Monday, 24 April 2017

A Student's Guide to Reading About Politics

A widely-held view is that politics are impenetrable and confusing. How do we, as a disaffected generation, begin to understand and interact with a world that seems far away and meaningless?

Of course, there are no easy answers. The actions of political leaders are often confusing, inconsistent and self-contradictory. There are myriad news outlets, each claiming a monopoly on the truth. But what is the truth? What is it we are trying to get at?

It is tempting, and indeed very easy, to claim it’s “all subjective”, a matter of mere opinion. There is at least some truth to this. There are several vastly different schools of political theory, each with different takes on society, the economy, and the world at large. Separately, as readers, we can read things and disagree with them, or think that they’re mostly right, but a bit off in parts. We might also have fierce disagreements with those around us about any number of social issues.

However there is a sense in which this claim is essentially false. The actual object of political analysis, the endless slew of budgets, policy announcements, economic figures, statistics and opinion polls, is far from subjective. While politicians and media outlets make false or partially inaccurate factual claims fairly frequently, beyond doubting the actual truthfulness of the available information, political analysis is concerned with the interpretation of this information.

Here, then, we must become political analysts, avid interpreters of the news, rather than passive consumers. Because there are so many different possible takes on what is essentially the same data, it is vital that each of us actually process the information that is out there, lest we be deceived or misled by the claims of others. Furthermore, because the world of politics is, on the surface, so detached from our daily lives, unless we undertake this process of analysis, the goings-on of the political world are left virtually meaningless.

An essential part of undertaking this process of analysis is, as obvious as it might seem, developing an understanding of the language of politics. It makes sense: to understand French, you must learn French words. But here “language” does not just refer to terminology.

Rather, it includes in its meaning the network of generally accepted “facts” about the interactions between different political actions and institutions. The collection of news reports and articles on each day’s political events really exist as observations about a reality that is constantly flowing and interacting with itself. It is important to realize this, and to approach the news accordingly. Reading the news isn’t really like reading a novel, or a textbook.

Of course the most essential step to understanding politics is to just start reading the news, but always with a critical perspective, always asking: Is this true? What do they really mean? Why are they reporting on this?

The next six weeks, the run up to the General Election, will see a frenzied rush of news stories and commentaries. If there ever was a time to get engaged, it’s now. The drama of political theatre is going into full-swing, and there’s everything to play for.

If we, as a generation, do not develop a strong political perspective now, then we leave ourselves oblivious and vulnerable. The pretentious and self-interested Youth MPs, prefects and so on do not represent us, and in most cases it was never really their intention to do so. For those who seek to a better society, but are lost as to how to bring change about, a genuine awareness of the political and social realities of today is vital. Beyond simply reading the news, theoretical frameworks can help us see the reality of society today. You needn’t pick up Das Kapital or Discipline and Punish right away, but the era is such that we must either think or perish.

DISCLAIMER: This article, while written as a guide, is comprised of the personal opinions of the author.

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