Friday, July 15, 2005

Witch Trial

I recently played a great game called Witch Trial, made by Cheapass Games. If you're not familiar with the idea, their manifesto is that you probably have all the props you need to play board games (pawns, dice, fake money, etc), and just need a few new bits to play a new game, which they sell for minimal cost. Anyway, Witch Trial involves taking the role of an 18th-century lawyer and defending/prosecuting "witches," i.e. the homeless, free thinkers, vegetarians, unmarried women, and even the larcenous elderly.

A trial typically goes like this: a suspect is paired with a crime (crimes range from the mild "atrocious manners" to "showing of ankles" to the demonic "tampering with the post"), and "evidence" is brought into play. Evidence, amusingly, if often usable by either the prosecution or the defense. For example, having a loving family is proof of either guilt or innocence, depending on who is making the arguement. In fact, of all the evidence in the game, only two can't be used by both sides (Confession being one of them). Witnesses can also be brought in, happily testifying either way, and the charges can get changed in the middle of the trial. In the end, it's still a matter of chance whether the jury will acquit or convict, so the lawyers (i.e. the players) usually plea-bargain at the end so they both profit from the experience.

Which put in my mind modern politics. The extent to which the Public is incapable or (unwilling) of making broad critiques of either party never ceases to amaze me. I long for the days of "It's The Economy, Stupid," but now it's always specific scandals, really zeroed in on a particular topic that widely ignores the general situation. During Clinton's presidency, there was Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky. During Bush's first term, the ambiguous threat of global terroism somehow became exclusively about WMDs in Iraq. During the election, it was the Swift Boat Veterans and the CBS debacle. Earlier this year, it was the Schiavo case. Now, it's Karl Rove's leak of Valerie Plame's name to the press.

Karl Rove is a classic example of someone a lot of people hate, but no one seemed to be up in arms about until a specific charge or issue can be raised, at which point the torches and pitchforks come out of the closet. Ask liberals why they hate Rove, and all you'll likely hear are vague platitudes about how "he's Bush's brain" and "he's the reason they play dirty and win," but rarely have concrete examples. It was exactly the same with conservatives and Clinton: prior to the single damning case, there was wide-ranging speculation that he a terrible person, without a strong foundation. People judge first, then hunt for evidence, demanding conviction at the first shred of evidence.

In part, I think this is the result of the intellectual laziness Americans suffer from. In this country, we place great value in our beliefs, but almost none on the supporting evidence. "My opinion" is a phrase used, not to indicate that a topic is subjective, but rather a solemn vow to defend the topic regardless of rational evidence. We've taken "freedom of speech" and used it as a justification for mindless zeal. Of course, I'm speaking really broadly - a lot of people do marshal the facts (albeit in a highly biased way). But those key moderates who swing the vote in critical states, those Median Voters, I get the impression they revel in their cluelessness.

That's the irony of it all: those most willing to let someone (anyone, really) take them by the hand and walk them through politics are the ones who win elections for candidates. So the candidates fight might over that segment of the population most, and the political lesson of the 90s was "the sound byte beats the scholar." Politicians build their case to the median voter one wild attack at a time, and whoever builds the more prevasive bias in their favor wins, because those with strong beliefs know who they're voting for well in advance, leaving the undecidedes to give the final, critical push.

I just wish people would use the vast information spout that is the internet to get the facts about today's "Scandal of the Week." At least then, they could sound like they had some idea why they were so upset.


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