by Daniel J. McGraw
Back in July, I stood in front of about 40 people holding rifles and guns on Cleveland’s Public Square, holding a sign that basically said that guns kill people and shouldn’t be carried around in public by the public. My sign said: “Deaths by Guns: 11,419; Deaths by Music: 0.” I was part of a group that was there because the open-carry gun advocates thought parading around downtown Cleveland on a Sunday afternoon was their right and a good thing to be doing. (The music reference on my sign was because our counter-protest had a tongue-in-cheek theme that people should openly carry guitars, not guns.)
People asked me why I had helped organize an anti-open-carry event. I am a journalist for the most part and usually the one snickering on the sidelines while I document insanity. But I had seen a change. For years I went hunting with friends and shot beer cans off fence posts, and during that time we could sensibly debate-assault rifle restrictions or gun registry or background checks. They had their views and I had mine, but the discussion was usually constructive and fun.
As we got older, though, I became an enemy. Whenever I mentioned that maybe we might want to limit the number of rounds in magazine clips or that walking around a Wal-Mart with a rifle on your shoulder wasn’t a good idea on many counts, those same friends made me part of a conspiracy that wanted to take away their guns. Why? Because the NRA, conservative media, and Facebook friends told them so. I was an enemy. End of discussion.
But I like discussion, so I asked the men standing across from me on Public Square — mostly guys in their 50s and 60s—why they felt the need to carry firearms in a public park on a Sunday afternoon. They responded with the usual argument: It is their right to do so because of the Second Amendment, it makes everyone safer, it deters crime, and so on.
To my right were four uniformed Cleveland police officers. They were there to keep the two protesting groups from getting nasty at one another. I asked the open-carry advocates if they didn’t feel safe with Cleveland’s finest so close by. “They don’t have a legal duty to protect us,” one told me. They cited court cases that they claimed meant the cops near me wouldn’t protect me if I was attacked, because the police didn’t have a legal duty to do so.
This was a new one on me. I’ve known good cops and bad cops, but I couldn’t think of any who would not come to my aid. I asked one of the cops there what they were talking about. “This is their latest argument on why they should have more guns on the street,” one said, shaking his head.
A little research tells me the open-carry folks were right, kind of. Courts indeed had ruled that police do not have a legal duty to protect citizens. More precisely, the courts have said that I cannot sue the police if I get robbed just because the police were not around to prevent it. But if a cop bops me on the head with his baton for no good reason, I can still sue the city for police brutality. This is basically a civil court matter, and it has nothing to do with how police act while on duty.
But open-carry advocates use a misinterpretation of an irrelevant court ruling to say that not only are criminals always coming at us and trying to kill us, but that the police won’t protect us because they don’t have to. It is fear and loathing at its finest, proof that Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t far off when he said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
But there is something more going on here, and it has little to do with guns.
[blocktext align=”right”]Everyone is now an expert, or at least they think they are.[/blocktext]Everyone is now an expert, or at least they think they are. It used to be that people did more gardening and watched NCIS as they aged. Now, weirdness is no longer a character flaw. People can spend their spare time stoking their fears by listening to a persistent message, delivered online, that the world is out to get them in as many ways as they can count.
While American society seems to think that sexting is the most horrific consequence of today’s technology, I tend to think the bigger concern is how the baby boomers handle technology as they get older. Because right now, you can spend all day reading about a single issue, discussing that issue only with people who think like you, be told repeatedly that your rights are being violated, and hear how the world hates people like you. You can do that for the rest of your life.
Very few people will tell you to lighten up, either. In fact, you are more likely to become more extreme and less open to different viewpoints. Because now more than ever, you can pick what bolsters your viewpoint and ignore the opposing message. The propaganda has become personalized.
This isn’t an entirely novel concept. People have always liked people like them, like to be around people who think like them, and a lot of them think they aren’t getting a fair shake from the world. Nothing new there.
The difference is how people now can express those emotions. If you want to find people who think our immigration policies are wrong — either that we let in too few people or too many — you can find others who think like you online and converse with them all day. Same goes for war, poverty, Obamacare, or anything else.
[blocktext align=left]…there is a social cost to this information overload[/blocktext]But there is a social cost to this information overload. Our goals used to be to become part of the large tribe, the nation as a whole. To get into that tribe, you had to think about the greater good of the big tribe. Now the online world has made being part of the small tribe the goal, and that tribe doesn’t care about the big picture. It cares about the views of a few instead of the views of many.
Imagine a man living in 1972. He’s upset about Richard Nixon’s talks with communist China and the Soviet Union. He also is very mad about Nixon’s plans to pull troops from Vietnam. So he puts a sign on his lawn decrying these actions by the president. He goes further: He changes that sign every day. He marches on the town square every weekend with signs. He answers his phone saying, “Nixon caters to Communists.” At work, Nixon is all he ever talks about.
What would happen to that guy in 1972? He wouldn’t have thousands of people conversing with him daily, telling him that they feel the same way, planning what they should do next. Instead, his friends and family and co-workers would tell him to cool it. In 1972, he would ratchet things down or be shunned.
This is not to say this old way of doing things was wonderful. The problem now is that no one knows how this behavior is going to affect our democracy. And the key to it all is the age of the baby boomers. The largest group of Americans will soon enter old age, and this will be happening at the precise time when the amount of information on all fronts will be increasing exponentially to these retirees.
Every person goes through an “Is that all there is?” phase of life. It happens at some point on the back nine, when you are getting closer to the cliff and the young people are pushing at your back. Some dismiss the question in a minute and move on. Others find religion or social programs that make them feel that life has meaning. But there are many who ask this question and get pissed. They think that everyone else got something, and all they got is this little house in the suburbs, and they are looking for someone to blame for that.
It used to be that the pissed-off old people were left to their own orneriness. But in the coming decades, there will be more of these people than ever before. They will be able to find like-minded cohorts, and they will have the time to feed their heads with one-sided information day and night. Maybe this information overload of one-sided information will disperse over time, but the political ramifications are huge right now and in the near future. It is hard to unite four or five big groups under a political umbrella, but virtually impossible to unite 50 little ones.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones confining themselves to single-issue bubbles. When the Occupy Wall Street protestors were out and about, I found it odd and funny that they found like-minded people who hated capitalism but had few ideas on how to fix it. Likewise, some of the hairshirt-wearing environmentalists have repeatedly told me that eating hamburgers is causing global warming, because the Twitter and Facebook and the Internet says so. They dismiss me as a wacko when I tell them their hamburger/global warming theories are idiotic in terms of being related to each other in any substantial way.
But the problem in this is age, and the effect growing older has on perceptions, especially for men. A recent Mayo Clinic study found that men lose testosterone as they age, and that means less tolerance and irritability, which some have labeled “irritable male syndrome.” “Grumpy old men” jokes aside, it’s clinically proven that growing old does indeed make people have a more morose view of the future.
It doesn’t take too many of the less tolerant and more irritable to skew the information so that the absurd is now taken as gospel by some. And that is the danger of all this. Some think police would not help you, so you should have a gun with you at all times. Others think bike lanes in the United States are part of a United Nations conspiracy.
In 1992, the UN passed “Agenda 21,” a nonbinding 300-page document that was basically a chapter from an urban planning textbook. The UN predicted that more third-world residents would move from rural areas to cities in the coming decades, and laid out policies that would help that along. Agenda 21 basically encouraged countries to have good sewers and parks, and to make urban living more palatable.
Bush the Elder signed it, as did about 175 other countries. Again, Agenda 21 was nonbinding — the countries who signed on didn’t have to do anything it prescribed. For about 15 years, no one except urban planning geeks knew anything about Agenda 21.
But in the mid-2000s, some folks in the United States decided that Agenda 21 was part of a movement that would take away their land in the suburbs or rural areas and force them to move to inner-city slums. I caught wind of it in 2010, when I was writing about this new group called the “Tea Party,” and at one of the meetings in Texas (where I lived at the time) I was told that funding for mass transit was part of this UN conspiracy that would confiscate their land and move them into “rat cages.”
There were about 200 people at this meeting, and most were older. Weirdly, hardly anyone knew each other; they had heard about this meeting online. When the speaker was talking about “rat cages” and how they would be forced to work in government factory jobs, I thought this was madness of the highest order, and didn’t think about it much after I left.
But in recent years, those thinking that the UN is the evil empire of forced urban living has intensified. Conservative radio talk show host Glenn Beck wrote a book about it. Planning and zoning boards across the country have been accused of the UN conspiracy if they do any projects that have urban mixed-use zoning. Bike lanes are also part of the UN secret mission, as are parks. “Sustainability” is a four-letter word to these folks.
Think this ends with a few old folks who hate bike lanes? Nine states have now “outlawed” Agenda 21, even though there is no law to outlaw. The Republican National Committee’s 2012 platform stated: “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has stated that Agenda 21 will eliminate “golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads.” Closer to home, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium needed advice from a private PR firm on how to deal with Agenda 21 protesters at their meetings.
And about three months ago, Joni Ernst, the Iowan Republican candidate for United States Senator, had this to say about Agenda 21: “All of us agree that Agenda 21 is a horrible idea … The implications that it has here is moving people off of their agricultural land and consolidating them into city sectors and then telling them, ‘You don’t have property rights anymore.’ These are all things that the UN is behind, and it’s bad for the United States, it’s bad for families here in the state of Iowa.”
It’s not only what Ms. Ernst is saying that is troubling. It’s that she sees the anti-Agenda 21 message as one that will help her win. Because that message is that the world is coming after you, not that some people like to live in urban areas and maybe we might want to have policies that address those issues. And it seems to be breaking that way more and more.
You don’t need to carry a gun in public because the Second Amendment says you can. You are doing it because you think the police will watch you and do nothing while you are attacked. You don’t go to city council and speak against bike lanes because you think they are a dumb idea, you do it because you see it as part of a global conspiracy aimed directly at you. It is the governance of selfieness.
I don’t know where all this is going to end up. But I do know the governance of this country is going to be almost impossible until it gets sorted out. Because in the big picture, the little tribes are running things now. And the elders are running a lot of those little tribes. Maybe that’s why we see so much irritability these days.
Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.
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