Thursday, December 20, 2012

Last Man Standing S02E01: Revealing Why the Right Wing is Falling Down

I recently discovered that one of my favorite new sitcoms from the 2011-2012 season had already aired five episodes this fall. Last Man Standing starring Tim Allen follows Mike Baxter, an intelligent, hardworking, sarcastic father of three daughters and head of marketing for a chain of outdoor sporting goods stores. The plots and production are pretty standard, but Tim Allen's Baxter is enjoyable to watch for two reasons. First, his sarcasm is handled well by the writers and Allen. It demonstrates his enjoyment of life and frustration with others around him, not a hatred for the world that usually accompanies the character quirk. Second, he is a right-leaning football-loving guy with a caring streak that doesn't cause him to contradict what he believes in. Usually in sitcoms of this type the Baxter character would learn his lesson and do a 180 on his beliefs. Instead, this character usually just learns how to let other people, mainly his daughters, live and experience their own successes and failures.

Browsing over the summaries of the first five episodes I'd missed on Hulu made me immediately concerned. The first episode was called "Voting" and was about Baxter trying to convince his daughter Mandy, the shallow 18 year old party girl daughter, to vote for Mitt Romney. Uh oh, this was the perfect opportunity for Hollywood to undermine the character by making him do a 180 and vote for Barack Obama. I started the episode and my concern grew. The producers had recast Baxter's oldest daughter, single mother Kristin, and her infant son Boyd, increasing their age so Boyd is now 5, and recast and reintroduced Boyd's father as a regular character whereas last season he had been a one episode guest spot for Joe Jonas. Even more worrisome, Kristin and Boyd's father were both extremely vocal Obama supporters who demonstrated open disdain for Kristin's father's Romney support. Most worrisome of all, this pieces were put in place in the first three minutes of the episode.

Immediately I paused the video and Googled the casting change. Apparently it was the choice of a new showrunner. A change in that position, especially for such a young show, generally means a change in direction. Accepting that this would be the last episode if Last Man Standing I would ever watch, I glumly pressed play and awaited Mike Baxter's execution. I was promptly surprised by the stay he was granted. The lesson he learned was a reminder that what makes America great is you're allowed to make your choice without fear of persecution for it and he drove Mandy to the polls even though she decided to vote for Obama because he deserves a chance to finish what he started. I will continue watching this show. It's joyful simplicity is comforting, always finding a way to make me smile. The writing seems to find a way to break down contemporary cultural issues into easily digestible essentials that ring true, and the obvious reality these simple scenes revealed shocked me even more than the preservation of Mike's character.

The main source of humor in the episode was the quips Mike and Kristin hurled back and forth. The retorts were boiled down representations of both sides' arguments that built to a scene where each presented his or her case to Mandy. Mike told his daughter about the inheritance tax and how Democrats wanted to take what they earned. Kristin explained, using the example of her son Boyd and how his father was losing his job, about how Obama's universal healthcare was intended to help struggling workers. Though the differences in the two arguments seemed to be couched in the same subjects the media harped on during the election (self vs others, money vs people), and the writers were probably echoing that intentionally, what it unintentionally revealed is a much more compelling difference:

Mike's argument was abstract. We earned this money and the government wants to take it from us.

Kristin's argument was concrete. Obama's universal healthcare is to help workers who are suffering due to the economy.

The issue here is accessibility of understanding. When something is concrete, it is easier to understand because the connection is direct, immediate, and apparent. When something is abstract, it is more difficult to understand because it is indirect, distant, and obscure. To state it another way, concretes refer to things that are directly perceivable by our five senses. Abstracts refer to evaluations that refer to things are directly perceivable by our five senses. Understanding statements that involve a concrete is easier because it requires less reasoning ability. You only have to understand what is being referred to. In contrast, statements that involve an abstract are more difficult to understand because it requires reasoning out why the thing being referred to is being evaluated in that way. Admittedly  I am being extremely abstract here, so let me ground this discussion in the concrete I've already presented.

Mike's argument was based on ideas of "earning" and "taking." These are extremely important concepts, as are most abstracts, but they raise a whole slew of question. What does it mean to earn something? What does it mean to take something? Does anyone have a right to earn something? Does anyone have a right to take something? There's are just a couple of questions off the top of my head. Many men with greater minds than me have written complex philosophical analyses of these concepts...and that's exactly my point. Mike's argument assumes a large amount of knowledge and understanding of philosophy (and other subjects) on the part of its audience. To get to his concrete--quality of life--you have to choose to exert a lot of mental effort.

Kristin's argument was based on the ideas of "universal healthcare" and "workers who are suffering due to the economy." Both of these items are defined perceivable existents in reality. The universal healthcare bill is written on a limited number of pages that can be accessed and read. Workers who are suffering due to the economy can be observed and interacted with easily. Kristin's argument assumes no knowledge and understanding of philosophy (and other subjects) on the parts of its audience. To get to its concrete--quality of life--you don't have to exert a lot of mental effort.

My point is not to say that Mike's argument appealed to the educated and Kristin's argument appealed to the uneducated. There are many educated people who struggle with the intricacies of the philosophical complexities of earning/taking and many uneducated people who understand them very easily (and this is just one issue in the vastness of the human experience). Rather, the higher accessibility of understanding by arguing with concretes creates a lower barrier to agreement, and if an argument has a lower barrier to agreement, it is more likely that a higher number of people will agree with it.

With all that is made about the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties' approaches to government and elections, little if any attention is paid to this observation I am making. This simple difference in rhetorical approach makes the Democratic Party more accessible to more people. I'm not saying Democrats are wrong and Republicans are right and rhetoric is confusing people. There are far too many issues that are far too complicated to make such sweeping generalizations and both parties are very often wrong at different (and sometimes the same) times.

I am saying that the actual points of disagreements are often missed because the sides are talking past each other and thus people aren't presented with a real choice. They're presented with "think about this" vs "look at this" and when they're basing their decision on who can do things, they're always going to choose the side that is saying "look at this" because that is the side that is identifying a problem rather than asking you to identify it yourself. 

If the Mike Baxter's of the world want more people to stand with them, they might find it worthwhile to focus their arguments on concretely identifying the problem(s) they want to fix. Otherwise, they'll continue to fall.


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