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Innocent victims of American anger
Three shootings of young people who accidentally encountered strangers lead us to ask: Why?
Anger and suspicion burn hot in America these days. What is to blame? (Photo by Maxim Tajer on Unsplash)
You don’t want to make an innocent mistake in America these days, because it can be treacherous, as we’ve learned this month.
A cheerleader accidentally opens the wrong car door in a supermarket parking lot in Texas and is shot by the man inside. A 16-year-old looking for his little brothers is gunned down when he rings the wrong doorbell in Kansas City. A confused driver turns into the wrong driveway in a rural area of Upstate New York, and the homeowner shoots, killing a young woman passenger.
Is this rash of similar tragedies merely a result of more people carrying guns? Maybe it’s just because all those Starbucks have left us over-caffeinated. Or perhaps we have become so scared and angry, riled up by the nasty political currents of the time and egged on by fear-mongering commentators, that any unexpected intrusion leads us to imagine a threat.
Three incidents over a few days are less likely to be a trend than a coincidence, to be sure. Yet they square with other evidence that suggests we’ve become less trusting, more suspicious and downright hostile toward others — especially if we think those other people don’t agree with our politics. Why is that?
Americans are increasingly practicing what’s called political sorting — that is, moving to places where they think the political culture matches their own, or spending time only with their own political cohort. This not only makes the partisan division all the more potent, but also foreshadows it continuing for generations to come, a point underscored by new survey findings: One in four high school seniors passed up a college choice because they don’t like the politics of the state where the college is located. And while Democrats’ views of Republicans, and Republicans’ opinions of Democrats, used to be fairly benign, that is no longer so: In the 1990s, only about 16 percent in each party held a “very unfavorable” view of the other — but by two years ago, a majority of each party had that harsh opinion.
Perhaps that political divide is one reason that we are no longer, in fact, a trusting people: Pew Research found three years ago that only 42 percent of Americans think other people “try to help others,” compared to 57 percent who believe others usually “just look out for themselves.”
That’s not what has traditionally been the reputation of Americans around the world, nor has it been our self-image. The English author Charles Dickens visited the United States in the 1840s, and described its citizens as “friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind.” A half-century later, Rudyard Kipling thought Americans “much too nice” to ever confront on a battlefield. And we embraced that identity: Walt Whitman figured his fellow citizens to be “the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world.”
In her 2017 book American Niceness: A Cultural History, University at Buffalo professor Carrie Tirado Bramen noted those and other historic manifestations of domestic goodwill, and warned that these days, by contrast, “cruelty and cavalier meanness seem increasingly common.” Note that her assessment came before one state after another began to pass legislation targeting LGBTQ people, before partisanship took over the last round of school board elections and before the latest outbreak of anti-Asian sentiment, which has emerged as politicians’ rhetoric about China has grown more bellicose.
Hostility is often is a result of fear, and it’s undeniable that Americans are more fearful than they’ve been in recent years. Last month, Gallup reported that a greater percentage of people are worried personally “a great deal” about crime and violence than at any time since 2001. Fear isn’t always rational, of course: The actual incidence of crime has risen and fallen in those years, and crime is a lot lower now than it was when Gallup began tracking the question.
Crime was actually falling when Donald Trump warned memorably in his 2017 inaugural of “American carnage,” a trend that continued through 2018. Crime grew over the next two years, and through the pandemic many crime categories continued to edge up, though it varies by city and region. Last week, House Republicans, eager to blame Democrats for crime, staged a field hearing in New York City aimed at spotlighting crime in the city — where, incidentally, the homicide rate is less than one-third what it was in the 1990s. The hearing prompted an expert to note that a person is less likely to be killed or have their car stolen in Manhattan than in Columbus, Ohio, the hometown of the committee chair, Rep. Jim Jordan. One of the nation’s leading analysts of crime statistics, Barry Latzer, an emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, declared earlier this year that “we’re not in the midst of a protracted crime boom.”
But repetition of a message tends to embed it in our minds, and the repeated warnings of Trump and Fox News — the media giant that laid the groundwork for his political success — tells us that we are a nation awash in crime. Why would Fox News want to sell that message? Media Matters, a left-leaning watchdog group, tracked Fox News coverage of crime during the 2022 midterm campaigns, and noted that the number of stories about crime decreased dramatically right after the election. That’s an echo of 2018, when Fox’s coverage of “caravans” of immigrants from Latin America toward the U.S. border decreased just after the voting. Fear motivates voters, and Fox’s stated agenda is to slant the news to please conservatives — which will yield more votes for Republicans.
Fox dominates the cable news market, with more viewers during a typical weekday primetime slot than MSNBC and CNN combined. That makes its coverage a key contributor to the national debate. And a valid argument could be made that Tucker Carlson, whose 3 million nightly viewers make him the most-watched figure on cable, is the most influential single person in America. For Carlson, there’s a single message behind every story.
“Every night, that show teaches fear and loathing,” Nick Confessore, an investigative reporter who studied five years of Carlson’s show for The New York Times, told PBS NewsHour last year. “He may claim to be a person who opposes racism and prejudice, but what the show tells you every night is to be afraid — to be afraid of people who are in the street asking for police officers not to shoot Black people, be afraid of Afghan refugees who helped us in the war who are coming over here now, be afraid of Dr. Fauci, and to be afraid of immigration in general, which he posits is part of a cabal, a plot to destroy Western civilization.”
If you’ve paid attention to the news lately anywhere other than on Fox, you know that Fox agreed this week to pay about three-quarters of a billion dollars to settle a libel suit in which it was proven to a court that Carlson and other Fox hosts had repeatedly and knowingly lied — specifically, about the notion that Trump was cheated out of re-election by forces including voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems. The breadth of Fox’s lies backing Trump’s balderdash is breathtaking — a scale of perfidy still unknown to Fox viewers, unfortunately, since the channel doesn’t cover its own offenses. It clarifies the ethical standard of Fox, namely, that making money by maintaining its audience is the paramount goal, rather than truth-telling.
The Dominion lawsuit underscores the fact that Fox manufactures fear. And since four out of five Fox viewers voted for Trump, it is clear that the Fox-generated fear pays dividends for the Republican party.
Two years ago, the political journalist Kevin Drum set out to learn what lay behind what he called “America’s rising rage.” He emerged with a persuasive article in Mother Jones concluding that the blame belongs, more than anything else, to Fox News. While noting many other factors affecting society’s decline in trust and civility — including recent history cited in The UPSTATE AMERICAN last week — Drum systematically analyzed the data to point a finger to the right’s favorite media source. “Fox News is a grinding, daily cesspool of white grievance, mistrust of deep-state government, and a belief that liberals are literally trying to destroy the country out of sheer malice,” he concluded.
It's not just the primetime hosts — Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham — who give Fox its flavor. The supposedly independent news team is no less culpable of journalistic offenses because its story choices, in both what it chooses to cover and what it ignores, make the same case, though with greater subtlety.
Sadly, the huge verdict against Fox this week will likely change little – other than forcing Fox to pay a higher premium for its libel insurance, if it can find any company foolish enough to underwrite it now. There’s no penalty to being proven a liar if the audience for your lies steadfastly prefers to believe you.
But while the law has validated Dominion Voting Systems’ particular status as a victim of Fox lies, it is society as a whole that is truly harmed by the daily seepage of Fox bile. We can’t say with certainty that Fox’s degradation of American civility led to the shootings of innocent young people this month — that is, that Payton Washington, 18, and Ralph Yarl, 16, and Kaylin Gillis, who was 20, were in fact victims of Fox News. What we can say is that the tragedies that struck them and their loved ones are a result of a society that is more angry and suspicious than it has ever been before — and that anger and suspicion are, shamefully, the priority products of Fox News.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
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 illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Austin, Tex. (Corpus Christi Caller Times, caller.com)
Muncie, Ind. (Star Press, thestarpress.com)
West Nyack, N.Y. (Journal News, lohud.com)
Pierre, S.D. (Sioux Falls Argus Leader, aberdeennews.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Republican legislators rein in local government
The Republican majority in the Texas House has pushed through a so-called “preemption bill,” which would take away key elements of the power of local governments across the state. According to reporting by John C. Moritz in the Corpus Christi Caller Times, sponsors said the bill would enable business to expand across Texas without worrying about conflicting local ordinances. But Democrats noted that it would, for example, take away worker protection measures in some localities. The Texas Municipal League said the bill would throw countless local ordinances into limbo, lead to years of litigation and “dramatically scale back 110 years of Texas home rule city authority.”
Opioid use disorder treatment may benefit from telehealth
Indiana has the 13th-highest death rate for opioid use disorder among the states, but treatment is sometimes hard to find, in part because 62 of the state’s 92 counties have large rural areas. Now, according to reporting by Ball State University student Lexi Esterle in the Star News, proposed changes to federal Telehealth regulations could make it easier for OUD patients to get help. The change would allow healthcare providers to prescribe medication for treatment without seeing the patient in person — a change authorized at the beginning of the pandemic, which the Biden administration wants to make permanent. “There are transportation issues. There are the shortages of health providers or specialists in rural areas. So those services could be provided via telehealth to rural communities,” one expert told the reporter.
Yogurt cups turn to sculpture: now that’s recycling
More than 10 million tons of plastics are dumped into oceans every year. A pair of sculptors from Rockland County, N.Y., have their own solution to that: They have recycled their plastic waste into sculptures, now on display at the Rockland Center for the Arts. Michelle Falkenstein reports in lohud.com that sculptor Poramit Thantapalit, who came to the U.S. from Thailand almost three decades ago, eats a cup of yogurt nearly every day, and for the past 10 years, he’s been saving the small plastic containers, along with his other plastic household waste, and repurposing it as art. For an installation titled “Coral Cloud,” Thantapalit cut up some of these yogurt cups, along with milk jugs and other white plastic containers, and connected them with wires and staples. Suspended from the ceiling, this swirling sheet of loops retains the marks of its original materials, with words like “probiotic” still visible on the circular strips of plastic. “An individual person has a lot of waste already,” the sculptor said. “This is my waste for 10 years. People have to realize what they are using.”
Ignoring overwhelming opposition, board imposes new social studies curriculum
Despite opposition from most state educators and the state’s nine indigenous tribes, the South Dakota Board of Education Standards approved a new public school social studies curriculum this week — one that was shaped by Hillsdale College, a politically-active evangelical Christian school in Illinois. Critics said the new curriculum isn’t age-appropriate and pays too little attention to the state’s indigenous history, and that it will be costly for schools and teachers. Of the 1,295 comments received by the panel, 1,137 were opposed, but the proposal was supported by Gov. Kristi Noem, who has been touted as a potential national Republican candidate. Morgan Matzen reports in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that seconds after the board passed the standards, Noem issued a statement bragging that South Dakota’s students will be taught the “best social studies education in the country, one that is a true accounting of our history.”
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