I want to believe in the possibility of democracy, and in the willingness of many people, much of the time, to make small (or sometimes even big) sacrifices for the common good. Lately I’ve found it more and more necessary, in order to maintain that belief, to limit my media exposure. Sometimes I need to abstain altogether. It turns out I have widely read company. In an opinion piece in a recent Washington Post, writer Amanda Ripley explained why “I Stopped Reading the News” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/08/how-to-fix-news-media/). Has our media-saturated society begun to grate on you, as well?
Earlier generations of pundits have repeatedly created models of successive revolutions in human cultures and economies—from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to industrialists and industrial workers to a contemporary “knowledge society.” The transitions seem to come faster and faster. At each transition, something of the former organizational system lingers, with some from prior iterations ending up marginalized. We all will continue to need food, material goods, and access to reliable information. However, without empathy and mutual understanding, those in the groups seemingly left behind and those in the groups seemingly forward looking can engage in escalating clashes rather than working toward mutually beneficial solutions.
For over a decade before covid, I was a citizen of a rapidly evolving North Carolina. My relocation there gave me a chance to get more thoroughly acquainted with a whole group of cousins on my dad’s mother’s side. These were cousins I’d rarely met during my youth in Maryland. The Rea clan of my grandma’s generation had started out as farmers on the outskirts of Charlotte. During a rare childhood visit to one of their farms, I found the rural area where they lived both fascinating and strange. I got treated to homemade biscuits slathered with hand-churned butter from the family’s cows. I rode a pony, one of their smallest mounts. Years later, once installed in a Raleigh area apartment, I began to attend cousins’ beach weekends and to visit with the relatives who lived geographically closest. Mostly I listened to stories of family history, especially about the farm-wife grandmother I’d hardly known.
By 2018, the metropolitan area of Charlotte had surrounded the family’s old homestead. Multi-story apartment complexes hedged in former horse pastures and outbuildings. That Thanksgiving, over a hundred cousins spanning several generations gathered at “the shed” to share a partially catered, partially homemade feast of turkey with all the trimmings. I was surprised at the diversity of the extended family I found ( https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/11/25/who-did-you-expect/)—rural/urban/suburban, stay-at-homes and world travelers, pale-skinned and darker. We skirted talk of politics, but everyone I met was friendly, hopeful, respectful.
Come 2021, my husband and I began preparing for another relocation, this time to follow a grown son to southern California. Friends from the middle of the country have sometimes charged me with being a “bi-coastalist,” out of touch with the nation’s heartland. On our way west, I spent nearly two weeks on a cross-country car trip, seeing some areas where people interacted directly with the land. We drove through the “in between” states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, stopping to eat, shop, sightsee, sleep. We got to see the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and Sandia Peak up close. I learned that Yuma, Arizona is the iceberg lettuce capital of the world. The colleagues we visited along our way were retired from academic or consulting careers, so knew of the challenges of rural livelihood only indirectly. Still, the overall landscape was inescapable—much of American geography is rural.
As I rode past isolated farmsteads, or ate at local restaurants in small towns that were just barely scraping by, I could imagine life in such places being hard as well as insular. Faraway elites in urban/suburban areas could be viewed with suspicion and disdain.
“What can those people possibly know about my everyday life? They sit in their book-lined home offices and make pronouncements about fixing my problems without ever asking me, or even meeting me.” If the railroad ceases operation, if the feedlot shuts down, if the price of fuel fluctuates wildly, if commodity revenues are as unpredictable as the weather, it can be tempting to blame uncaring outsiders.
Although the editorial slant is somewhat different in big urban media markets, the impact can be similar. “Why don’t those yahoos ever learn that more guns make us less safe, not safer? Why don’t they respect the rights and aspirations of minorities? How can they be such nativists? What’s wrong with those people?”
Much of the time, the algorithms and editorial decisions that shade our news access seem more intent on making America grate than on making America great. Ms. Ripley’s opinion piece suggests that the best news coverage will need to provide its readers/watchers/listeners with three basic ingredients: hope (all is not lost), agency (I can do something about a particular issue), and dignity (I matter). Imbibing more of our current news landscape may hinder rather than help to spread these traits. Perhaps a friendly in-person “Hello” to a neighbor, a more-generous-than-usual donation of time or energy to a local non-profit, a more frequent use of the “off” button to our indirect information sources, are needed steps toward renewed greatness.