In the past year, despite hundreds of people asking me, I’m proud to say that I’ve managed to avoid all temptation to write an article about Donald Trump or the slow motion, 20-car pileup that is this year’s US presidential election.
Before, I stayed out of the gravitational pull of Trump’s narcissistic publicity machine for a few reasons:
- There’s already so much stuff out there about him and how terrifying he is as a presidential candidate, I never felt like there was anything I could say that wasn’t already being said by somebody smarter or more informed than me.
- The guy doesn’t need any more attention or publicity. Seriously, fuck him. But most importantly:
- Trump is an effect, not a cause. You don’t get a major party nomination off your own merits; you get there because you’re able to represent and channel millions of people’s thoughts and feelings. There is a putrid stench fermenting just beneath the surface of 21st-century society, and it birthed Trump, not the other way around. Nothing about the man himself is particularly unique or noteworthy, in my opinion.1
So I just avoided the topic altogether. I try to stay away from politics on this site and write about more universal themes.
But then the other night, I dabbled in watching the Republican National Convention the same way a child might dabble with trying out mom’s cigarettes or a college girlfriend might dabble in trying out anal sex — with an innocent curiosity that was quickly overwhelmed by shock, horror, and intense pain.
What struck me the most was this constant narrative that somehow the world has become this insane and dangerous place and we need somebody to take charge and make everything “safe” and “secure” for us again. At one point there was even a gigantic projection of the words, “Make America Safe Again” at the back of the stage.
Safe from what?
Violent crime is at an all-time low, international wars are at an all-time low, there have been precipitous drops in domestic violence, steady declines in drunk driving-related deaths, death from infectious diseases and a rock-bottom child mortality rate. You’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than by a terrorist attack.
So, I’m seriously asking, keep us safe from what?
I’m not just shitting on Republicans here, either. This sense of insecurity seems to be universal, even if couched in different language. Hillary has talked about the need to escalate the war on terror in order to protect us — an oxymoron for anyone who has been awake the last 15 years.2 In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Lesley Stahl, while interviewing Trump and Mike Pence, said, “I don’t remember the last time we’ve seen a world in this much chaos,” to which both candidates quickly agreed.
So wait, just in my lifetime, I’ve seen: two foreign invasions and four wars, half a dozen Middle Eastern governments toppled, 9/11, two stock market crashes and the worst global recession in the last 85 years, a genocide in Europe, the Berlin wall falling, the end of the Soviet bloc, and one OJ Simpson car chase — yet these people think now is the most chaotic and dangerous time in recent memory?
And this is coming from one of the highest profile journalists on the planet.
It seems these days that there is this omnipresent feeling that the world is going fucking crazy. Yet, by every objective measurement, it’s arguably the sanest and safest it’s been in recorded history.3
Because, like you, like seemingly everybody, I have also felt as though the world is spinning out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m exhausted from all the stories of shootings and attacks and bombs and the constant stream of awful stuff that is happening out there. I, too, feel desensitized and dejected from the seemingly constant carnage raging across the planet.
And because this feeling is new and unique to me, my first assumption is that the world must be more fucked than it’s ever been before. After all, I never felt this way 10 years ago or 20 years ago. So things must be worse, right?
But the world isn’t worse. It’s just that we’re more aware of all of the bad things than ever before. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it: “The violence is not new; it’s the cameras that are new.”
Cameras, the internet, and most importantly, social media. This is what’s new. This is what’s different. How we’re getting information, what information is reaching us, and most importantly, what information and views we are most rewarded for sharing.
In the attention economy, people are rewarded for extremism. They are rewarded for indulging their worst biases and stoking other people’s worst fears. They are rewarded for portraying the world as a place that is burning to the ground, whether it’s because of gay marriage, or police violence, or Islamic terrorism, or low interest rates. The internet has generated a platform where apocalyptic beliefs are celebrated and spread, and moderation and reason is something that becomes too arduous and boring to stand.
And this constant awareness of every fault and flaw of our humanity, combined with an inundation of doomsayers and narcissistic nihilists commanding our attention space, is what is causing this constant feeling of a chaotic and insecure world that doesn’t actually exist.
And then: it’s this feeling that is the cause of the renewed xenophobia and nationalism across the western world. It’s this feeling of insecurity and chaos that is igniting the platforms of divisive strong-men like Trump, Erdogan, and Putin. It’s this feeling that has consumed the consciousness of millions of people, and caused them to look at their country through the lens of a fun-house mirror: exaggerating all that is wrong and minimizing all that is right.
And this is what disturbs me: the fact that people today, despite living with more safety and wealth and access to information than anyone in human history, feel as though the world is going crazy and something drastic must be changed.
But really it’s not just them. It’s us. We are going crazy. Each one of us, individually, capsized in the flood of negativity, we are ready to burn down the very structures on which the most successful civilizations in human history have been built.
But why? How did this happen? And how can we stop it?
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The Hidden Dangers of a ‘Global Community’
By now, we’re all familiar with the tech world circle-jerk about how we’re connecting the planet and the world is getting smaller and we’re all becoming one big kumbaya global community and how this is amazing because starving babies in Mozambique and Suriname can each have their own iPad, and blah, blah, blah, the internet is cool.
And don’t get me wrong, the rise of the internet and social media has accelerated social progress in many ways. It’s helped herald a breakthrough in LGBT rights, it’s raised awareness about discrimination against women and minorities, and fomented the populist overthrow of a number of repressive governments worldwide.4
In one sense, we are becoming a global community by the sheer fact that so much information can be instantly connected to everyone else across the globe. And one benefit of this connectivity that we’ve seen is that if a black man is unjustly killed in Baltimore or if a rapist gets off with no punishment in Ohio, activists and concerned citizens can quickly mobilize to spread the word and hold the appropriate authorities accountable for change.
The fuel of this mobilization, of course, is outrage.
Outrageous news and information spread faster and further than any other form of information, dominating our daily attention. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, we become aware of some of the grossest injustices in our society as soon as they happen. On the other hand, all we hear about are the grossest injustices in our society as soon as they happen.
I don’t know the name of the governor of my state, but I know all about the false claims and lies of the Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign. I couldn’t tell you what the latest breakthrough in cancer research is or what the education system in my community is doing to improve life here, but I know what the Orlando shooter’s neighbors and wife thought about him. I couldn’t tell you who is running for congress in my district, but I do know that some gun rights activist in Texas murdered two of her own daughters in the street over a petty family argument.
This is our brave new world. When all information is freely available at the click of a mouse, our attention naturally nosedives into the sickest and most grotesque we can find. And the sickest and most grotesque similarly finds its way to the top of the nation’s consciousness, dominating our attention and the news cycle, dividing and recruiting us into its ever more polarized camps.
We become only exposed to the most extreme negative aspects of certain groups of people, giving us a skewed view of how other people in the world really think, act, and live. When we are exposed to police, we only see the worst 0.1% of police. When we are exposed to poor African Americans, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1% of poor African Americans. When we’re exposed to Muslim immigrants, we only hear about the worst 0.1% of Muslim immigrants. When we are exposed to chauvinist, shitty white men, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1%, and when we’re exposed to angry and entitled social justice warriors, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1%.
As a result, it feels as though everyone is an angry fucking extremist and is full of hate and violence and the world is coming undone thread by thread, when the truth is that most of the population occupies a silent middle ground and is actually probably not in so much disagreement with one another.5
We demonize each other. We judge groups of people by their weakest and most depraved members. And to protect ourselves from the overreaching judgments of others, we consolidate into our own clans and tribes, we take refuge in our own precious identity politics and we buy more and more into a worldview that is disconnected from cold data and hard facts.
It’s for this reason that I’ve started to remove myself from digesting news and information through social media. I’ve refrained from the small petty arguments and “gotcha” pieces and “Ohmigerd, did you see what this random guy in California did?”
The only way to beat the attention economy is to opt out of it. This is no longer about wasting time on Pokemon Go or refreshing Facebook 12 times a day. It’s no longer about email killing productivity at work or kids not being able to pay attention at school. It’s now creeping into our political system, and I fear there could be irreparable damage done to it.
Instead, I am attempting to go back to learning about the world only through long-form journalism that has been thoroughly researched and vetted before being published. I’m exercising the muscles in my brain responsible for focus, depth, and concentration. I’m stretching out my logic, trying to challenge my own beliefs and always holding on to a healthy amount of doubt.
Is this far less convenient and way more time consuming? Yes, it is. Does it make me feel like a cranky old man to all my friends? Yeah, it does.
But it’s the only way.
It’s the only way I can prevent myself from going crazy, to keep myself tethered to reality as it is, not to reality how it feels.
Freedom is not free
There’s a common saying in the US that “Freedom is not free.” The saying is usually used in reference to the wars fought and won (or lost) to protect the values of the country. It’s a way of reminding people that, hey, this didn’t just magically happen; thousands of people were killed and/or died for us to sit here and sip over-priced mocha frappuccinos and say whatever the fuck we want.
And it’s true.6
The idea is that the basic human rights we enjoy — free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — were earned through the sacrifice against some external force, some evil threat.
But people have seemed to conveniently forget that freedom is earned through internal sacrifices as well. Freedom can only exist when you are willing to tolerate views that oppose your own, when you’re willing to give up some of your desires for the sake of a safe and healthy community, when you’re willing to compromise and accept that sometimes things don’t go your way and that’s fine.
In a weird sense, true freedom doesn’t exist. Because the only way for human rights to persist is for everyone to collectively agree to accept that things don’t have to go their way 100% of the time.
But the last couple decades, I fear that people have confused freedom with a lack of discomfort. They have forgotten about that necessary internal struggle.
They want a freedom to express themselves but they don’t want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way. They want a freedom to enterprise but they don’t want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes it possible. They want a freedom to elect representatives to government but they don’t want to compromise when they’re on the losing side.
A free and functioning democracy demands a populace that is able to sustain discomfort, that is able to tolerate dissatisfaction, that is able to be charitable and forgiving of groups whose views stand in contrast to one’s own, and most importantly, that is able to remain unswayed in the face of some violent threat.
What I fear we’re seeing now is a loss of that ability to handle discomfort and dissatisfaction. We’re seeing a lazy entitlement wash over the world where everyone feels as though they deserve what they want from their government the second they want it, without thought of repercussions or the rest of the population.
Or as one Reddit comment sadly put it recently, “It seems like people don’t actually want democracy anymore, they want a dictator who agrees with them.”
But this constant state of mild dissatisfaction — this is what freedom actually tastes like. And if people continue to lose their ability to stomach it, then I fear one day it will be gone.
- No, a rich, narcissistic, opportunistic demagogue seeking power through a message of fear and hate is sadly not unique or noteworthy in politics.↵
- She’s also called for a new “Manhattan Project” to protect us from cyber-terrorism — oh, and to give the government the ability to decode any encryption anywhere in the world.↵
- I recommend this book in like every article, but fuck it, here it is again. Read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for an exhaustive 800-page breakdown of why we’re very likely living in the least violent and most peaceful time in human history.↵
- Don’t get too excited, the new governments that replaced them weren’t exactly any better.↵
- I am regularly surprised (and relieved) to see that Obama’s approval rating continues to rest above 50%, an extremely high mark for an exiting president, despite all of the shit that has been shoveled onto him the past eight years.↵
- To an extent. The phrase has been employed in my lifetime to justify the interventions in the Middle East and I still have a hard time seeing how Saddam Hussein threatened my ability to blog. But whatever…↵