Pandora’s box is open

Memories came back to me when I listened to one of my favourite radio programs, This American Life.


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My grandfather, widowed, lonely and in poor health thanks to exposure to mustard gas in the first Great War and a life working underground in coal mines, was a great lover of tabloid newspapers. As a youngster in the 1960s I recall being perplexed and even fascinated by their appeal. Grandpa read the daily papers, too, and never missed the TV news, but he found papers like the National Enquirer and News of the World a far more interesting basis of conversation. Even as a kid I could see those papers were filled with nonsense and, while I got a kick out of reading them, I could not understand why he was drawn to them.

Those memories came back to me this week when I listened to one of my favourite radio programs, This American Life. One of the show’s segments was devoted to a controversy that arose in Homer, Alaska, a fishing town about the same size of Creston. It seems that, for reasons that remain unclear, the town council was discussing an ordinance that would send a general message of welcome to immigrants, legal or otherwise. The ensuing debate in the community became vicious and, not surprisingly, divisive.

What made the debate (and, to be fair, the original discussion at the town council table) peculiar was that there is no immigration issue in Homer, and there probably hasn’t been since white Europeans moved in and took the territory as their own, snatching the land and resources from the indigenous residents. No one interviewed for the story could point to just why a non-issue had fueled such a vitriolic debate.

The program eventually focused on one man, a 27-year-old musician and janitor who usually avoids the news of the day because he finds it too upsetting. Confused about the debate the subject had engendered, and wondering why he found himself leaning toward the anti-immigrant sentiment, he decided to undertake his own research to become better informed.

He used his computer and became immersed in stories and web sites devoted to immigration and how immigrants affect the countries they enter. He made an attempt to find a balance in the sources, even if he did have concerns that BBC might be “left leaning”. Breitbart News Network seemed to be a credible source. This American Life facilitated a conversation through Skype, with a reporter who lived in Europe, so that the musician/janitor could ask questions about immigration news in Europe and how it was covered. That report researched some of the man’s concerns and returned with his findings.

The Breitbart story that stood out for me “documented” the extraordinarily high crime rate of illegal immigrants in France. Breitbart had reported that those illegals had created a crime wave, and were responsible for an average of more than one crime per person, a spectacularly high rate, far and away above that of the general population. Great story. Huge impact. But what it didn’t mention in its use of the statistic, which was provided by the government, was that the crimes were almost all illegal border crossing. Every illegal immigrant, of course, is guilty of that crime. But the statistic was used to create the impression of a marauding mass of illegals moving through France like a horde of Huns, raping and pillaging its way through the populace.

It isn’t hard to understand at least some of the distrust that Americans and others have in their countries’ institutions. The digital age has left many behind as traditional jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors disappear. Television and Internet fan the flames of fear with their stories of conspiracy and corruption (the themes for a surprising number of popular TV series, for no better reason than they are endlessly entertaining). The politics of fear have become mainstream.

My own fear is that I don’t see a happy resolution. Once a large proportion of a population has crawled down the rabbit hole and found a home in a world of distrust, disrespect and hopelessness, where does it end? That episode of This American Life included comments from the political Ann Coulter, who has discovered that anti-establishment is no longer a small niche. She is a master at fostering discontent, but appears to have no particular goal in mind other than to create an infrastructure to insulate “Americans” (aka white people of European descent) from the rest of big bad world.

My grandfather would not have been able to articulate why he was fascinated with the fictional crap that he found in the tabloids of the day. But I doubt that he would have wanted to see a day when those publications would be seen as credible news sources.

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