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Bart Mills: Shades of Gray permeate politics

September 6, 2012

It is no small irony that a book titled “Fifty Shades of Grey” tops The New York Times bestsellers list at the same time both political parties are holding their election year conventions.



If you are not familiar with the book — and for the good of society, I hope at least a few of you can say that — it is a romance of sorts in which a sweet, young innocent falls for a wealthy, mysterious business magnate and is pulled into the dark world of sadomasochistic sex play. Think Romeo and Juliet, but with more spanking.



The first book, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” caught fire with the soccer mom set and its popularity grew from there. As of today, books from the series hold the top three spots on the Times list, the anthology of the combined three books holds the number 12 spot, and a variety of imitators pepper the top 25.



At first glance it may be difficult to see the link between a popular sex romp and the political gathering of our nation’s two major political parties. OK, so maybe it’s not that difficult (insert Bill Clinton joke here), but the best reason to juxtapose the two is titular, it’s all about those shades of gray.



Having not read the book, I have absolutely no idea what the title means. I do, however, fully grasp the mastery of those shades of gray among our nation’s current and would-be leaders and the tragic willingness of the voting public to believe they exist.



For politicians, shades of gray are an easy out, a way of feigning complexity on issues that are almost certainly black and white. Or, as we have seen them used in recent days, they are a way to explain away what, in many cases, is a baldfaced lie.



So when a speaker at the Democratic convention declares that President Barack Obama has created 4.5 million jobs, and some pesky reporter notes that it is actually closer to 332,000, said speaker can claim there are “shades of gray” concerning how we count jobs or define creation or some such nonsense. Likewise, when a Republican claims the current president broke a promise in allowing the closing of a Wisconsin auto plant and those same jackals of the media insist upon pointing out that the plant closed before the man took office, he can say what he said is not necessarily what he said. It’s pretty gray.



Playing in the gray is hardly new among politicians, but it does feel as though they have gotten increasingly shameless about it in recent years. I suspect that is because it has become so very effective and the ease with which they can get one over on a complicit public.



As we become more divided in our politics, we choose sides. That’s always been the case. What’s new is our refusal to believe anything the opposition side says and, more troubling, the acceptance of absolutely every word spoken on behalf of those we support. Not only do we accept it as gospel truth, we pass it along as such. We tweet it and post it on our Facebook pages and, God forbid, we get a couple of glasses of gin in us, we’re spitting it out at innocent strangers across the bar. Heaven help the person bold or foolish enough to point out a factual error in our new gospel. We will huff, we will rant, and eventually come back with a retort that typically something like, “Yeah, well your guy is a bigger liar, so there.”



Part of our problem can be tied to a refusal to acknowledge that there are, indeed, truths. Sure, there are opinions and there are different ways of seeing things that swim in those gray shades, but by-and-large, the truth of a statement is knowable.



Digging up the facts is not always easy. Google “jobs created since 2008” and you get 140,000 results. Some of them use the numbers they want to from the left. Others use figures to prove the argument of the right. Figuring out which ones tell the truth can take a little digging and, ironically, a little faith.



As a journalist, I tend to believe sources such as PolitiFact or FactCheck.org, sites tied to established and legitimate news organizations. If you are the sort to distrust the mainstream media, that might make your job a little harder. But you still have a responsibility to figure it out.



If every person would take a few minutes to research the “facts” of their side before passing them off as actual facts, the stream of misinformation would eventually trickle out. In time, the politicians would see that we are too well-informed to be lied to. Heck, if it got bad enough they might even start telling the truth.



At that point, the political conventions will stop reminding us of dirty books. Unless, of course, the soccer moms suddenly start reading “The Story of O.”






Bart Mills