Wheatley: Sensationalizing Ideology
By Louis Wheatley, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, July 13, 2012
Every so often, high-profile figures veer off the beaten path of the lecture circuit to visit our campus. Just last week, I signed myself up for a double header with a lecture by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and a dinner with Sen. Rob Portman ’78, R-Ohio. Considering their backgrounds and professions, I expected sobering realities from the human rights journalist and a sensationalist oratory from the politician. To my surprise, the exact opposite occurred.
It is important to consider the reasons these visitors spoke at our campus. Kristof spoke as part of the College’s “Leading Voices” summer lecture series, and his presentation was an extension of a campaign to raise awareness on the global oppression of women. Portman, on the other hand, did not come here to campaign. A Dartmouth alumnus returning to the stomping grounds of his college days, he graciously took time to speak with Dartmouth students about the economy. Neither event precluded the speakers from espousing sensationalism, but each man addressed his audience with a considerably different approach.
I left Kristof’s lecture feeling underwhelmed. As a regular reader of Kristof’s Times column, I am used to his style of writing as well as his means of persuasion. He often uses anecdotes from his travels to bring a distant tragedy a little closer to home. These stories serve to frame his column’s core, which include the initiatives and potential solutions for the oft-ignored human rights crises that he profiles. Kristof lectured his captive audience about the global oppression of women, but failed to deliver the core that substantiates his writing. He neglected to delve past a string of emotional storytelling, and whatever meaningful solutions he offered were wrapped up in the narratives and photo evidence of his heart wrenching stories.
Portman, however, was a refreshing face for the institution he represents. In the heat of election season, Portman is said to be on presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s short list of potential vice presidents. But in a business that has capitalized on the country’s taste for sensationalism, Portman was all too happy to dutifully explain his tax code overhaul plan without political fanfare to twenty sophomores. Speaking in a sober and honest manner, he did not gloss over details or revert to partisan remarks. The media brands the senator as the down-to-earth, bland Ohioan who likes to get work done, but this characterization simply sensationalizes his pragmatism in Washington, which is filled with all too many political hacks.
A friend of mine, after introducing himself as a dedicated New York liberal to the senator, asked Portman why Washington’s partisan gridlock was so bad when he and the senator shared many “reasonable” views. Portman found my friend’s reaction interesting because his congressional voting record was consistently conservative and would not be considered moderate by most observers. Even though my friend would likely not agree with Portman on many principles, neither him nor Portman was averse to finding common ground.
What Kristof and Portman proved is that sensationalism can drive ideologies apart or together, but at the detriment of proactive thinking. Kristof’s greatest challenge is bringing remote human rights tragedies to the forefront of Americans’ minds through his biweekly columns. He must cross over ideological divides to build a coalition that forgets political vendettas and cares about what happens in the rest of the world. His rhetoric on campus, however, did not forge divergent ideologies but instead blurred them. He toyed with the audience’s heartstrings to make supporting his cause seem like an obvious choice rather than a rational solution reached from different ideological perspectives. Obvious or not, such a conclusion must come from personal reasoning and not through emotional obligation.
Kristof’s sensationalism is likely a reaction to the political sensationalism that drives an inflammatory wedge between beliefs, and as a result, distorts the beliefs themselves. As the New Yorker found out firsthand, all conservative Republican senators are not irrational, even if they are consistently conservative. Our ideological divisions wouldn’t appear quite so drastic if they were not mischaracterized by popular political discourse.
Appealing to our most base emotions may be the easiest strategy in an electorate plagued by civic apathy. Nevertheless, we could likely find common ground on many issues if we simply started believing that common ground exists. All sensational rhetoric, whether it seeks to unite or divide, should leave us disenchanted regardless of our ideology.