A couple of days ago, I was thinking both of black friends and friends in law enforcement. I sent brief notes to several of them, including a friend who had a distinguished career as a police officer—a smart, articulate, highly energetic guy who is cheerful, positive and optimistic by nature. He wrote a very kind and touching longer note in return, but I was startled to hear him sound almost...depressed. Not characteristic.
"I spent my entire adult life in law enforcement," he wrote. "Always trying to do the right things for the right reasons. Always thought police should be more community helpers than enforcers and guardians rather than warriors. I always thought that if we could develop relationships and partnerships with those we served, enforcement would be the exception and not the rule. It would be a true partnership keeping communities safe. I tried. I really tried. I'm really discouraged over how things between the public and the police have deteriorated."
Meanwhile, I think I finally discovered why I was so upset over Brexit—it's because we here in America are well aware that we're crazy. We know there's a sizeable contingent of wackos and lunatics around. So some of us, which I guess included me, depend on the British to be more sensible, civilized, sober and practical. (My brother Scott's sardonic comment: "You got past soccer hooliganism, then?" Actually, I guess I did. Having never been to a soccer game, I am able to slot that into the category of non-conforming anomalies when I indulge in my fond stereotype of "the sensible British." After all, the crowds at snooker matches are very polite, and what's more important? Have to keep these things in perspective.) Hooligans aside, once I realized the underlying cause of my distress, my level of agitation over Brexit subsided.
But let's face it, it's been a tough couple of weeks and months. I think a lot of people are very upset about one thing or another. It's not that we lack reasons.
Sometimes, just as a thought experiment, I like to turn things around. For example, in 2014 there were 32,675 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. That's a truly tragic figure when you take into account that almost all of those deaths entail wrenching losses for the families, friends and loved ones of those who died. Considering the departed, it's a horrible loss and a terrible waste.
But try turning it around. I think of myself puttering down the road in my little Acura (a gussied-up Civic), and it strikes me that there's another way to look at it. Most people have very little training as drivers. They do all sorts of idiotic things to distract themselves, like apply makeup, eat, talk on phones, text, on and on. I'm astonished that in America, the government allows the utter stupidity of "infotainment" screens in cars. How is that? Drivers weren't distracted enough already? We drive tipsy, we drive soused, we drive high on weed, and sometimes people are just dopes, as when you see someone proceeding down the road with their car entirely covered by snow save for a small clear patch in front of the driver. I have seen some truly bonehead moves in cars over the years...but then, you have too.
So sometimes it strikes me as absolutely miraculous that more people aren't killed in cars. We all drive; we drive every day, or most days; and most of us are idiots at least some of the time. As we saw with Mark Gordon from Ramona the other day, some of us operate the vehicle when we have lost our temper; and huge numbers of people drive sleep-deprived, which some studies show is as bad as driving drunk, or almost.
And yet, I've gone twelve years without a significant accident. Even that one wasn't so bad: I was hit by a school bus driven by a 19-year-old kid who ran a stop sign. No kids on board the bus at the time, fortunately—there was one kid in my car—and no one was hurt. Even though the accident wasn't my fault, I could have prevented it. I wasn't being as vigilant as I normally am.
Even that 32,675 number is very significantly less than in 1972, the year before I got my license, when 54,589 people died in motor vehicles. Meanwhile, the population of the USA has increased by more than 100 million idiots. I mean people. Really, considering what it could be like, it's pretty amazing how few people are killed while driving. You'd think that Ms. Putting-Her-Lipstick-On-in-the-Rearview and Mr. Maybe-Most-People-Can't-Text-and-Drive-But-I-Can would take out another driver every year or two. But it's much less frequent than that. Awful though the losses are, it's an absolute wonder they aren't worse.
So maybe that will cheer you up, in a weird way.
Similarly, the bad things that are happening in the world. I'm not downplaying them, and I don't mean to. There are a lot of worrisome things going on, and many of them are getting worse. There are refugee problems in various places; small wars all over as people and groups vie for resources and territory; China is alleged to have 30 million environmental nomads, people driven out of their native places by ecological disaster; the sea is getting warmer and the icecaps are melting; extinctions are accelerating and threatening animals that most of us would really like to have on Earth, such as tigers; there are all sorts of problems. A few years ago we kept hearing about pirates. Pirates!
But try turning it around. I'm not even officially old yet (the DSM IV defines old age as starting at 65, and I'm clinging to that, thanks), and the population of the Earth has more than doubled just since I was a boy. There are billions more people on the planet now. 2,863,042,795 the year I was born, according to one source, 7,404,976,783 now. All things considered, it's just amazing that we're doing so well. There aren't that many terrorist attacks. Britain puts a very complicated policy issue to a public vote but then doesn't hold a vote at all for its new leader, and yet will probably still be all right. Trump hasn't won yet. The elephants are still here. Global warming hasn't gotten very far yet, and we can always hold out hope for technological solutions. The stresses are showing, yeah, but chaos, anarchy and Armageddon are still being held at bay. Quite reasonably, actually. Considering.
To me, it's just astonishing that you can take a not-very-disorderly world, add more than 100% more people in a very short time, and still have a not-very-disorderly world. Looking at it that way, we're doing great.
That makes me feel better sometimes. It's easy to get disoriented by the steady rain of bad news. To find an antidote, try turning it around. Things usually look a little clearer if you see them from more than just one angle.
(Thanks to D.M.)
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Eolake: "Well said. And what is not generally realized is that if you look at the long trend, not only are living conditions getting better over the centuries, but over the same trend, violence is clearly down-trending."
Dan: "Yes to this! I have often thought it a testament to the human race that we can propel ourselves at 60 MPH on a two lane road in opposite directions and not slaughter each other. Imagine an alternate reality where cars had never been invented. Anyone who proposed selling giagantic metal boxes that can go at breakneck speed without some kind of track or rail to limit their travel would be insane. I'm pretty sure any product introduced today that killed 30,000 Americans per year would be legislated out of existence...and let's not talk about tobacco...."
John Camp: "The fight against terrorism and ISIS aside, I think that the current feeling of disaffection in the US comes primarily from an increasingly irresponsible news media. Don't mean to beat that drum, because I've said this here before, and I'll add that as somebody who worked for 25 years as a newspaper reporter, it makes me terribly sad to say it.
"But consider this: Every year some 600,000 people are released from prison. If they're released in roughly the same racial proportions as they are convicted, about a quarter million of those people will be black. There are around 800,000 armed police officers in the US. Of those 800,000, my personal belief is that more than a quarter of them are simply unqualified for street work (for a lot of different reasons, including lack of intelligence, authoritarian impulses, personal bigotry, poor training, alcohol and drug problems, burnout, and so on.) So let's say just as a rule of thumb, that 200,000 armed cops shouldn't be out there at all. So you have 250,000 or so black people, mostly men, released from prison each year encountering as many as 200,000 cops who shouldn't be out there at all. The result is going to be the death of a certain number of innocent blacks in totally unjustified shootings each year. It's inevitable, just as traffic deaths are inevitable. You can push the total down, as we have with traffic deaths, but we'll never eliminate them.
"What's happened, though, is that single innocent black deaths have become a cause for mass action, with a very strong suggestion that these killings are somehow the result of policy decisions that can be corrected. But they can't be. Even if we required cops to have much more training, and pass much more stringent tests, there are so many contacts between cops and black men that there are going to be killings, just as there are between cops and innocent whites.
"As far as I know, this simple statistical truth has never been mentioned in any newspaper or on any television news shows. We behave as if something awful has happened here, that we've developed some Jim Crow-type societal malaise, when in fact, what has happening is as inevitable as traffic accidents.
"That failure to look at the root cause of these shootings, and instead to focus on the drama of the incidents and the black response to them, as a form of entertainment, encourages crazy people to imagine that they are somehow defending the race by killing innocent cops—five in Dallas last week, three in Baton Rouge today. I will be astonished if the same phony news dramas don't inspire some white nut in the next few days to mow down a bunch of innocent blacks.
"And I put this on the TV news media. Their irresponsibility is largely to blame for all of this."
Mike adds: I should pass along these stats that Dennis sent as well: there are some 44 million interactions between the public and law enforcement every year. Less than 4% are violent. There were 990 citizens (40% of them black) and 42 police killed in the course of those interactions in 2015. Meanwhile, in the same year, the number of people who die from medical mistakes annually was recently estimated by a Johns Hopkins study to be 250,000.
Chuck Albertson: "You forgot this week's fad, Pokémon Go (this guy gives fresh new meaning to the word 'jarhead'). I swear to God, I will not be stopping these people from waltzing in front of a bus."
Mike replies: There is a certain strange perfection to the ridiculous absurdity of that story.
Geoff Wittig: "Just two little factoids that may provide some comforting perspective.
"First, here in the U.S., those 32,000 deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015 do indeed represent a great tragedy, but consider: those fatal accidents comprise an ever-shrinking tiny fraction of total vehicle miles driven. Plotted over time, it's basically an asymptotic curve. In 1921 it was more than 24 deaths per 100 million vehicles miles. In 2014 it was just scarcely over one, which is an astonishing accomplishment. The decline may have paused in the past year or two, as has the decline in drunk driving, which may be a marker for working class distress, but the overall trend is still remarkable.
"Second, I would strongly recommend Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature, from 2012. Mainstream media/broadcast news leaves you with the distorted impression that we live in an incredibly violent time. ('If it bleeds it leads' as the saying goes in the news business.) But that's just not so! To the contrary, across the U.S. rates of violent crime and murder are at or near historic lows, and have been declining for decades. The same is true across most of the world. Pinker points out that the trend dates back to pre-history. Tribal human origins where horrifically violent, with near-constant genocidal conflict between competing bands and tribes. Twentieth century industrialized warfare notwithstanding, the likelihood of violent death has been declining for millennia, and continues to do so for the overwhelming majority of humanity. In most meaningful ways, daily life for the majority of people on the planet continue to improve incrementally year on year."