So, Wednesday a week ago, I wrote a Take it from Snee column on SeriouslyGuys about a Mike Rowe post about whether he, as a celebrity, should recommend people vote. He declined to do so, and I took offense at the way he described the right to vote, the process to be ready to vote, and the idea that any actor using his or her celebrity to encourage people to vote were either (a) misguided but well-intentioned or (b) only doing it to win votes for their candidate without having to actually defend their own choice.
As someone who writes for a living, but not often enough on the stuff I want to do, I seized on that anger to write what seemed funny: what if Mike Rowe, of all people, was being a snob?
And so, I pulled full quotes of what he actually said, and then I recontextualized them. I “indigninantly” explained what I heard in his arguments.
For example: did Mike compare telling anyone to vote to giving anyone the gun that lots of people responsibly own but also was used to shoot 21 kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Yes, he did:
However, I’m afraid I can’t encourage millions of people whom I’ve never met to just run out and cast a ballot, simply because they have the right to vote. That would be like encouraging everyone to buy an AR-15, simply because they have the right to bear arms. I would need to know a few things about them before offering that kind of encouragement. For instance, do they know how to care for a weapon? Can they afford the cost of the weapon? Do they have a history of violence? Are they mentally stable? In short, are they responsible citizens?
Casting a ballot is not so different.
Mike could’ve chosen any gun to represent the exercise of our Second Amendment rights. He specifically chose the currently most controversial one in America. That’s symbolism, and I inferred from it a sense that we need to control who we do and don’t encourage to vote, like in Mike’s response when he asked me:
Forget about the apathetic and the willfully ignorant – what about the racists and the homophobes? The religious zealots? What about the tax-cheats and the wife-beaters? Do we really want to encourage bullies to vote? What about KKK enthusiasts? NAMBLA sympathizers? What about those who call for “more dead cops?” Can you think of no one who should maybe stay home on election day?
That’s quite a list of miscreants, deplorables even. But, I’ll get into that a little farther. I’m still sorting out where I quoted Mike correctly and where I went too far in my own head.
Did he say voters treating the election like American Idol was how we got our two major presidential candidates this year? Yes, he did:
Look at our current candidates. No one appears to like either one of them. Their approval ratings are at record lows. It’s not about who you like more, it’s about who you hate less. Sure, we can blame the media, the system, and the candidates themselves, but let’s be honest – Donald and Hillary are there because we put them there. The electorate has tolerated the intolerable. We’ve treated this entire process like the final episode of American Idol. What did we expect?
Did he say that this is election was settled by stupid people because stupid people watch American Idol? No, I inferred it because his main argument about voting is literacy, and reality television is the typical punching bag of people arguing that the American people are becoming overall dumber a la Idiocracy. But, Mike didn’t say anyone was stupid.
Did he say people should read certain books to be intellectually ready to choose to vote? Yes, he did:
Spend a few hours every week studying American history, human nature, and economic theory. Start with “Economics in One Lesson.” Then try Keynes. Then Hayek. Then Marx. Then Hegel. Develop a worldview that you can articulate as well as defend. Test your theory with people who disagree with you. Debate. Argue. Adjust your philosophy as necessary. Then, when the next election comes around, cast a vote for the candidate whose worldview seems most in line with your own.
Did he say that these were just examples of the kind of reading that can inform a populace prior to an election, and that there are other types of reading that prepare a person to cast a vote? No, he didn’t.
He also didn’t recommend reading news sources, candidate’s web sites, or government pages explaining referendums on ballots and how that kind of reading might be more important right before an election than Marx or Hegel until his later response. But, you know what? I didn’t either.
And it was pretty clear that we both meant to say it, even though neither of us did. And that’s where I was wrong and why I owed Mike an apology: I choose to describe his omission as malice and yet did not hold myself accountable for the same thing. I accused him of a darker meaning behind his words that, on rereading both his original piece and his rebuttal, wasn’t there.
For example: did Mike say he wanted to reinstate constitutionally banned literacy tests? No, he absolutely didn’t. He only hopes, like most of us (including me), that people do read and take their right to vote seriously when they exercise it.
I made the leap to the slippery slope argument I often hear behind other people’s “we shouldn’t let stupid people vote, breed, etc.” arguments — an argument that I read in many comments that claim to agree with Mike. In almost every case “stupid” equals “person I disagree with politically,” “libtard” and “fascist” alike.
To those commenters: I suggest that you also reread Mike’s posts and pretty much everything else he’s written. If Mike is only hoping people choose wisely for themselves whether or not to vote, and you as a commenter agree with this, then it seems antithetical to then argue for measures that take that choice away.
You know, like what I originally accused him of. Which is why we’re all here today. And also why I’m responding on my own web site and not on SeriouslyGuys, a comedy blog: because this is a serious issue that deserves open words not designed around a punchline. (Also because there are two other writers on SeriouslyGuys whose work is worth reading without being interrupted by my mistakes.)
Fundamentally, I agree with Mike that it is always better if more people read, and that the benefits of reading extend beyond learning to voting, discourse, and politics. I mean, what writer wouldn’t encourage people to read?
I disagree with Mike, however, that one may only suggest reading and then consider voting — that voting is so serious that it’s better to let people decide maybe, eventually, should they decide to read books about economics. And I also disagree with the idea that everyone else, especially actors like Leo and, yes, Mike, should stay out of it.
I’ll break my disagreement up into two pieces.
1. Voting is serious, but not as dangerous as using a gun for politics.
Voting is serious and important, but exercising your Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Amendment rights is not analogous to exercising your Second Amendment rights — handing anyone a ballot is not handing them an AR-15. And that’s precisely what the Founders intended when they established voting as the means of selecting most offices of leadership.
After just fighting a war to win legislative representation, they knew that ballots are infinitely better than bullets. They’re safer, nobody except maybe Edgar Allen Poe dies, and because the losing side was not shot, they can work on their arguments and try again next year.
And we know that early Americans thought this way because, when Thomas Jefferson (yes, I know who he is) won the 1800 presidential election, his defeat of the incumbent Federalist Party and establishment of a government controlled by the Democratic-Republican Party was hailed as the “Revolution of 1800.” Why hailed? Because nobody had to die for it to happen.
So, voting isn’t analogous to our 2nd Amendment right. It’s analogous to our First Amendment rights. And while we all wish more people would read before exercising those rights, I don’t face a moral conundrum over whether it’s safe or polite to encourage people to speak, write, worship, or associate as they choose. I feel safe about recommending voting to anyone for the same reason. Especially to people I disagree with.
So, yes, I believe that accidentally encouraging racists and homophobes, religious zealots, tax-cheats, wife-beaters, bullies, KKK enthusiasts, NAMBLA sympathizers, and those who call for “more dead cops” is a perfectly acceptable risk to making a blanket encouragement to vote. Because if all of those people outnumber decent Americans who stayed home on election day, then Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the least of our problems.
As for worrying about accidentally telling uninformed people to pull the lever …
2. People don’t read (or vote) without an interest.
Again, while I want everyone to read and vote, I don’t think political interest happens in that order. Or at least people don’t read books on economics before they decide whether or not to vote.
Instead, I find it easier to believe that deciding to vote first is more likely to send people to Amazon. Without that interest in selecting a leader, nobody need ever read a book on economics, history, politics, or biographies of our leaders. And I find, anecdotally anyway, that most people without that interest won’t, even if they are more than intelligent enough to do so.
And that’s why I disagree with Mike’s “read first, then decide” approach. It can potentially discourage people from taking the first step to read the kind of books that shape a more informed citizenry (“Why read Kynes if I know I’m not voting?”), even though that is not Mike’s intent. In a perfect world, people would seek those works out without prompting. But, it’s not a perfect world; it’s a democracy.
As Mike pointed out in his response, Trump won his primary with a 62 percent higher voting turnout, while Clinton won hers with a 21 percent lower turnout. While Mike thinks this mean turnout doesn’t matter when unlikeable candidates win, he’s still missing the larger picture. In total, 61 million votes were cast in the 2016 primary for somebody. That’s out of at least 219 million eligible voters, of which some 146 million are registered. Trump might have won with higher numbers of voters than last year, but who cares when apparently 73 percent of people who could vote didn’t.
I’m pretty sure 73 percent of voters aren’t in NAMBLA or unread, so I ‘m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and tell them they should probably vote. They should read, too, of course. But, considering that 86 percent of American adults can read, encouraging them shouldn’t be too hard.
So long as we let people slide when they self-select political illiteracy and uninvolvement, our elections will continue to be decided by only half the eligible population voting. And, in my admittedly rosy view of the American people, I believe that our country makes its worst decisions when the votes of a few hyper-interested cranks aren’t drowned out by the overwhelming majority of common sense.
But, that’s a pretty minor disagreement that I blew way out of proportion. I threw nuance and civility out of the window to make deep-cutting accusations and jokes: that’s on me, not only because Mike didn’t deserve those accusations, but I failed my own argument, too. Mike has never in thought or deed demonstrated that he’s an elitist or supports disenfranchisement or oligarchy. Just as I have never advocated not reading.
I’m glad that Mike Rowe both rebutted my ill-conceived piece and accepted my sincerely offered apology on Wednesday. This experience will shape how I write both comedy and commentary on the future. And, hopefully, we can all look at it as an opportunity to let communication and kindness trump anger and points-scoring in future elections. Which I hope everyone will vote in.
And finally, why write this now after saying I had dropped it? Because Mike asked me some questions, and it would be rude not to respond to him. As for my response to other commentors, that was a freebie.