Politics, Not Cat Videos

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When did it become a party foul to talk politics in public?

At a recent wedding reception I started talking politics with an Orange County Republican who I thought was actually pretty articulate for a guy who thought McCain would make a better president than Barack. There is always an unavoidable, and often annoying, pattern when you have to engage in small talk with strangers.

"Oh, so what do you do? Graduate school? Political Science? Oh, at Berkeley, hmm (insert knowing glance, smile or sneer). So, what do you think of Obama?"

God, I hate small talk. This is why I ran from the corporate world to the academic one, a haven for socially inept non-small-talkers.

To make the dull, chatty stuff of barbeques and parties interesting I often try to get a few people to mix it up with me. Just to avoid death by boredom, most of the time.

But at this wedding reception I looked around the table and realized that me and the OC Man were the only ones comfortable with the politics repartee. In fact, some people were visibly squirming. I suppose they were worried that some kind of donnybrook would break out and ruin the wedding. But it's more likely that half didn't know enough about politics to get in on the conversation, and the other half thought that asking others about their political views is like belching loudly at the table.

Maybe it's only natural that people don't want to get personal with complete strangers. Rapping about politics, for some, is kind of like cracking your best ethnic jokes before you've figured out if everyone in the room is cool with it. Bad idea.

I try not to judge those who would rather talk about the latest funny cat video on YouTube than the future of the country. But I've found it impossible not to judge. One woman I know does not vote at all because she doesn't follow politics and doesn't see the point of voting. These are people I cannot relate to.

The Internet's great wealth of information creates a paradox in participatory democracy. The more information we have, the less interested we are in the things that determine how our society survives, like, say, who calls the shots in Washington or Sacramento. Political junkies' cup runneth over now with more than newspapers could ever provide before: hourly updates of when the president goes to the bathroom, polls taken every day, analysis ad nauseum. But for all the normal folks, there's even more out there to distract them away from the political realm. For most Berkeley students the priority list for seeking information probably goes like this: 1.YouTube. 2. Facebook. 3. Porn. 4. Wikipedia (for really accurate academic research). ... 81. Politics.

There's no amount of preachy finger-wagging that will get people to care about politics. It has to come from a personal revelation that other people, those with power, control your universe, and that the vote and our system of government is really the only check we have on those people. If we're afraid to talk about it over the keg, the watercooler or the wedding cake then what are the chances that more people are going to have that revelation?

I suggest some political icebreakers to loosen up the political stiffs at the table. "Hey, did you hear? No more jobs next year. Yep, they're fresh out. Oh, and we'll all get dropped from our health care plans, but no problem, I hear there's a great do-it-yourself doctoring site on the Web. Man, how 'bout that Social Security, eh? All dried up before we hit 65, too bad we're paying to keep our great grandparents alive today."

Politics isn't personal or intimate, and therefore shouldn't be saved just for friendly circles. Politics also isn't how the press covers it at the moment: as a sporting event between two old rival teams where we can watch battles between heroes and villains. Politics is about how we live together without killing each other, and what's more important than that?

The ColStewart Effect has accomplished a lot. Those two shows alone have given college students more of a reason to pay attention and a little stress relief, too. But I'd like to see the dorm chatter (and wedding reception banter) focus on the meat and potatoes of politics, too, like whether we can pay for healthcare, or if Berkeleyans who put the cap and gown on this week will have jobs by 2010.

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Talk politics at Josh's wedding reception at [email protected]



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