I've never read the paper and now at 30+ want to educate myself on Politics, Gov, Current Events, World History, etc. Where to start?
July 24, 2005 7:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm over 30 and probably know as much or less about history, politics/ gov, and current events as my 7 year old niece. Now, I want to be aware and don't know where to begin. I've tried just "merging in" but the references, terms, and names are lost on me. I need a starting point that will give me a framework or bird's eye view to start from and build on.

I've always steered away from news and never got the paper. I didn't realize I was doing it so much; I just wanted all the negative stuff to go away.
A little bkgd: I don't know what the funny part is in political jokes and satire because I have no familiarity with who or what event they're talking about. And the radio, I half tune-out because I'm lost in all the names and summits and groups and organizations that all have some abbreviated name, not to mention the official titles that go with all the public figures' names.

I would like to know what the heck is going on in the world today, and how we got here. Any suggestions? biographies, dvds, magazines, websites, reference books... Resources that are presented in an easily approachable and engaging way would be great --after all if I enjoyed this topic, I wouldn't be in this situation.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Find a friend who knows more than you and ask questions. If something shows up on CNN or some newspaper that you don't understand, ask someone.

Having a smart friend who disagrees with you will get you reading.

That, and watch The Daily Show.
posted by SAC at 7:35 PM on July 24, 2005

You could start with these:
World History for Dummies
US History for Dummies
posted by caddis at 7:37 PM on July 24, 2005

Pick some specific issues you want to be up to speed on and you'll likely get some good recommendations here. In general, start reading the paper and getting Time or Newsweek for current events. American Heritage magazine is probably the equivalent for history (US).

You'll miss most of the the references at first. Doesn't matter, plow on. Slowly you'll see certain ones pop up repeatedly and you'll start to get a handle. The most important thing you can do is follow your interests. Read broadly, but burrow down into stuff that seems cool. You have to want to know about things. If you're not curious, your journey to "aware"-ness is going to feel like work, and that won't last.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:38 PM on July 24, 2005

and Politics for Dummies
posted by caddis at 7:38 PM on July 24, 2005

Read the New York Times, especially the first section, from front to back, without skipping a single sentence. Their ability to provide context (aka history) is remarkable.

I fantasize about someday being able to read the whole NYT every day, but for now I only do it on an occasional lunch hour when my usual pile of reading backlog isn't available. And every time I'm struck at how weird it feels that I probably wouldn't have known Story A, B or C if I hadn't read the NYT that day.

Try it for a week.
posted by intermod at 7:39 PM on July 24, 2005

The Economist's annual World Guide may be good on a recent scale. They have a very good, often funny/wise-ass, journalistic style that is good for an educated, but perhaps ignorant (not in the perjorative sense) individual. The World Guide sums up a lot of recent politics with a moderate amount of background information. It also gives some intelligent analysis that you can pawn off as your own to sound dinner-party smart.

On preview: I had a history prof tell me when I was an undergrad that if I read the NYT every day for a year I would know everything I needed to know. This man was shit-for-teaching, but that stuck with me. (intermod - you don't obsess over early 20th c baseball do you?)
posted by jmgorman at 7:46 PM on July 24, 2005

How about some political humour, I like "Wait, Wait, don't tell me" on NPR (and I suppose Harry Shearer's "Le Show" counts as humour), and I'm sure some people who get cable will chime in with "The Daily Show". Most of the above are availible as downloads. I personally think that "The Mclaughlin Group" is funny, but you'll have to judge for yourself.
posted by 445supermag at 7:46 PM on July 24, 2005

If you just want to get jokes and references, the best thing to do would be to just watch the Daily Show regularly. They do a lot jokes that would be funny to anyone, regardless of background knowledge, which would be a good way to keep yourself intrested.
posted by delmoi at 7:50 PM on July 24, 2005

I'll second reading The Economist, which provides a surprising amount of context. Pick up one issue and give it a shot. I find it's a very efficient way to keep up with the world, since it only comes out once a week.
posted by josh at 8:17 PM on July 24, 2005

Economist and Daily Show.

It'll be frustrating for at least a month, probably more like 3. But like any other learned skill, it takes practice.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:33 PM on July 24, 2005

Well, just for the heck of it, I'll throw in a title with a bit of a different theoretical perspective: Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History. It's a look a world history from the position that world historical events are deeply interconnected, and have been for a very long time. It's academic and not very current, though, so I'm not sure if it's just what you want. If publications like the Economist make you queasy, though, this could be a good antidote.
posted by carmen at 8:33 PM on July 24, 2005

I'd start with USA Today--it's more bite-sized and condensed. And surf by Drudge and CNN everyday. Google news is good too.

The Daily Show assumes you already know something about everything.
posted by amberglow at 8:38 PM on July 24, 2005

And here is good too. You're probably not as ignorant as you think. Asking questions in threads about current events helps me enormously, especially when it's about something foreign.
posted by amberglow at 8:39 PM on July 24, 2005

I disagree with the NYTimes recommendation, especially reading the whole thing. (There's a certain percentage who treat this paper as gospel but don't count me among them -- being from DC, and my first employment being delivering the Washington Post may have something to with this bias.) Problem is, it's way to dense for a beginner; same with The Economist. For current events try reading Newsweek for a while (Time's just too infantile). And to catch up on history I'd recommend watching The History Channel, they make it entertaining.
posted by Rash at 8:57 PM on July 24, 2005

This is a brave and courageous undertaking. I agree with some of the above comments, but feel most are going to be way over your head. You were honest enough with us about your lack of knowledge and I feel a responsibility to be honest in return.

1. Read your daily newspaper - or - maybe USA Today. This will give you a basic understanding of the kinds of things being discussed as a society. USA Today is good as it is rather simplified for people on-the-go.

2. Read biographies. HOWEVER, my idea will seem different to you. Start out reading JUVENILE biographies from the library. These give you the life of important people in a nutshell. They tell most everything the average person might know anyway. If you find someone interesting - dig deeper. Juvenile biographies are excellent when used as a survey of great lives.

3. Social and Political history. The same thing as #2. You will find many juvenile books on our political system, our founding as a nation (and all the men involved), the Civil War, WWII, most anything. Again, don't feel bad - let them assume you are checking them out for a son or daughter or a niece or nephew if it makes you uncomfortable. It doesn't matter. The knowledge you can gain QUICKLY from these books will surprise you.

4. Ask questions. Don't be afraid to say, "You know, I don't know much about that topic - what exactly is (fill-in-the-blank)? People love to talk. You just have to listen.

5. The best weekly news magazine available now is THE WEEK. It covers everything you need to know in 40 pages or so. It is "snippet news" for the most part, but is great for staying caught up. I would think it would be good for you to absorb. Easy, simple, no mess, no fuss.

There are many other ideas, but these are some starters.
Good luck to you!
posted by Independent Scholarship at 9:17 PM on July 24, 2005

Pick a topic on the Wikipedia and read it, and then follow some links.
posted by zadcat at 9:39 PM on July 24, 2005

I was in the exact position you were two years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't know about this place to ask for help.

What I did was to start reading the news online. Anything I found interesting or important (and you'd know if a story is important is if it got mentioned several times in the news) but didn't know what the background was, I simply googled. This was how I found out about Metafilter, via CNN.

I also find Mefi to be a very good place to learn as there are a lot of links, and you get more world news as opposed to Ameri-centric, if you are an American.

Two years later, I am still a bit lost on a lot of events and realized awhile ago that I still have a lot to learn. However, I find myself to be much more informed than my peers now as I am the one who usually brings up current events when hanging around friends. =)
posted by state fxn at 9:55 PM on July 24, 2005

I will ad a 3rd recommendation for Newsweek subscription as a good starting point. They have a page of political and social cartoons in each issue, and the subject matter of these cartoons is usually "explained" with an article somewhere in the issue. Wikipedia is a great interactive resource for background info on most topics that might interest you.

I also believe a good resource for you to understand the workings and history of the government would be a US Citizenship Test Primer. There are many of these and you should be able to find some at a local bookstore.

Another option is to audit (officially or otherwise) a history or civics class at a local university. I used to sit in on a local history class at my university whenever I could and got a lot out of it. Check with their regulations first.
posted by Yorrick at 10:55 PM on July 24, 2005

What, learn about politics? How long have you been on the net.

No one learns about politics, they just talk about it, raising the same old third hand nonsense they heard from everywhere else.

That said, The Economist for news is the way to go. Short, snappy well written articles. Beware of the Economics articles in the Eco, they proscribe a deregulate and privatize approach for every problem. Perhaps reading The Guardian online would give balance.

I'd go to a second hand bookstore or a Borders and pick up one or two general history books and then just read them through. Just reading a random one is well worth it.

A question for you, as you declare your relative lack of knowledge. Do you have political sympathies? Can you already classify where you on the political spectrum? It seems most people (myself included) picked up their political beliefs and THEN went and read about things, not the other way around. What do you think?
posted by sien at 11:09 PM on July 24, 2005

I'd really disagree with the people saying to start out with Time or Newsweek or USA Today. Sure, they're written at a simple level, with lots of shiny pictures to explain things... but in a normal issue, the bulk of the magazine is given to useless stuff. Celebrity gossip, breathless articles about movies and actors, painful articles about cultural trends that are several years out of date, cute little white girls who've been abducted, science mis-interpreted, stuff like that. Very few articles on foreign affairs. In addition, while there have been a few exceptions, they're generally willing to simply follow the administration's lead on major controversies, the war, etc. These things may or may not be a problem for you, but if you want to understand current events and recent history, I find that the scope of the big American newsmagazines is way too narrow and too lacking in actual analysis.

I'd say the Economist or the New York Times are, in fact, reasonable starting points. You don't need to read every article. Start out by reading the big ones - the ones on the front page of the Times, or the ones that the Economist summarizes in the front of each issue. The Economist is particularly useful, inasmuch as it will give you both a broader view of what's going on in the world [sections are devoted to each continent], and also inasmuch as it takes neither the liberal/Democratic side or the conservative/Republican side in US issues, since it tends to be socially liberal and financial conservative. Their writers tend to have a sense of humor, and tend to give a fair amount of context. While the articles are denser than, say, Newsweek's, you'll learn more, and they're honestly not much harder to go through. Both the Economist and Times have relatively brief articles, with a bunch of longer and more in-depth ones in every issue.

Don't be afraid to look things up. Newspapers and newsmagazines generally give short backgrounds in their articles, but if you find yourself not understanding something, use google or wikipedia to get some background. Ask friends, and consider auditing courses on 20th century American and World history at a nearby university. It'll take some work, of course, but it may be worth it.
posted by ubersturm at 11:20 PM on July 24, 2005

The BBC News website is great in that it'll report a story - e.g. Tamil rebels recruit children - and then report background in a sidebar., such as Q&A: Sri Lanka Crisis. Of course they're not very American-centric, but if it's world events you're into.
posted by jamesonandwater at 5:47 AM on July 25, 2005

You might bookmark the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy; I disagree with some of their choices, but quibbling aside, it's a very useful collection of basic knowledge, and each section, e.g., World History since 1550, starts off with a few paragraphs of summary that will give you a basic picture.
posted by languagehat at 8:27 AM on July 25, 2005

I'm going to go in a different direction, and one that might be a little bit more work. I'm going to prescribe some politics texts that will help make you well-rounded and give you an intellectual framework. Ideally, you'd deal with these texts with a professor, but if you're motivated (and able to read critically) you can get the same benefit with a reading group or an online message board that deals with these texts. Also, most of these are public domain, so they're easy to find.

The Classics:
The Funeral Oration, Pericles
Gives a good picture of Greek ideals of equality, glory and service to the Polis. Beware, though, there was no conception of individual rights in Greece.
The Crito, Plato.
The most significant of the Socratic dialogues, with an interesting discussion of classical morality and the role of the state.
The Republic, Plato.
This is the single most significant political work in Western Civilization. While our system of government is now based more on Locke and Rousseau (more on them later), their writings were a reaction against Plato. Every political writer from Aristotle on out had to contend with The Republic. Of particular interest are the things that would be banned from the ideal state (art, music), the emphasis on different classes of people (gold, silver, bronze), internal equality of the sexes (especially in the military), and the arguments about the flaws with each system of government.
City of God, Augustine
This one takes a bit more work, and I recommend that you only read abridged versions (and look for further commentary for context). This text outlined the ideal for Christian theocracy, and during the Dark Ages through to Machiavelli, it was the singular text for good governance by Christian kings. (Obviously, the piety within the pages did not translate to piety of action in kings universally). But this is still a good book to have read if you ever enter into an argument about the role of government and religion.

Renaissance and Enlightenment
The Prince, Machiavelli
This book changed a lot. First off, it's a pretty direct refutation of The City of God, and was condemned as the work of a Devil worshipper at the time. Second off, it's the first practical political book. Up until this point, good governance was based on theory: the theory of wisdom or faith or what-have-you extrapolated into a view of what a proper state did. The Prince is based on power. How to get power, how to keep power, and what to do with power. One of the most important books ever.
The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbes was one of the original bad-asses of monarchy. His central postulate is that man's life, in nature, is pretty shitty. He views human nature as inherently evil, and says that life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." What's the answer? Well, God gives us Kings that they may rule us, and the stronger a king the better. People must give up freedom to benefit from security. Sound familiar? Bush would like Hobbes.
The Leviathan Hobbes refers to is his pupil, Charles II. Part of Hobbes' grim view of human beings comes from seeing Oliver Cromwell kick Charles I's ass and then run England into the ground.
The Second Treatise on Government, John Locke
Locke not only gave us the wild anti-Platonic claim that "there is nothing in the mind that is not first in the senses," but he wrote a document that became one of the fundamental pillars of the American constitution. The Second Treatise is a direct reaction against Hobbes, where Locke claims that people can be their own sovereigns if they cooperate voluntarily. He's a bit more of a libertarian than I like, but he was dealing with a time when public areas were being claimed by private individuals, and that was a good thing since there was plenty more land to grab from. In a finite system, some of his land theories fall apart.
The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Ok. If Locke was a reaction against Hobbes, and Rousseau is a reaction against Locke, where does that leave us? With the other part of the founding fathers' mentality. Rousseau emphasizes the social and the democratic where Locke recognized the individual. This is where we get the E Pluribus Unem stuff. Also of note is Rousseau's Origins of Inequality, which is fascinating and takes on Locke pretty hard. Rousseau ultimately suffers from the same deux es machina that Plato does with his Republic. The Republic is to be run by infinitely wise philosopher kings, but there's no mention of how we find those. Rousseau's society is run by The General Will, an infallable rope which binds common interests together. The way to tell whether or not something accords with the General Will? Well, it's easy in hindsight (if governed correctly, people will be happy and flourish. If governed incorrectly, they won't), but in practice it's a bit of a tautology.
The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
You say you wanna know what capitalism looks like? Smith can help. He's the original free-marketeer, and his ideas on the division of labor and the movement of capital are pretty spot-on. Something that people sometimes fail to note, nowever, is how much of a religious Scottsman he was, and how he thought that religious charity was wthe proper check on rampant capitalism. To read Smith is to read someone with endless faith in the goodness of human character.
On Liberty, JS Mill
Ol' John Stuart was a Brit writing about America, and giving his utlitarian argument for greater freedom. This is where most people get the idea of permisiveness to the point of licentiousnes, or the idea that coersion is only justifiable when someone is about to hurt someone else (that idea, as even Mill notes, was formed by other philosophers. Mill just gives it the best workout). I really recommend this book if you have any liberal leanings at all. It really helps to clarify your thoughts.

I can give you more to read from modern politics, but those are really the fundamentals. They won't necessarily help you remember who the President of Egypt is, but they'll give you a sturdy grounding for any discussion of politics or policy. If you want to talk about any of them, email me.
posted by klangklangston at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2005 [5 favorites]


If you want a gradual approach, I'll second the recommendation for the Economist; it's a British newsweekly that's been published since 1843, with excellent coverage of US and world events. Try skimming it; maybe just read the free articles they post on the web (updated Fridays). The nice thing about the Economist, vs. reading a daily newspaper or watching TV newscasts, is that it only comes out once a week, so you won't feel deluged with too much information.

If you want to spend some time reading books, caddis's "XXX for Dummies" recommendations are probably a good idea (I haven't read them myself). For a good grounding in US history, I'd recommend Samuel Eliot Morison's Oxford History of the American People, but you may find it a little long and dry.

A little while ago I put together a list of book recommendations for people who are interested in learning more about various subjects, but who only have time to read one book on each subject. You may or may not find it useful.
posted by russilwvong at 10:35 AM on July 25, 2005

The suggestions above (Newsweek, NYT, etc.) will work. Skim a foreign paper like the Guardian UK to see what people outside the US think. Also, read blogs. The really important thing here is that you pull from a few different sources and learn to take things with a grain of salt. For example, you might remember when Atkins of the Atkins diet died, and he weighed a lot at his death, so the stories siezed on the easy irony of that. Yet buried in the stories you could read that he'd been in a coma for weeks and put on the weight then, and the medical record had been quite unethically leaked by miffed vegetarians to smear him posthumously. Yet, "Atkins was Fatkins" was the meme. People are ready to believe what they want to believe, and newspapers are ready to sell it to them. Don't let yourself be programmed.

That's just staying current. Far more important is learning history, and I will buck the above trends and say that what you want is depth. You want a period of history to come alive so that you appreciate that the people in the past were living things. Once you get this, you will profit much (much) more from the general overviews because you will have a better sense of what lies behind those broad strokes of paint. Including the broad strokes being applied today.

I love little semi-pop-history books. Longitude, The Arcanum, The Fall of Constantinople, The Albigensian Crusades. A Short History of Nearly Everything. The Tunnels of Cu Chi. Tulipmania. The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Life in a Medieval City.

Try testing your mettle by reading Durant's History of Civilization. From that site, here's a good quote from Durant: "Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance."

You could also start with historical fiction like I, Claudius and the Aubrey/Maturin books. Actually I think these are good places to start, but I'm just an amateur here...
posted by fleacircus at 11:41 AM on July 25, 2005

a lot of people are recommending the economist, and i enjoy reading it from time to time, but be aware that it has a very strong free-market political bias. to the point where you can write your own articles by stringing together an intro, some background, an explanation of how the free market would resolve the issue, and a wry closing comment.

the guardian weekly is available in the usa - i'd suggest getting that. it's a collection of articles from the guardian and other papers over the last week. it also has a political bias, but at least it will be somewhat different to what you're normally used to in the american media (i'd argue that the economist typically isn't; it's just better written).

if you want to go hard left, try "le monde diplomatique" which has an english version. last time i mentioned it here i got an email thanking me for doing so, so someone must like it ;o)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:01 PM on July 25, 2005


Ok, I've come out of hiding. I just found out that you can't reply to your own post as "anonymous", but I feel so grateful and appreciative of all of your suggestions that I had to say thank you, thank you, thank you! I have printed out all of the comments and will start working through your wonderful suggestions.

I forgot to mention in my original post that I almost never watch TV. I've got an old beat-up one that hardly works, but haven't missed it much for just over a few years now.

As for my very own baby-politics, if you want to just lay it down, it's more left and liberal; but generally, I like calm, mature, non-petty, rational, yet hopeful methodologies for the sake of getting somewhere to benefit all, AVOIDING arguing about the same thing for decades.

I think one of the reasons I started eliminating "news" was that I didn't want to be "brainwashed". I didn't want to hear or read a piece that was funded by an entity that had a its own interests tied up in and mucking up the objectivity of the information. I felt that what I was being presented was a lot of stuff that I was going to have to "undo or unknow" later, so why not just shut it out now.

Well... can't stay in the dark forever.

Also, while I feel that I must be mostly American, having been born and reared, I do feel very international as well. SO, while I want to become aware, i very much wish to become aware in a specific way, meaning not-brainwashed, not-Ameri-centric, truthful, not-full of distracting rhetoric, and not-corrupt.

BASICALLY, I want to know the actual truth.

So, yes, the information sources with an international interest that aren't funded by Disney and the like are greatly appreciated;)

Thank you again.
posted by auntbee at 10:49 PM on July 26, 2005

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