Fighting reality: Is there a wolf on our horizon?

Bias and fear may cloud our ability to see a real threat to American democracy

Sometimes our eyes deceive us; other times, though, it’s hard to admit to what we see.

One morning as my dog and I were on our early morning amble, back when we lived deep in the country, I squinted across a meadow and thought I saw a wolf on the horizon. There are no wolves in Upstate New York. I know that to be true, but humans sometimes aren’t good at recognizing reality – that reality being, in this case, a coyote. They’re sociable creatures, and quite unlikely to attack if you’re bigger than a rabbit. 

I didn’t stop to consider that; no, I turned and ran. My dog followed, of course.

At the nearest good-sized tree, I leapt for a branch just overhead and hauled myself up. This left my loyal but unobservant dog on the ground, staring curiously up the trunk at me. This was untenable – the wolf is going to come eat my dog! – so I dropped out of the tree and tore back toward our house, with my dog bounding obliviously ahead, no doubt imagining breakfast.

Once I caught my breath at home, I felt foolish. Coyotes weren’t unexpected in our parts – we could hear their barking at night – while wolves disappeared from the Northeast in the 19th century.1 But beyond that slip into unreality, this was true, too: As my dog and I fled toward our cabin, I had been quite comfortable turning my back on what I thought was imminent danger.

It reminded me of the first time I had found myself confronting barracudas while snorkeling in the Caribbean. Barracudas don’t actually attack swimmers, but I didn’t know that then, and the fang-like teeth and ominous stare terrified me. Yet when I poked my head above water, I saw only a gorgeous day. Who could care about the terror lurking below the surface?

We all find it easy to delude ourselves in at least two circumstances: when fright leaves us unable to cope with reality, or when that reality conflicts with our biases. I’ve experienced both, and I’m in the midst of a big disconnect right now – about which, more in a moment.

But about bias: We all have it, bigtime. My own judgment surely is impaired by the comfort of my experience. I mean, as a white male born in mid-20th century America, I was launched with a better shot at a good life than most people. So I tend to expect things to turn out all right, because they generally always have. My bias is toward optimism.

This has sometimes rendered me a serial delusionist. When Britain yielded Hong Kong to China in 1997, I confidently asserted – based mainly on a single visit to Asia the year before – that Hong Kong’s democracy was safe. “Hong Kong will do more to change China than China will change Hong Kong,” I said smugly to anybody who would listen. The closing this week of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper surely erased any lingering fantasy that civil liberties might survive in territory under Beijing’s control. 

At about that same time as my Hong Kong myopia surfaced, I noted the rise of the internet and recognized that it could have an impact on newspapers, where I made my career. “I’d say we’re facing an awkward five-year transition, or maybe even a decade,” I told community audiences. A quarter-century later, that “transition” has cut newsroom employment in half nationally, and hundreds of newspapers have closed, with no sign that the challenge to so-called “legacy media” will recede. Let’s generously say that my prediction was an understatement based on a bias toward optimism.

Of course, some things are by their nature hard to believe, biases aside – like the World Trade Center collapsing, or the Marine Band playing “Hail to the Chief” for an egomaniacal reality TV star. Yet sometimes we turn away even when reality smacks us in the face.

Take man-made climate change, for example. The western United States is gripped by potentially the worst drought in 1,200 years, foreshadowing another summer of wildfires and dry creek beds. Globally, the disaster is apparent in rising oceans and expanding deserts. The draft of a new United Nations report, leaked to the media this week, warns of a disastrous future of hunger, drought and disease.2 

Yet millions of Americans still don’t believe it — and a majority of Republicans who serve in the U.S. House and Senate still refuse to acknowledge the reality of human-caused climate change, leaving us marching toward global climate disaster. 3

Hostility to what’s plain to see isn’t new. Adolf Hitler rose to power starting a century ago without concealing his ruthlessness. He capitalized on Germans’ sense of economic peril in the aftermath of World War I and the anti-Semitism that was endemic to German society. Fear and bias shut down the ability of Germans to choose a sensible alternative to the most evil leader in history.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend,” the great 20th-century Canadian author Robertson Davies wrote in his first novel.4 What we cannot imagine is usually invisible to us.

So it’s no wonder that the reality of a great threat to our nation is hard for most Americans to recognize – raised, as we were, on the promise of democracy’s fundamental strength, and experienced only in a world that our nation dominated. That threat, however, was terrifyingly articulated in a New York Times column this month by Michelle Goldberg, a trenchant observer of reality: “We are in the eye of the storm of American democratic collapse,” she wrote. “We may be living through a brief interregnum before American democracy is strangled for a generation.” 5

I’m afraid that’s not overstatement; it is, rather, a reality that many of us cannot imagine. I struggle to accept what Goldberg and other smart political analysts are saying, in no small part because of my bias toward optimism. But facts suggest we all need to recognize what’s at stake – which is why I’ve turned to this topic today, when I’d rather be writing about something other than politics.

Anti-democratic elements are a part of our political system by design anyway – namely, the electoral college and the equal representation of each state in the Senate, both of which favor less populous states. In both cases, my vote counted for more when I lived in South Dakota than it does now that I’m a New Yorker. And with the filibuster intact, the 50 Republican senators have clout equal to the 50 Democrats, though the Republicans represent 41.5 million fewer people.6

On top of that, though, here’s what is different now than ever before: One of the two major political parties is openly trying to destroy faith in our democracy. The Republican Party is doing precisely that by embracing the flat-out lie that the last presidential election was stolen. Egged on by their leaders, 70 percent of Republicans still believe that Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the November election, despite the absence of any evidence to support that view. 7

Meanwhile, in one state after another, Republican legislators and governors are trying to suppress voting based on the false premise that vote fraud is a crisis in need of a solution. Millions of Americans are likely to be disenfranchised, but they won’t realize it until they try to vote next year. Most of them will be Democrat-leaning voters, by design of those Republican legislators.

Nor does the Republican party these days make much of a pretense of caring about the actual work of government. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, said last month.8 You might imagine that the nation’s top Republican official would focus on stopping climate change, reducing economic disparities, improving healthcare or easing international tensions. No, he just wants to return the Trump cult to power.

Nor are McConnell and his colleagues willing to investigate the attempted coup d’etat of Jan. 6, when a defeated president for the first time in our history tried to hold onto power rather than respect the will of voters. Nothing to see here, folks – let’s move along now.

Schooled as a journalist on the importance of fairness and balance in reporting, and predisposed to optimism, I’ve found it hard to accept what seems to be an emerging and inescapable reality: that one of our two major political parties is trying to subvert democracy, and that effort has a good chance of success. America as we have known it is at risk.

It’s quite easy to look away from this, and imagine that it’s not true. And maybe it’s like the coyote, or the barracuda: something less dangerous than what my eyes are telling me. Tell me, please, if you think my conclusion is wrong.

But at the moment, I think there’s a wolf lurking on the horizon – and that, friends, is a reality that is genuinely terrifying.

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Dispatches from our common ground *

Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see. 

This week, we share dispatches from:

  • Tulsa, Okla. (Tulsa World,

  • Richmond, Va. (Richmond Times-Dispatch,

  • Twin Falls, Idaho (Twin Falls Times-News,

  • St. Louis, Mo. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!

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Museum on indigenous nation’s land to emphasize link to nature

Here’s something you didn’t know: Tulsa is home to a museum that is said to be the largest collection of American art and history that isn’t held by a government. Now the Gilcrease Museum plans a new 83,500-square-foot facility on land that is within the boundaries of the Osage Nation. According to reporting by James D. Watts Jr. in the Tulsa World, the facility will be bathed in earth tones and will enable a more nuanced presentation of 350 years of American art and culture.


Bank robbery case tests constitutionality of “geofence” warrants

For law enforcement, the digital footprints we leave can be valuable crime-fighting tools. Now a bank robbery prosecution is presenting the first federal court test case of whether so-called “geofence” warrants violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. As Frank Green reports in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, police nationwide are using Google location records obtained by warrants to find suspects who were in the vicinity of crimes when they were committed. Prosecutors say “Google was a witness” to the bank robbery two years ago, and want to use that digital testimony; defense lawyers describe the warrant as “a dragnet of epic proportion… a fishing expedition.” Prediction: We’ll hear about this, ultimately, from the Supreme Court.


Drought and heat leave irrigation companies worried

Eighty percent of Idaho is experiencing drought, and the weather forecast for coming days is for temperatures up to 112 degrees. It’s the third-driest year on record in the area, and most farmers don’t have irrigation water left, according to reporting by Michel Matthews is the Times-News of Twin Falls. Unless there’s a winter of heavy snowfall, one expert told the newspaper, next year will be “very scary.”


Millions in federal aid at risk as legislators weigh pollution control, family planning

Because of high ozone levels, the federal government requires auto emission testing in the St. Louis metropolitan area, we learn from reporting by Kurt Erickson in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This sticks in the craw of some Republican state legislators, who have vowed for years to bar the testing in suburban areas — and who have pushed through a bill now on the governor’s desk to do just that. But the Environmental Protection Agency is warning that stopping the testing could cost the state federal highway aid, which has been estimated to total $52 million a year. “I’m ready to call their bluff,” one legislator said. Meanwhile, conservative Republican legislators also are pushing separate restrictions on family planning for poor people that could also put millions of federal Medicaid dollars at risk. Just how far the right-wing legislators will go, with tens of millions of tax dollars at stake, remains to be seen.

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ENDNOTE 06.26.21

A great benefit of retirement, I have learned in these first four months, is not that you’re less busy — because that’s (so far) not at all true. What’s wonderful is the way leaving your previous work behind draws your attention instead to experiences that are both sweeter and more immediate. I’m cooking, gardening, taking time to talk with people and, yes, writing. Truth be told, the freedom of decision-making about one’s personal agenda is sometimes daunting.

In the moment, though, there simply aren’t enough hours. We’re harvesting lettuce and rhubarb, we’re weeding and watering and hauling dirt, and we’re trying to be patient as the pollinator garden begins to work its magic. Our milkweed is just blossoming, so we await the promise of scads butterflies mingling with the visiting hummingbirds. Those are not the visitors I ever saw during the 18 years that I occupied a glass box in the middle of a newsroom. I loved that work in the box, mind you, but this — well, this is glorious.

A silver spotted skipper (I believe) finds a perch on some of our milkweed. Maybe more will soon follow?

I hope you’re getting to experience some of the same joy of this season in your own personal Upstate, wherever you may find it. Thank you for taking time from that to read The Upstate American.

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* Our common ground is America. Thank you for standing with me here.

- Rex Smith


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