The doctor for Timothy Egan, a contributing writer for The New York Times, calls America “a dystopian country” and “the Babel of misinformation.” He is bothered by “the lack of trust in everybody and everything.”
Egan, author of the National Book Award and a journalist who concentrates on the environment, the American West and politics, says his doctor is not wrong:
Trust in institutions — government, the press, religion, big business — is at or near record lows. My own profession, journalism, has been kicked to the cellar of disdain. Almost 40 percent of Americans have little or no confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup’s annual surveys — up from 24 percent in 2000.
But the “press,” where free speech and all its cacophonous chaos reside, has been a punching bag for some time. More shocking is that about 50 percent distrust our electoral system, according to a Morning Consult survey. Diminished confidence in elections is among the worst of the many awful legacies of Donald Trump.
But underlying these cynicisms and suspicions is a truly sad development: The United States is becoming a mean country.
Take the story of the airline passenger who knocked out the teeth of a flight attendant — part of a frightening rise in unruly fliers. Or consider the man who shot and killed a Georgia supermarket cashier when she asked him to pull up his mask. Lament the absurd sorrow of the Philadelphia food festival that was designed to celebrate culinary diversity — then canceled after the decision to disinvite a food truck selling Israeli food sparked controversy.
Hate has existed for more than a century in America. Egan is writing a book on the Ku Klux Klan, which was then the nation’s oldest hate group embraced by more than five million Americans.
“That was a mean decade, with Jim Crow locked in place, Prohibition the law of the land and immigrants who weren’t white Protestants all but locked out,” he says. “The underlying theme of all this meanness is intolerance.”
Once upon a time, the crackpots could mostly talk only to themselves on barstools; now they have an enormous community in the dark reaches of the web. That explains why up to one-fourth of Republicans believe the country is under the control of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, as they huff the vapors of QAnon. It’s also the likely reason a third of Americans continue to believe the fiction that Joe Biden took the election through fraud.
The jump from a provably false premise to physical attacks doesn’t require skill. In mean America, in January, nearly three in 10 people surveyed expressed support for politically motivated violence, if necessary.
Another writer, George Packer, believes this nation is hurtling, headlong, into “a cold civil war that continues to erode democracy.”
There’s an old saying, attributed to the Sioux: A people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass. What may be worse are a people without a heart, unable to see half their countrymen and countrywomen as anything but the enemy.
Next weekend, America celebrates Independence Day (if that is possible in these troubled times).
But can we continue to claim we are an independent, free, democratic nation? Those who seek to limit the right to vote or impose restrictions against those who intimidate others who are not white or fail to fall into a preferred, narrow-view stereotype are the true terrorists who threaten democracy.
Why do we celebrate those who embrace anti-democratic concepts and practice intolerance? How can we still claim to be a land of the free or home of the brave?