(ON TOPIC) Political Literacy: “Lincoln was the one with those logs, right?”

While I wouldn’t call myself politically illiterate, I also don’t feel comfortable saying I’m entirely politically literate. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, I know I’m not alone in this.

I should probably define my terms. By “politically illiterate” I mean, in short, totally out of the loop when it comes to our past and present political happenings. Sure, you may know Obama is our president and that a long time ago a bunch of men signed this piece of paper granting us certain rights. But the stuff in between remains a blur. With this in mind, by “politically literate” I mean educated about said in-between stuff, enough so that engagement in conversations about politics comes with a relative ease.

And so, I honestly fall somewhere between the two. While I really wish I’d taken more history and political science courses in high school and college, I’m not sure I’m entirely at fault here. Because sometimes, dear reader(s), written works about politics can be pretty damn hard to unpack.

Enter Slate Labs.

This brilliant experiment in multimedia journalism by Slate’s Jeremy Singer-Vine takes complicated text and translates it into commonly understood language. Although still in development, NPR has already caught on. In an article this month about the Federal Reserve’s plans for a $600 billion budget, NPR used the Slate Lab translator to allow readers to actually understand what the new budget’s all about. Click on the link to check it out. It’s fun: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131043062&sc=emaf. So with the click of a button, “Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September confirms that the pace of recovery in output and employment continues to be slow” quickly becomes, “The economy still sucks.”

Ah. Much better.

However, translating political jargon into accessible English is only one step in the right direction. And this brings me to the beef of today’s thought. I’ve fashioned it in a short letter to the Man himself:

Dear Mr. Obama,

I had a revelatory moment this month while watching Oprah’s famed “My Favorite Things” episode. I thought I’d bring it to your attention because, well, you lead our people.

After watching snow fall on an audience of screaming, crying fans, it got me thinking: What if everyone could get as excited about politics as they did about Oprah? What if, upon the release of a new amendment or plan, we, too, struggled to hold back our positivity and endless river of tears?

I can hear the announcement now. “Everyone. Gets. HEALTH CAREEEEE!!!!” followed by the sounds of smiles and happy tears.

We all want to be wanted and need to be needed, and Oprah has made me realize that perhaps people avoid engaging politically because it doesn’t provide as immediate of a gratification as, say, something like an episode of “The Oprah Show” or “Mad Men.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying televised speeches from the White House should involve snow or screaming fans. Rather, I’m just encouraging that more attention be paid to 1) how and why audiences engage so emotionally with pop culture and 2) how the findings could be used to further promote political literacy and in turn political engagement.

We need to make politics more accessible to the average American, and C-SPAN’s non-stop coverage of government proceedings is not helping the cause. Here, perhaps a little snow and applause couldn’t hurt.

Just something to think about this holiday season.


Jonathan Hurwitz



One response to “(ON TOPIC) Political Literacy: “Lincoln was the one with those logs, right?”

  1. 1) You actually watched Oprah’s Favorite Things episode? I mean I research it, google it, watch clips & kind of want the new beetle, so I guess I can’t talk.
    2) This wasn’t as aggressive as usual — I’m not complaining, but get annoyed — it’s more fun to read

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