Alarms All Across America!

One difference between those who live in a city and those who live in the country is both obvious and telling: city folk learn to ignore sirens, flashing lights, and warning bells as a matter of psychological survival.  If every time they saw a fire truck or police cruiser on an emergency call New Yorkers reacted with alarm, all the residents of Gotham would be as jumpy as a bag full of cats in very short order.  Consequently, New Yorkers build up a shell of utter indifference to much of the world around them.  Caring about all of the various emergencies that are the background noise of day-to-day life in the Big Apple is simply not worth the bother.  The jaded New Yorker is a learned behavior—not an infuriating pose.

Given the dire news bulletins that now fill our lives, each warning us every day that our end is nigh, I have begun to wonder whether at this point in our nation’s history Americans have simply built up too thick a self-protective hide to any longer be riled up by whatever the crisis du jour might be that is lighting up the cable news slugfests.  When it comes to whatever crime Donald Trump is currently accused of committing, global warming killing our planet, intrusions into our privacy, crooked corporations robbing us, death and destruction seemingly everywhere we look, the rise of the robots, the rule of algorithms, dishonest politicians accepting bribes, violence in the streets, environmental degradation, sexual harassment, disrespect as a default behavior, and a long parade of other miseries guaranteed to murder, mutilate, or mutate us all, we may have collectively reached the point where we choose to ignore the sirens and flashing red lights, click over to Netflix, and learn not to care anymore in order to remain moderately sane until sunrise brings the next day’s dire drama.

24/7 news and commentary fighting for our attention, which relies on disaster-mongering to generate an audience, might have managed to turn all of us into New Yorkers—to one degree or another.

It is not that we are heartless or uncaring; we’re just overwhelmed.  Most of us have our own problems that ably suck up all our energies, so given the choice about whether to care about the imminent extinction of a fish in the Amazon or how to pay for a root canal, we choose the more immediate problem or need.  The vast majority of people do not have the leisure time or funds available to fly to another city or country to march in protest, and many have aged parents to care for, children who are stressed out because they have a big Math test on Friday, and infinitely more pressing worries about that weird clanking noise that just started up under the hood of the family car.

Moreover, there is a clear limit to how many times the average person is willing to attentively listen to some variation of “We’re all gonna die!” before you decide that ignoring today’s Chicken Little and ordering a pizza (with extra cheese, of course) is the best possible course of action.  If you’ve been forced to join a collective Doomsday cult by mass media that delights in daily describing the agonies of our certain and swift planetary and individual deaths, there comes a point when it becomes time for either some catastrophe to end life as we know right now—or we tune out completely.  Unsurprisingly, if they sense our attention is slipping away, the claims of the doomsayers become even more flamboyant and the deadlines for our deaths slip ever closer.  Asking too many inconvenient questions about when our long-awaited Armageddon is expected to finally arrive tends to elicit increasingly testy responses from those foretelling our collective demise.

With all due respect to the truly Biblical nature of the disasters predicted to befall us, I am willing to bet that fire, flood, and famine will be the least of our problems here in America.  I worry much more about the shaky financial conditions of our various pension and retirement systems, healthcare that is increasingly unaffordable, public schools that spew out armies of fragile illiterates—and the ever more looney ideas that appear each day for compelling us toward someone’s peculiar idea of utopia.  When our government starts snatching plastic drinking straws, mandating tracking technology in new cars, and insisting that an air conditioner is actually Satan in disguise, you start to wonder whether those whom we entrust to manage our nation need a teensy bit more medication to keep them all from turning into raving lunatics.

Like most reasonable people, I am willing to listen to any thoughtful discussion that sees our problems in the proper context, prioritizes needs over wants, understands that arithmetic is immutable, and does not rely upon inducing panic to build a constituency for a solution.  Given the truly horrible track records of those who claim to be able to accurately predict the future, I am infinitely more concerned with reducing the prices of prescription medications today than I am about the sea level a century from now.

The future has a tendency to surprise us because unknowable improvements in technology have a pesky habit of altering our seemingly inevitable doom.  For example, the Malthusian predictions of worldwide famine due to population growth crashed into incredible innovations in food production, storage, and transport.  Similarly, stunning changes in technology have transformed the workplace in ways that no one could have predicted 50 years ago.  Does anyone else remember that there used to be a catastrophic shortage of trained keypunch operators and stenographers?  Does anyone today even remember what a keypunch operator did?

I know people who no longer pay much attention to news and current events because the constant assurances that today’s tragedy or problem is “the one” that will transform Americans into a slobbering horde into cannibalistic zombies wears at their frayed patience.  Moreover, as we become ever wiser to the games being played with our emotions and empathy, many are choosing to disengage altogether—which is too bad.  Real problems require real solutions, but I heartily agree that we need to find thoughtful adults to present concerns for our evaluation.  Snippy, snarky, and sneering alarmists who deign all who disagree with them to be dimwits is a problem for our nation and people, and these purveyors of doom and gloom need to find other ways to excite their overly excitable social media followers.