July 25, 2016

As a critical reader, it is important to analyze every word in a slogan, such as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” This essay riffs off that last word: Again. That adverb suggests there was a time — somewhere in the past — when America was really great.

So was America great in the 1820s, when slaves were property and women had no vote? How about the 1860s, when more than half a million Americans killed each other in a Civil War? Or the 1890s, when industrialization created a huge chasm between the very rich and very poor, creating tenements of poverty, hunger and disease?

Perhaps we could look back to the Roaring ’20s, as long as we overlook the Jim Crow South, lynchings and a generation of law men wearing the hoods of the KKK. Oh the 1930s! The Depression. Those were the days.

My point should be clear: The past was never as good as some people would have you believe. And the present is never as bad.

When there is violence, death, intolerance and paranoia, when the news is filled with tragic stories and bloody images, when citizens on the scene produce dreadful video images that are then broadcast to the world, it is easy enough for journalists to contribute to the myth of the Golden Age.

That ancient myth, going back to the stories of the fall of human beings from the paradise of Eden, reaffirms a false and dangerous notion: that good times existed at some indistinct moment in the past and that we have been in a state of decline since then.

It feels that way today to me. I watch cable news coverage of Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas and I silently mouth the platitudes: When is this going to stop? Enough is enough. Why won’t somebody do something? Then Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech at the RNC.

I am 68 years old, and people of my age, if our brain cells have survived, and if we can neutralize our nostalgia, have the benefit of memory. I do think the world is going to hell, until I look back to 1968. Here’s what I remember: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; the assassination of Robert Kennedy; police and student riots in the city of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention; thousands upon thousands of deaths in Vietnam; riots in Paris and Prague…That was a pretty bad year.

ISIS is a homicidal, suicidal, psychopathic cult…but it’s not the Third Reich. The Great Recession brought suffering to millions…but it wasn’t the Great Depression. There is violence involving police and African-American communities, but it is not the bloody Red Summer of 1919, in which many cops and elected officials in the South belonged to the KKK and where lynching and other forms of torture were commonplace. We have Donald Trump, but my parents had Joe McCarthy.

To say, honestly, that things were worse back then is not meant to minimize the pain and suffering inflicted upon the victims of today.

So what is a journalist to do in what seems to be an endless cycle of bad news? An honest answer is “I don’t know,” but true hopefulness requires that one give it a shot:

  1. This one is easy: Focus not just on the acts of killers and their consequences. Show the dutiful work of first responders and caregivers. Caution: even too much of this will drive the memory back to the violent crime and its perpetrator.
  2. Avoid an unending series of repetitious or even incremental coverage, a drumbeat that can deaden the sensibilities and drive the audience to despair.
  3. Do more “what does this mean” stories — not from partisans — but from historians, religious leaders, ethicists and cultural critics.
  4. Visit the past. There are lessons of history, and two of the most important: a) things were worse back then; and b) people figured out a way to make them better. Remember? Our founding fathers owned slaves. Hundreds of thousands died in the Civil War. The Nazis controlled most of Europe. Forms of apartheid existed in South Africa and the American South.

There’s an instructive book by Steven Pinker called “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” In an argument with evidence that spans almost 800 pages, the Harvard scholar takes a long view, which turns out to be comforting rather than apocalyptic.

Two paragraphs from the dust jacket will suffice:

Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago.

Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals — all are substantially down.

Where is this progress coming from?

The key to explaining the decline of violence is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away.

Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

My parents subscribed to Crusade magazine, a monthly booklet filled with Bible stories, beginning with the story of creation. There was Adam and Eve in the Garden. They lived in Paradise, but then she ate the forbidden fruit and there was hell to pay.

This story is one cultural expression of a deep-seated notion that things were great in the past and have gone downhill since then. Call it “the myth of the Golden Age.” It is called a myth for two reasons: because it is usually associated with stories from a distant past, but also that it turns out to be a fiction or a lie.

Human beings personalize this myth when we get all nostalgic about the past. Remember back then when music was better, athletes were better, cities were safer, everyone was thinner, school kids learned grammar and no one got divorced? If you have checked any of those, you have tripped over the myth of the Golden Age.

A person who sees the world as Donald Trump describes it probably got that view — not from walking down the street or going to the grocery store — but from the mediated reality known as news. There’s a theory of news — not sure where it comes from — that argues this: A particular story may be true (a crime was committed); but the cumulative effect of such stories may give a distorted view of the world.

Too many crime stories lead readers and viewers to feel the world as dangerous. They take action as citizens. Their legislatures build more prisons than schools. They elect a “law and order” candidate.

As journalists continue to cover this election cycle, it would help them to remember that, however troubled our world may be today, some writer or politician in the future will look back upon it as a Golden Age.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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