Archive for January, 2010

Getting ahead of policy

I’m not a wonk at all. The other night I had dinner at a friend’s house and we discussed the proposed domestic spending freeze. I opposed it on ideological grounds. To me, government spending is a (nebulous) key to ending the recession and protecting citizens from the whims of the powerful. My friend feels similarly, but she had concrete reasons, like that government domestic spending only increases by 1.7% every year and is therefore not a significant source of our climbing debt. Now, she’s a former Hill staffer, so it makes sense that she’d have a more sophisticated critique, one that lawmakers might be more inclined to discuss.

But I’m still a citizen, and my opinion counts no matter how familiar I am with the details. This makes me more than a little uncomfortable, since if I’m responsible for my fellow citizens, I’m also charged with keeping myself informed.

Beyond voting, it seems like the public only really sways policy by making a big fuss. Unless you’re the kind of person who can manufacture a big fuss on the fly, you need to make your case at a critical moment. Say, before a bill has been written at all, before ground has been broken on the specifics of any deals.*

* Of course, people with my political orientation can make as a big a fuss as we’d like and lawmakers still wouldn’t listen.

But we’re usually not in a good position to do so. Thanks to the inadequacies of mainstream media, the public usually stumbles into a policy discussion way too late. Now you could turn yourself into a wonk, read all the journals and blogs, and prep yourself that way, but there’s only so many hours in the day, and after another shift at my menial job, my eyes glaze over a bit.

A lot of people devote themselves to a single issue or narrow slice of policy, and manage that way. What should the rest of us do?

The Doctor as Dabbler

Lately I’ve been gobbling up Doctor Who episodes like nobody’s business. A few weeks ago, BBC America aired a marathon of the revived series, leading up to The two-part “End of Time” special. I got a job offer that day, returned home, put on pajamas and ate Cheez-its on the couch, taking it all in.

Doctor Who was always my father’s show, and since I have an unfortunate amount of dad-baggage, it’s been a blind-spot in my nerd-dom. I’m over that now, because the Doctor belongs in my pantheon of fictional role models.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a long-running science fiction series from the BBC. Its protagonist is a humanoid who travels in time and space, adventuring and righting wrongs. He’s called the Doctor.* There’s extensive mythology around the character, his home planet, and his many adversaries. He usually travels around the universe with one or more assistants/companions, often from Earth, the Doctor’s favorite planet.

*The long-running joke behind the series title goes as follows: The Doctor introduces himself to someone, they respond “Doctor who?”

In both of its incarnations (1963-1989; 2005-present) it’s been delightfully, humorously low-budget. The threadbare monsters remain effective, though, because the plots and dialogue really sell their evil as a form of ideology. Standing in the way of their plans is the mentally flexible Doctor.

Despite being an entirely fictional character, the Doctor is a good role model for how I’d like to traverse the world. He’s innately curious, and readily acknowledges that he doesn’t know everything. He’s confident in his own intellect and abilities, but he’s not afraid to be wrong and make mistakes. When he does make mistakes (usually while trying to divine yet another convoluted plot), he doesn’t waste much time ruing them.  No garment-rending here, scarves excepted.*

* The Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, wore a ridiculously long scarf as part of his signature apparel. The scarf  often gets in the way. He had to constantly adjust it while sword-fighting, running, ducking under sliding doors, etc.

He’s also courageous and open. He reserves fear for a worthy few (the Daleks, the Master). He has a solid grounding in science, but is open to to the supernatural. He’s usually the smartest guy in the room, but he can learn from anyone.

All of these qualities, combined with his distrust of authority and his manic charisma, make him an effective, temporary leader in nearly every situation. It’s the most normal thing in the world to see the Doctor direct a group to action about thirty seconds after meeting them. Even when he doesn’t have all the facts, he doesn’t wait to act. He hews sharply to his own moral compass, but rarely gets preachy.*

* Now the contents of that moral compass are debatable, especially in the new series (2005-present), which has often hinted at a darker, more vengeful Doctor.

As I queue up more episodes on Netflix, I study and dissect the Doctor’s performance. I know the show’s fake, but his resolve and ingenuity always seem real. What can he teach me? How can I live more like him?

Retroactive Sabbatical

The blog is taking a retroactive sabbatical, extending backwards through January. It returns today.


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January 2010