Who Wants You to Believe it's the End of the World As You Know It?
This is a free post, but I do welcome (and need) your subscriptions - if you are interested and able, please consider a paid subscription and get many more posts!
(Photo of the Rachel Maddow show, October 11, 2021.)
At the ranch, my mother and aunt like to have the television on much of the day. The matriarchs switch between three networks: CNN, MSNBC, and Bloomberg. I am not interested in watching Rachel Maddow or Wolf Blitzer, but I listen with one ear, and the same phrases keep guttering on the screen.
“Unprecedented.” “Existential crisis for the republic.” “Threat.” “Danger.” “Running out of time to save democracy.”
This has an impact. My aunt Marianna – hello, auntie, thank you for renewing your subscription! -– tells me she worries about the world her grandchildren and very young great-grandchildren will inherit. “I’m not worried for myself. I won’t be here to see the worst of it. Will there be a country left for them? Will there even be a planet?”
My mother has been a woman of the center-left since her girlhood. Her sister, raised in the genial and civilized Republicanism of the center-right, has long since left an increasingly febrile and vulgar Grand Old Party. Each of the matriarchs was born in the mid-1930s, raised in the astonishing prosperity and comforting certainties of the postwar white upper-middle-class. They have seen the old order transformed, for better and worse. Between them, they have 19 descendants, and to one extent or another, they worry about each.
My mother and aunt consume cable television news at least partly out of a sense of responsibility. It’s important to keep apprised of what is happening in the world, and my mother and aunt belong to a generation that believes (not wrongly) that staying informed is a cardinal responsibility for citizenship. The difference is that they came of age reading the San Francisco Chronicle for 30 minutes each day, and listening to Edward R. Murrow on the radio – or later, watching Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite or Reynolds on TV – for an additional half hour before cocktails and dinner. At most, it meant an hour of total news consumption each day.
One hour has become six, or eight. And as the cable networks have figured out, keeping people watching for that long requires more than dry reports of what is transpiring in Peoria or Paramaribo or Phnom Penh. Most networks don’t want to spend the money required to keep good reporters on the ground in all of those places either. The solution is to keep talking, and the way to make that talking addictive to watch is to make it a steady diet of outrage and indignation, sprinkled with a healthy soupcon of anxiety. MSNBC and CNN skew left, Fox skews right, but they serve up the same red meat of Righteous Indignation.
My friends on the left worry that Fox has brainwashed their aging parents. That’s not wrong, but it’s more than a little silly to pretend that Fox is delusional while MSNBC and CNN are impartial, thoughtful, and journalistically responsible reporters of unvarnished truths. At the end of the proverbial day, each network, regardless of its ideological slant, is in the business of selling acid reflux medications and car insurance, and their primary focus is on making sure that a captive audience continues to watch those ads. The more anxiety and outrage they can wring out of my mother and aunt, the more they’ll continue to watch – and the more advertisements they’ll see.
Both my mother and aunt have given money to Democratic political candidates, and so now their email inboxes are filled with pleas that carefully echo the alarmism and desperation peddled by the cable networks. It is always an emergency, and Frances Flibberytiboop, candidate for Congress in Kentucky’s 213th assembly district wants you to know that if you can just rush $25 to her campaign to defeat the right-wing incumbent, you will personally strike a blow against Donald Trump. I need you to stand with me for science, democracy, and the American way, and you need to do it by midnight, or the republic will be lost forever!
Anyone familiar with the high-pressure tactics of televangelists will recognize how this works. The supposedly sophisticated left has long mocked the gullible who believed in the millenarian prophecies of charlatans, or who tithed to the likes of Jim Bakker or Kenneth Copeland. Yet sometimes, it seems that the gnawing fear of the Imminent End of all Things that has traditionally animated the lightly-educated rural right now seems to galvanize the educated urban and suburban left. For those of us who’ve studied the McCarthy era, it is stunning to see the left, not the right, fret about Russian agents infiltrating the corridors of power. For those of us who remember how conservatives responded to the AIDS crisis, it is stunning to see that it is the left, not the right, that lives in constant fear of disease -- and longs to discipline and punish the “unclean.” (To my ears, the left’s rage at the stubbornly unvaccinated sounds identical to the right’s fury at sexually active gay men in the 1980s.) For those of us who grew up chuckling at the risible jeremiads of the prigs in the Moral Majority and the bluenoses of the Family Research Council, it is stunning to see it is now the secular left warning that the republic hangs by a single, rapidly fraying thread.
Sometimes, there are real threats. Far more often, the threats are wildly oversold if not outright illusory. It’s difficult for any of us to discern what’s worth our anxiety, and what isn’t. It’s irresponsible to say, “I shall ignore all the world’s unpleasantnesses, because they harsh my mellow.” It is equally foolish to allow oneself to be consumed by fears over things which one, by oneself, cannot possible change.
I grew up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and I remember friends who struggled with real depression because they were convinced that an apocalyptic nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was both imminent and certain. “How can I be happy,” they said, “When I know the world will end before I graduate high school?” You know how that one turned out. Some of those same friends today post on social media their fears that the unvaccinated will allow drug-resistant COVID mutations to emerge that will wipe out the human race. Is it uncharitable to suggest that some folks are addicted to anxiety, and simply shift the focus of anxiety to whatever it is the media tells them to fear?
Perhaps I am too sanguine, too blasé, too consumed by the quotidian responsibilities and challenges of my own life. Perhaps I ought to listen more to the talking heads on the television, the Twitter, and the TikTok who stoke outrage and fear. Or, perhaps, I’m just tired of paying attention to an entire media-industrial complex dedicated to driving engagement by peddling indignation and unease.