The Great American Selfie is an image that asks, “Who have we become?” Yet it’s more than the collective imagery of self-absorbed citizens. According to a new poll out this week by The Pearson Institute/AP-NORC, Americans “across the political spectrum say misinformation is increasing political extremism and hate crimes… leading to more extreme political views and behaviors based on race, religion or gender.”
Max Fisher in his book “The Chaos Machine” claims that “The very structure of social media encourages polarization.” The irony of a polarized American landscape is that 80% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans agree that “misinformation increases extreme political views,” according to the AP/NORC poll.
Unfortunately, the daily “breaking news” makes this case over and over again. This week Nury Martinez, president of the LA City Council, was caught in leaked audio disparaging gays, indigenous immigrants, African Americans, and calling a fellow council member’s adopted black son the Spanish equivalent of “a little monkey.” The essence of her crude almost gang-like comments centered on the Latino versus Black civil wars, but she was also unsparing of Jews and the LGBTQ community. Martinez rejected the credibility of one official by saying “(expletive)” that guy… He’s with the Blacks.”
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote this week of Martinez and the two other council members in the audio: “Their first assumption was that America is divided into monolithic racial blocks. The world they take for granted is not a world of persons; it’s a world of rigid racial categories,” clearly suggesting systemic racism.
It gets worse. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has demonstrated that extreme media can be even more sickening. In the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting 26 people were killed, 20 were children between the ages of 6 and 7. As a grandfather of children these ages, this fact sickens me. Mr. Jones has pleaded guilty to telling his Infowars tribe that it was all fake news, that the shooting was a fictional drama, that the dead children were “crisis actors.” Parents of the children have been disparaged in social media and physically threatened by Jones’s Infowars zealots. This week a Connecticut jury found him guilty in a defamation lawsuit and awarded Sandy Hook families $968 million. The next day he joked about it all on his Infowars program.
The breaking bad news is pervasive. The AP reported this week that “56 police officers have been killed by gunfire so far this year – 14% more than last year and 45% ahead of the 2020 pace.”
Mass shootings have become the new normal in America. According to the Gun Violence Archive, by August of this year more than 300 mass shootings (10 or more people killed or wounded) had occurred in the U.S. These numbers of course don’t include other acts of gun violence. What happened in Uvalde, Texas is just another example of the unspeakable slaughter of school children too often occurring in these mass shootings.
On Jan. 6, 2021, we experienced one of the more dreadful and shocking events in the history of our democracy, the assault on and desecration of the U.S. Capitol. As of September 2022, more than 920 people have been charged in the insurrection, some even with seditious conspiracy. The blame game of who is ultimately responsible for this reprehensible act is for the courts to decide, but the physical violence against the Capitol, the Capitol police, and the invectives to hang the vice president of the United States and shoot the speaker of the house were until recently deemed to be behaviors beyond the pale. Now social media surges with this kind of extended invective.
I was struck the other day by a commentator who alluded to former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, famous for his personality and bipartisan bonhomie, who famously said, “All politics are local.” Yet this commentator argued that this is no longer the case. “All politics now are national.” Regardless of important local issues people today seem more interested in voting according to Democratic or Republican dogma, talking points, litmus tests.
As the mid-term elections approach, campaign ads seem full of disparaging character assassinations and name-calling of opponents rather than what candidates specifically intend to do to improve our nation.
Even if you’re running for dog catcher, folks want to know if you are for or against abortion, renewable energy, gun controls, climate change, immigration, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and do you believe the election was stolen, yes or no. And social media inflames these oftentimes childish binary sorts of litmus tests. For me it conjures up images of lemmings, leaping into vacuous ideological valleys.
I know I’m not the only one who regrets what I think we’ve become. But these symptoms of a nation breaking bad ought to disturb us enough to say “enough!” But that takes intentional engagement and the courage and motivation to make America admired and respected again.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.