what we hold as holy may be profaned, what we see as sensible may be branded impossible, and what we know to be just will be twisted into the lies we know so very well from our newspapers and television screens.

People like to think that they can ignore politics. They can. But they’ll never escape it. You can leave politics alone, but politics will never leave you.

Think about it. People right now are trying to determine what you should not be allowed to eat (fast food), what’s taught in school (sex education for kindergarteners), whether we use gasoline-powered cars, whether we classify the carbon dioxide we exhale as a pollutant, the definition of acceptable religious practices, what version of history is taught, and whether or not global warming actually exists. Each of these is a real battle being fought, right now, without you.

But who cares, right?

— Sharan Shetty is a first-year in the College.