Columns, Opinion

RILEY: The penalty for being off-sides

I am not what you would call a strongly opinionated person. Sure, I have my own viewpoints on the issues, but I’ve never felt the need to push my views on others. There are enough people in the world who do that already.’ When I first applied to become a weekly columnist for The Daily Free Press, I thought that this might change. Maybe I would become an uncompromising ideologue and use my pulpit to steer my readers in a desired direction. My loyal followers of the column, who I’d call ‘Riley’s Rabid Readers,’ would hang on my every word and I’d rise to become the most powerful columnist this side of the Charles River.

But if I’ve learned anything during my Wednesday reign on the opinion page, it’s that sometimes I don’t know what kind of mindset I want to instill on my readers. When my own political beliefs are not even fully formed yet, it’s impossible to try and craft public opinion a certain way. The more informed I became while researching a week’s topic, the cloudier the issue became. It can be frustrating for both the reader and writer at times. Sometimes I want nothing more than to present an argument that leaves its counter argument in the dust. You wouldn’t be left with even a shadow of doubt about the issue after I’m through with you. In fact, stop thinking about all opposing viewpoints, because I have just rendered them obsolete. But more often than not, I’m not totally sold on either side’s argument. If I’m unable to stake out a position on something, it doesn’t make sense to try to pretend that I do in my column.

Politics and campaigning is an especially thorny issue for me. The goal of most political commentators in the media today is to try to predict the future. They look into their crystal balls and write off the chances of presidential candidates and pretend to know how leaders will respond to any given crises. Usually, these pundits’ best guesses have laughable results.’ Remember the storylines about the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s nomination? Instead, the skinny black guy from Chicago whose message of hope was too na’iuml;ve for this cynical, racist country ended up being the victor. The only real losers were the talking heads on cable television and the blogosphere who tried to stay one step ahead of the game. They learned once again that politics is anything but easily predictable.

One of the more recent complicated issues to take a position on was Barack Obama’s choices for his future Cabinet. The retention of Robert Gates at secretary of defense and selecting Hillary Clinton for secretary of state has sparked a controversy, especially among liberals who wanted a more radical change of policy from Obama. Others are concerned that Hillary’s personality will be a political liability for Obama, who is known for his no-drama style. It’s fun to speculate, but no one really knows what the famous members of his Cabinet are going to say or do. I don’t see a point in taking sides and playing a guessing game in this situation. I could spend all afternoon trying to convince you that even Rev. Jeremiah Wright could represent the interests of the United States better than Clinton, but at the end of the day, we are just going to have to wait and see.

It has become a social stigma to not take sides and hold fast to your beliefs at all costs. To even consider flip-flopping on an issue or to try and understand the opposing perspective is to admit weakness, and advertise yourself as a push over who will believe whatever the last person to talk to you said. If you’ve ever ventured into the treacherous world of Internet message boards, you’ve seen the ferocity people use to give their concrete opinion and take down those they disagree with. It’s not just ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ anymore. It’s ‘I’m right, you’re wrong and you’re stupid, too.’ The media only serve to perpetuate the idea that political discourse should take place through shouting matches and mudslinging.

It is a constant struggle for those who see things in shades of gray to the media portray everything as black and white. Take the abortion debate. The media have assigned us concrete labels, pro-choice and pro-life, that divide us instead of finding common ground. The words themselves put us at odds with each other. How can someone in a country like America, which cherishes its freedoms, not be pro-choice? How can any compassionate soul not be pro-life?

I think most Americans are tired of being told that they must take sides in this culture war. Even if individuals are pro-choice, they shouldn’t worry about credibility if they believe abortion should never be used as a method of birth control. Pro-lifers needn’t worry about a lack of self-righteousness if they think a woman has a right to an early stage abortion if she has been raped or incest occurred. You should feel free to get a little ‘maverick-y’ once in a while and not agreeing with everything that those who share your label might expect you to agree upon with them.

In politics, few acts are less damaging to one’s credibility than being accused of changing one’s mind. Just ask 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, who was done in by Republicans branding him as a flip-flopper on the Iraq war. Politicians will go to great lengths to avoid being seen as anything less than 100-percent right about everything without any regrets. Sometimes it gets a little awkward. Hillary Clinton still insists that she made the right choice in 2002 to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Obama, on the other hand, was right about the war from the start, but awkwardly maintains that it was a mistake to implement the surge, which was fairly successful.

But with Obama’s promise to listen to all sides on the important issues facing our country, there is reason to hope that the days of the White House echo chamber are over. Obama has assembled a Cabinet of political heavyweights who are certainly not going to shy away from telling the president what they really think about his policies or what actions he should take to tackle the economic and foreign policy problems that are presented to us. During his meeting with the governors of the United States, Obama promised the group of Republicans and Democrats that he is ‘a good listener; and [he’s] a better listener when people disagree with me.’ Instead of walking into a meeting with his mind already made up, Obama and the nation could benefit if both sides of an argument were given careful consideration by the president, instead of automatically going with the party line.

Throughout this fall semester, I’ve been attempting to sift through the muddle that the politicians and media have force fed us and tell you what I think is really going on.’ Even if my opinions were not all that obvious or clear at times, I hope I got my message across: Stay informed. An informed citizen does not need Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Talking Points Memo’ or Keith Olbermann’s ‘Special Comment’ alone to understand what is going on in the world. Get your information from a variety of different sources, and don’t be afraid to challenge your own pre-conceived notions by taking in a multitude of opinions with a grain of salt. If you are like me and are on the fence about certain things, go ahead and straddle that fence for a while. The view is pretty nice from up here.

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This is an account occasionally used by the Daily Free Press editors to post archived posts from previous iterations of the site or otherwise for special circumstance publications. See authorship info on the byline at the top of the page.

One Comment

  1. Stay informed."<p/>...and by that you mean

    Sure, I have my own viewpoints on the issues, but I’ve never felt the need to push my views on others.<p/>Then why do you have a column on an OPINION page?!<p/>”Even if my opinions were not all that obvious or clear at times, I hope I got my message across