Politics, Society

Armchair Governing

For decades we have known about the phenomenon of “Armchair Quarterbacks”: fans who watch so much football that they decide – probably subconsciously at first – that they would be better at the offensive coordinator job than the experienced professional currently holding that position.

And it extends to other football decisions and other sports decisions. I am myself guilty of being an Armchair Hockey GM. It is rife within both the sports media and sports fan communities. In fact, many sports media and pseudo-media make their careers off of it.

But I think this phenomenon has also existed in politics, probably since political decision making has been publicized through the fourth estate. And it is pretty evident in any political commentary. But it has gotten far more widespread – and arguably out of control -since the existence of a 24-hours “news” media and the internet.

I am not saying we shouldn’t criticize government: we must always criticize the government; it is our duty as citizens. However, the vast majority of government criticism that goes on in the blogosphere and twitterverse – at least the majority of what I am exposed to – is irrational, reactionary and completely nonsensical: it is not just Armchair Governing but it is Armchair Governing worthy of the worst homer Armchair Quarterbacks.  It makes most Armchair Quaterbacking look reasonable.

The “opposition” party in the United States right now is making a very, very big deal about the Benghazi “crisis” in which, unfortunately, four Americans died. They seem to believe that something nefarious went on with the obviously inadequate security precautions or with the government’s role in publicizing the incident after the fact. Incidents like this should always, always be investigated.

However, some Republicans and many of their more extreme supporters are using this incident to imply that something worse actually happened; that this was a major failing of the Obama administration. Many people are obsessed with the idea of a “Benghazi cover-up.” They – Republicans criticizing the Executive Branch and especially those Republican-inclined citizens who think there is a conspiracy – think they all would have acted differently had they been in Rice’s or Clinton’s position. This shows a complete and utter failure to put themselves in the shoes of those in difficult positions. I suggest that this failure to put oneself in another’s shoes – the mark of the civilized person – is at the centre of this plague of increased, hysterical Armchair Governing.

Yes, an incident like the one in Benghazi must be investigated. However,

  • the massive amounts of American civilian deaths in the second Iraq war have not been subject to this kind of scrutiny;
  • the failure of the US military and the federal government to adequately supply its own soldiers in Iraq – or take care of the veterans of that campaign – has not received this kind of scrutiny;
  • the ever-increasing electronic monitoring – phone, email, visual – that is occurring on all American citizens – and probably us Canadians too – as I write this has not received this kind of scrutiny;
  • and this is a horribly incomplete list.

All of this is to say that there are legitimate reasons to criticize the behaviour of the Obama administration and the US federal government in general but they are being drowned out by the excessive Armchair Governing of American citizens (including most opposition politicians) who focus on “Benghazi” or “gun rights” or “the fiscal cliff” or “the debt ceiling” instead. And so the actual faults of government are obscured by Americans getting mad that Hilary Clinton yelled at a Senator because she lost her composure. (Even though it would be perfectly okay in a movie if her character had been developed in such a way that we sympathized with her rather than the Senator.) Or that Michelle Obama rolled her eyes because she doesn’t like a particular guy.

Governing is hard work. It might be the hardest work. I don’t know, I’ve never done it. We need to extend human understanding to those in power when they make acceptable mistakes. We should save our outrage for when they consciously embark on policies that are unacceptable to us. But it’s hard for most of us to do that when all we hear is how every citizen – at least every citizen who votes for the other party – can do it better.

Understanding and compassion are not weaknesses, they are strengths. And they are necessary to actually, authoritatively criticize any administration, be it the current American President’s, a past President’s, or our own Prime Minister’s.

So, Armchair Governors, if you don’t agree with me, all I can say is “watch The Wire,” where the human reality of institutions is dramatized better than anywhere else. And if drama cannot bring you to this understanding – literature and science likely won’t help – then the only way you will be brought there is by working in a public position of authority and being humiliated when you make a perfectly human mistake.

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