For a long time I was addicted.
It started with CNN. Was sorta like training wheels, an "Intro to Cable News" 100-level beginner's course that covered all the basics without getting too specific. The major subjects were there, always with clever graphics and flashing lights, but after a few years the Best Political Team on Television no longer cut it. The waving flags and impossibly perpetual Breaking News began to lose their luster. I kept going back for more and kept leaving disappointed, unfulfilled. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well...
I had developed an itch for politics. Moving past the anonymous misanthropy of youth, those deeply affected by the world's ills look for something to give form and agency to their nameless angst. At first glance, politics seems like a forum where one can focus his or hers swirling passions. With its dealings in the day's biggest themes, politics offers a firmer grasp on the usually ethereal issues at play around us. That's the appeal -- we can finally do something.
Which is why I fell so hard into politics and why the fix CNN delivered was no longer going to be enough. You come to politics for action, for results; yet as time passed and I learned more it became clear that this increasingly fluffy network was not going to be enough. My cravings had become too strong. So I moved onto MSNBC and FOX News, looking for something deeper, a more intense buzz. And it worked. The issues were discussed in finer detail, the opinions more passionate, and there seemed to be an atmosphere of not merely presenting headlines dressed as political debate, but of actually caring about the big issues enough to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with it.
And that's what I needed. That's why I was devoting so much of myself to the subject of American politics. Because it was important. It mattered.
The US is a global economic and cultural leader. By the strength of their size and accumulated social capital, they influence and often dictate the direction of our world's most crucial issues. "The leader of the free world" tagline now seems like a dated piece of 1980's Ronald Reagan Cold War propaganda, but that doesn't change the fact that what happens in their political world is worth paying attention to.
My appetite for big issues and my desire to be a part of the larger debates all pointed me in the direction of the American political spectrum. Because really, who cares what happens in my local city politics? Even my Canadian national elections didn't have any substantial consequences. Things up here would be OK, no matter which way they went. But what happened in the US? Now that was big, that mattered.
So I stayed committed. Listened to Air America and watched Keith Olbermann and went to bed with Jon Stewart. When I needed my raged stroked, I would watch clips of Bill O'Reilly and Hannity and the other archaic hardliners.
I was fully involved, ready to keep on fighting. And at the peak of my addiction, after that first New Hampshire Democratic primary, as a young and less grey Barrack Obama gave a roaring piece of poetry dressed as speech, I felt goose bumps tingle and tears begin to swell. It was worth it. My energies had not been wasted. My love had been given to the right place.
And, like millions around the world, I did celebrate. Felt part of history.
But like any buzz, it wears off. Quicker and quicker the more artificial the substance.
The longer I watched, the more I was able to see. Soon I noticed that all the talking heads sounded the same, the pundits and experts all delivered identical talking points, and even more troubling, the politicians brought on air seemed to be mouthing the same clichéd lines as everyone else. It was always Left vs. Right and Us vs. Them. As I developed a deeper understanding of the issues, and as I became more immune to the flashy presentation and pumped up rhetoric, a sick and deepening realization came over me...
This is disgusting.
Poverty, war, healthcare, income inequality -- issues that are literally life and death for millions of people -- being used as taglines for a rehearsed and never-ending cycle of posturing and ulterior motives.
I became and am still horrified.
You don't actually care about any of the issues. You care only about your side. You are glorified, self-centered cheerleaders. You bicker like 12-year-old siblings and keep vital conversation running in circles while people suffer waiting for you to fulfill your obligations of public service.
The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
What may be worse, and who may deserve an even warmer place in eternity, are those who are in a position to help and instead look to their own selfish self-interests.
So I am weaning myself off of your glamour. Yes I still check-in to Colbert and Bill Maher (and the wonderful and more international John Oliver) because every addict still longs for a fix and these folks seem to have their heart and heads in the right place. But I am outgrowing you, US politics. I have cancelled my MSNBC subscription and no longer give FOX News even the slimmest bit of my attention.
Because in addition to the dubious morality of your staged political theater, you are doing actual harm. The ever-increasing melding of money and politics has combined with the evolution of biased cable news to create an incredibly toxic atmosphere. The model of Conservative vs Liberal reduced down to easily confrontational soundbites has indeed proven to yield better ratings, but in classic American style the commercial thing you created so successfully also has unforeseen collateral damage. This partisan Frankenstein has left the screen and crept into reality. Your politicians now mouth the words of your most extreme radio hosts, and your leaders now refuse to speak to one another in anything but talking points. By commercializing your politics down into a ratings-seeking reality show, you minimize the public good as you try to maximize profit.
This new era of hyper-partisanship has given those who tend most naturally to the extreme an excuse and a venue to shut it all down completely. This sort of discourse narrows you down and boxes you in. It makes things incestuous, leaving you rooting in your own backwash with no fresh air circulating. It's detrimental to the issues you care about, yet those who have made it a part of their identity require validation about their choices and so an echo-chamber reverberating and regurgitating is a perfect way to keep them coming back for more. Doesn't matter if it stalls your government and throws your nation backwards. This well-oiled infotainment machine pushes all the right buttons and so those already committed to their team's uniform can do nothing but tug tighter at their colors and dig deeper into their side.
And because of how well you do the so bad, this model of cheerleading cable news and subsequent divisive politics has been exported around the world, like blue jeans and Beatles records. I see it in my country's politics. I see it on my news feeds. There is a marked increase in partisanship and preaching to your own choir. Even issues that should be easily agreed upon, like action on climate change or views on domestic abuse, get divided into these segregated camps. The spill-over is everywhere and it is causing great harm.
Yet that is the model. No matter the issue or the greater good, reason and common decency need not apply. Even those with good intentions get sucked into this cycle, and our opinions and governance and culture become subject to it. It's successful and that is all that matters.
And I no longer want any part of it.
This piece originally appeared on Head Space