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Published Sep. 14, 2009

The more I observe modern political discourse, the more I am convinced that most members of Congress and most of the public is incapable of breaking away from reciting common Glenn Beck/Rachel Maddow talking points and quoting Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann as if they were experts on global warming, foreign policy, health care, political theory, and political philosophy ... all at the same time.

It seems that we often fail to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that not every major domestic and international issue can be summarized in 10 bullet points on a 30-minute program. Some examples:

- In an Aug. 25 radio broadcast, Limbaugh issued a stark warning to his listeners: Beware! "President Obama ... wants to mandate circumcision." When independent fact-checkers scoured through congressional records, they couldn't find a single instance in which Obama even used the word "circumcision." The only connection is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been debating since 2007 whether to issue a public - voluntary - recommendation that young boys be circumcised.

- In a Sept. 2 editorial, the conservative Investor's Business Daily made the claim that "cap-and-trade is wildly unpopular with Americans." After reviewing public opinion polls, the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact researchers found that "at its lowest, nearly 40 percent of Americans would still support cap-and-trade even if it meant heftier energy bills." If the question included no details about a possible increase in utility bills, that number sometimes topped 50 percent. So much for unpopular.

- In an Aug. 5 New York Times blog post, the columnist Paul Krugman argued that the outrage seen in town halls across the country is not comparable to the protests launched by the Democratic Party in 2005, when President Bush was fighting for privatization of Social Security. But that's an oversimplification. "While the protests may be more intense this time (devils' horns instead of duck suits), it's clear that there was plenty of disruption inside town hall meetings in 2005, contrary to Krugman's assertions," concluded PolitiFact.

Just because you hear it on TV or read it on the Internet doesn't mean it's true.

Why is it either "government is always the solution" or "government is always the problem"? Do we not recognize that policies should be judged based on their individual merits?

I am afraid to say I support Obama giving a speech to students, because I'll probably be branded a communist. But if I hint that some of the questions in the Education Department-produced lesson plans that go along with that speech were inappropriate or ambiguous, I am part of a radical right-wing conspiracy.

I can respect people who decide on the basis of their own independent research - and yes, that actually involves reading newspaper articles in full, not just the excerpts - that policy proposals coming from the White House or Congress would have a negative impact. Name-calling and unfounded philosophical overgeneralizations and oversimplifications, however, have no place in a constructive and rational discourse.

Lukas Pleva is a graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School and a freshman at the University of Chicago. He is a 2009 Barnes Scholarship finalist.