Monday, May 28, 2012

Political disconnect

Sometimes I wonder what hath the years wrought.

In a decade I've gone from immature preteen listening to Aaron Carter and innocently wearing shirts that said "Brunettes do it better" to an overly determined high schooler who qualified herself among the intellectual elite back to an infantile lover of all things representative of childhood.

I think something is wrong with this picture.

My years of greatest maturity were from seventh to eleventh grade. Between the ages of 12 and 16, I went through my late 30's. Now suddenly I'm going through my mid-life crisis. Except instead of buying a red convertible and going clubbing, I'm watching Blue's Clues over lunch and eating Fruit Roll-Up.

One thing that in recent years I've tried to hold on to but ended up giving up on is the all-important topic of politics. Try as I might to re-inspire my own interest in the subject, it is only fleeting. I can choose to be knowledgeable on the goings-on in the White House or on the Hill. Or I could find out what the Queen of England is wearing to her Diamond Jubilee. Or what's up with Kate Gosselin and her eight kids. Or who Kim Kardashian is dating.

Clearly I have my priorities set straight if I can answer the last three more readily than the first.

In high school I was sure I was going to be a political commentator. I saw myself hanging out with the likes of Ezra Klein and sipping decaf coffee while we discussed what the President's next move should be when it comes to the War on Narnia.

The War on Narnia. To be honest, that sounds more akin to my knowledge of the world these days.

I was a section editor at my high school newspaper. In the weeks leading up to the editorial staff decisions, I felt a growing level of tension over whether I would be chosen as Opinion Editor (which basically translated to Politics Editor) or Entertainment Editor. I had written equally as often for both sections. I felt that I had a firm command of both subjects. It could go either way.

The day finally came when our adviser would announce the staff. She published it in the paper and had us all open it up to the page as we walked into her classroom.

"You're going to like what you got," she said to me. I held my breath. Whatever was within those pages would determine what stories I'd be assigning and reading for the next year.

There was no going back.

I scanned the pages looking for the headline that would tell me the editorial staff had been chosen. Then I found it. In black ink was my name, sprawled next to the title "Entertainment Editor."

I felt disappointed. I knew I'd applied to both positions and I'd been qualified for both. I knew it was pretty much a shot in the dark which role I would receive. I knew that no matter what I ended up doing, I would be happy doing it.

I didn't know just how happy I would be.

For the next two years in high school, I continued to write for the Opinion Section of the paper. I composed tangential prose on the 2008 political campaign. I talked about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's places on the political landscape. I conducted myself angrily on the incredibly conservative constituency of Orange County in relation to the rest of California.

I was a regular Paul Krugman. No, I wasn't. I was pretty darn ambitious, but I had none of the qualifications or intellectual prowess to be any sort of quality political commentator.

Still, I had faith in myself and my opinions. I thought I had valuable thoughts to share. And my newspaper adviser seemed to think so too.

So why'd I get chosen for Entertainment Editor? Clearly I was qualified for Opinion Editor. And that's a better position, right?

Not once did I actually contest her judgment. I never complained about being Entertainment Editor. And to be honest, I'm glad I never did.

In the following years, both in high school and once I got to college, I realized that perhaps my adviser knew more than I did about where my strengths and my best work lay.

Once the 2008 election was over, my interest in politics was no longer what it used to be. Down, down, down the pique of my knowledge of the news in D.C. went as the craziness subsided from the Obama-McCain election (let's just face it, it was the Sarah Palin debacle). It wasn't that I no longer cared at all about what was happening with the leaders of my country. It also wasn't that I loved the spectacle of the election.

I actually don't really know why I no longer felt interested in politics. But I didn't.

Still, I hung onto what little insights I had on the topic.

In college, I still tuned into Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show. I'd listen to Meet the Press on the weekends and read the New York Times Op-Ed columnists. And of course there was always The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

But what went wrong? I think I know the answer.

As early as junior year when I started editing for the Entertainment section, I realized what was to be had in writing about the subject. When I write about arts I don't feel frivolous. It sounds counter-intuitive since politics is supposed to be the intelligent man's sport and entertainment journalism could be considered a sort of opiate for the masses. The religion of Us Weekly and The National Enquirer is certainly no contest to the secular genius of The Nation.

When I wrote for Opinion, I was entirely dependent on whatever minimal knowledge I had on the political landscape of the day to structure my argument. I'd pull from little tidbits I'd heard on television, read in the news or whatever. But no matter how much you try to inform yourself, you will never know half as much as you'd like about politics. There's too much fine print, too many contingencies, to possibly speak with any authority unless you've really done your homework.

And I never really wanted to do my politics homework.

Arts are another thing altogether. Learning about a new play, a film, a band, a television program or even a visual art exhibit is something exciting and enticing. I want to absorb all the knowledge I can. And there isn't enough fine print that I'm forced to only get half the story.

It makes me feel smarter. And sure, people can make the argument that they prefer more intellectual pursuits. They like to absorb cocktail party talk about what Mitt Romney said at his most recent electoral rally.

To each his or her own, I say.

When I speak with people about what I know best, I feel just as sophisticated as political news junkies. It has made me question the authenticity of prejudices against entertainment journalism.

Because in truth, there are good and bad sides to every discipline. There are some crazy political commentators. I wouldn't want to sit next to Ann Coulter on an airplane (I can say this with authority because I did board an airplane with her and she wore a fur coat as well as a mask over her nose and mouth). Alternatively, I would love to sit next to Emily Nussbaum and argue with her about television.

My adviser was right in making me edit the Entertainment section. In a way, she was reminding me that despite the fact that the casual layman's perception of journalism might have them believing an David Brooks is more intelligent than a Roger Ebert, I had the power to prove that perception wrong.

What you do with your life doesn't necessarily reflect on you. It's how you do what you do.

I was a great Entertainment Editor. I assigned stories that covered everything from classical art to the most modern entertainment. I came up with ideas that spanned genres, mediums and age groups. I could've been a fine Opinion Editor too, I think. But because of the responsibility I had thrust upon me, I thrived and I found my niche.

Political disconnect or not, I'd rather have found that than have forced myself elsewhere.

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