Head ’em off at the past

If my kids were to ask me what had changed the most about the world around me in my lifetime, I could tell them about computers. About how a world that was one dominated by paper files is now dominated by electronically kept records. About how video games have gone from giant bloopy pixels to photorealism teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley in just 40 years. But it’s not that.

I could tell them about the internet, which has had such a seismic effect on the world that it deserves separate consideration from computers themselves. About how we’ve gone from letters, newspapers and magazines, and class/family reunions to inescapable e-mail, the worldwide web, and social media. About how the sum total of human knowledge is out there, if only one can slice through the misinformation and bullshit. But it’s not that.

I could tell them about the Cold War, and how we’ve gone from a pit-of-the-stomach stone-cold dread of Russian missiles raining down on us to a fear of lone-wolf bad actors doing something terrible from within the major population centers of the world’s greatest cities, and how the civil defense sirens that used to scare the crap out of me are now relics that are all but useless unless you’re in tornado alley. But it’s not that. (And in any case, we’re apparently worrying about Russian missiles again.)

I could tell them about the media, where firebrands like Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite once held court and demanded journalistic integrity and fairness above all else, and how, even when I was attending journalism classes in college in the early ’90s at a junior college in Arkansas, you didn’t have jack shit if you didn’t have two verifiable sources, and how TV and radio stations actually used to sign off for the night as recently as when I was working in this media. Now news is a 24 hour thing, and it’s barely news because it’s really hard to find something substantive to say for 86,500 seconds per day (minus omnipresent commercial breaks. But it’s not that.

What has changed, terrifyingly, is that it seems like it’s never been easier to dehumanized and demonize anyone, anyone, who disagrees with you, and how people has simply stopped listening, period. Somewhere during my lifetime, empathy and compassion seem to have died. No public memorial service was held; you can be forgiven for having missed the news.

But if we don’t rediscover these essential parts of being human, and soon, the end result will be a funeral pyre for all of us. The lack of empathy has culminated in what has, frankly, been an absolutely horrific election cycle that nominally ends in 48 hours’ time or so; the reality of it is that it’s likely to wind up in the courts for an extended period of time. This home has been without cable TV for many years now; I’ve never been so happy about that as I have in the past few months, with two boys growing up in an age where we have a presidential candidate – or someone playing at being one – bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia. I’ve also never been as happy no longer working in the media as I have this past year.

Somewhere in the anonymity of computers and the internet, and the switch from the Cold War to constant fear of anyone who isn’t exactly like us, and the media’s abandonment of impartiality and adoption of constantly stoking the fires of paranoia, hate has become easy. Paranoia has become all-pervading. And the other, it seems, must be utterly destroyed: we must all be armed at all times, because they, whoever they might be, are probably out to get us.

It’s not any one of those things. It’s all of them together, twisted by people who lack compassion and empathy.

And I refuse to subscribe to that worldview. I’m voting for the candidates who I think stand the best chance of doing the most good for the greatest number of people, even if some of those people live in fingers-in-ears, eyes-screwed-shut denial that they, too, may benefit from those people being in office. I’d like to think that the vast majority of voters will choose the same way.

Regardless of who wins, however, if we don’t collectively strive to rediscover compassion and empathy, we are done as a culture. Done. And we’ll deserve it.

Our kids deserve better. I wish more people were determined not to fail them. This year, British voters failed to vote for the future instead of the past. Will we repeat that mistake?

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