“We’re doomed,” said my wife, looking at the much discussed photo of Kim Kardashian standing next to the president in the Oval Office.
“Is there something worse than ‘doomed?'” I asked, pointing to an image of Dennis Rodman with Kim Jong Un over an article speculating about Rodman’s possible role in the upcoming summit in Singapore.
Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that the reality TV star in the first photo (not the president, but the one standing next to him) was actually at the White House to promote a worthy cause. As for the second picture, maybe it takes a madman to understand a madman. But in a running mudslinging contest like the one that so often engages the public discourse in our time, we all too rarely slow down long enough to consider what we’re actually slinging or if it lands anywhere near the target. Everything becomes a weapon in the primitive, tribal conflict which we attempt to rationalize as a political contest.
In an argumentum ad hominem, a fallacious attack is made on the character or motives of an individual rather than the point that person is trying to make. This type of fallacy, like so many others, is ridiculously easy to launch in our matrix of constant connectivity. Fallacious arguments begin with childhood taunts on the playground when we don’t know any better, but they persist well past the time when we should, often for the rest of our lives, and now leveraged by technology.
In practice, since our illogical fantasies are more or less equally arrayed under diametrically opposed political banners, things tend to work themselves out over time, as the pendulum of public opinion swings back and forth from one turning to the next. But not all fantasies are harmless.
If you watch corporate news or visit any number of websites, it’s hard to avoid an impending sense of doom. The competition for our attention is ruthless. We are presented with crime and misfortune, morning, noon and night. Breaking news is always urgent. There is little escape in alternative news, which peddles conspiracy and apocalypse while thousands of people prep for the end of civilization itself.
Meanwhile, and contrary to the most popular narratives, across the globe life continues to improve for humanity according to just about every metric that we use to measure human progress. Yet in America, suicide rates have increased an average of 30% over the last two decades, and some sources say that depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels among teenagers.
There is nothing more profitable, or more useful for expediting control, than fear. It has always been so. When the Nazis burned the Reichstag in 1933, they blamed it on a Dutch communist. Adolf Hitler claimed that the fire was a “sign from God,” and this event allowed the Nazis to assume emergency powers to defend the nation against…whomever the Nazis said were enemies of the state.
It’s not hard to find parallels in history, before and after the events that led to WWII. Pick any part of the world at any time when despotism and the totalitarian state has grown to dominate people’s lives. For decades North Koreans have lived in constant fear that an American attack was imminent. Americans have feared unemployed young muslims willing to blow themselves up in our midst for going on 17 years now.
But let’s consider a more recent example of the use of fear to further a goal. Just about every day now, corporate news and scores of websites remind us that there is a movement in America to, depending on who you ask, either disarm Americans or demand common sense gun laws.
The issue is immediately polarizing, and the political paradigm you follow is a good predictor of what your opinion is going to be on this, like so many other subjects. In the echo chambers of our two dominant tribes the right parrots the notion that the left wants to disarm Americans in order to expand the coercive power of government. The left repeats the mantra that peace loving Americans will no longer tolerate the brutality of deplorables clinging to a Constitutional right that has no place in the modern world.
A common denominator for both sides of the gun debate is the doom that awaits at the bottom of the slippery slope of their fallacious arguments. Both sides use fear to motivate support. But there is little truth to be found at the extremes of either left or right thinking on this subject, especially when a tragedy occurs such as the school shootings which have been so much in the news recently. In the face of horror the limbic system often takes over from the more rational parts of the brain.
Sadly, the issue has become another political football with both tribes seeking to use it to galvanize support in the upcoming elections.
Darkness can be banished by lighting a candle, and fear can be banished by fact. At least in the case of school violence, the facts, if they were widely known, might just serve to deflate this one political football.
In February of this year, Northeastern University released a study after crunching the numbers on school violence. The verdict: Schools are significantly safer now than they were in the 90’s. According to James Alan Fox, one of the authors of the study, “Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today.”
No amount of school violence that is acceptable, but what we have today is hardly the epidemic being presented. It is just the opposite – an outlier in a continuing trend toward decreasing violence. If we truly intend to continue that trend, rather than making this issue about politics, let’s look at what we have done to facilitate this improvement, and let that inform our future decisions.
There are many other areas where life is improving, contrary to popular opinion. In the coming weeks we will discuss more of them. So, despite the Drudge/Huffington title of this piece, we are not doomed. Not at all. But we got your attention, didn’t we? And attention sells newspapers, and elects celebrities to high office, and makes diplomats out of basketball players.