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Larry Gellman

Larry Gellman

Posted: February 25, 2010 05:32 PM

Feeding the Beast--Our Addiction to Anger and Fear

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If you ask most people what they want the most for themselves--and certainly for their children--the vast majority would say "happiness." We want to be happy and we want our friends and family to go through life with every reason to wear a big smile. If you Google "how to be happy" you will find 165 million distinctive links.


So why do so many people spend every waking moment watching, listening to, and reading things that tell us up front are specifically designed to make us angry or afraid? This isn't the unpredictable bad stuff that just happens as part of the ups and downs of life. This is going out of our way to to listen to people and read things that advertise their goal is to make us angry and miserable.


During a single 12-hour period last week, I received emails headlined "Do you want to get really mad?"--obviously a rhetorical question since the presumed answer was "of course I do"--another saying "We should all be afraid," and a third that was simply called "OUTRAGE."


Each email was sent by a seemingly normal, well-balanced friend who had included me on a list of 12 or more other recipients. Two of the emails showed a long history of others who had received and forwarded them--more than 100 people in a matter of a few hours for each. Instead of deleting these messages that promised to deliver misery and despair, my friends apparently couldn't wait to open them and send them on as quickly as possible to friends and family members who they presumed also wanted to get more angry and afraid.


If most people say their goal in life is to be happy, then why do they spend so much time and money convincing themselves and others how furious and fearful they should be? Why do millions of us spend much of the day listening to ranting, raving, outraged people on the radio, come home and watch the angry Right wingers on Fox or the angry Left wingers on MSNBC and then read the steady stream of emails telling us how mad and scared to death we should be of our own government, Muslims, Arabs, Obama, Liberals, Congress, the media and everyone else in the world?


It gets even more bizarre. Our addiction to anger and fear has become so insatiable that there doesn't seem to be enough terrible and/or scary real news out there to meet our ever-growing need for outrage. The truth has become irrelevant as we stretch to feed our addiction to the beast of anger, blame, and fear.


The vast majority of emails, blogs, and other angry stuff are full of lies and distortions. The business of providing raw material to the misery pushers has become so large and successful that a number of websites thrive doing nothing other than check the veracity of stories that are flying around the internet. Snopes.com, factcheck.org, and others get millions of hits from people who are suspicious about the truthfulness of the hateful emails they get.


But it gets even more bizarre. When I fact-check the angry lies and find out that President Obama did NOT really attend Occidental College under his real Kenyan name or that Michelle Obama did NOT run up a $450 room service bill for a snack at the Waldorf Astoria or that the calls for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reigning in Congress are based on phony assertions, I assume that the friends who sent me and others the lie in the first place would appreciate knowing that they were spreading falsehoods.


Guess what? Every time I have informed them of the fact, they get angry at ME, accuse me of being a liberal, and never go back to their sources or the people they have misinformed to correct the mistake or apologize for spreading lies in the first place. One friend said he always fact checks emails before he forwards them but the one full of lies that he sent me was "too good to check out."


Just to be clear, these emails and media reports are not honest mistakes or matters of opinion. They are lies that were created (often with time-consuming care, elaborate layouts, and artwork) and disseminated by people who knew they were lies from the outset. They were never designed to inform or enlighten. On the contrary, they were created for the specific purpose of creating anger and demonizing their targets.


New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once said that "addicts never tell the truth to their pushers." He was referring to the unwillingness or inability of the U.S. government to call the Saudis to task for their role in financing and promoting terrorism around the world. Friedman explained that since we are addicted to Saudi oil, we can't, or won't, ever be truly honest with them for fear they might cut us off.


It would appear that millions of Americans have become truly addicted to anger and outrage. Fox News and talk radio figured it out first, and years ago became the crack pipe of the angry Right. They realized early on that there's no money in real journalism any more but they could get rich feeding our insatiable need for heroes and villains.


The other cable channels were slower to catch on, but now MSNBC, CNN, CNBC and the rest all want to make Fox-sized money ($700 million in profits last year with $23 million going to Roger Ailes, the CEO) so they have abandoned journalistic standards as well. Their idea of "balanced coverage" is getting the most extreme advocates of competing positions, putting them on stage together, and encouraging a food fight.


When was the last time you saw a guest on a cable station advocate a nuanced, pluralistic position and acknowledge the partial truth of opinions of the other side? My friends who used to appear frequently on these programs now say they can't get on the air unless they promise to be rabidly partisan.


So, to paraphrase Stan Laurel, "this is a fine mess you've gotten us into, Rush." We all want happiness more than anything else and yet we have become hopelessly addicted to media and emails that promise to make us UN-happy. How do we shed our demons and get back on track?


Here's a thought. First, stop watching cable news and listening to talk radio. I did that six months ago and haven't missed a thing. I have not missed the people I used to disagree with all the time (not surprising) but I also haven't missed the people I used to agree with that are trying to make other people angry. I have seen 132 episodes of NCIS, Law and Order, and CSI and know a lot more about sports and the weather than I used to. I even read a book.


When you get emails that promise to make you angry or unhappy, either delete them or if you have to read them, fact check them and let the sender and other recipients know if they are based on lies. If they are written anonymously, contain provocative pictures and inflammatory phrases, provide no contact information for the original author, and encourage you to forward it to the whole world if you agree but instruct you to delete it if you don't, it is almost guaranteed to be full of lies and distortions. Dozens of examples are available upon request.


Finally, we need to stop looking for villains and start looking in the mirror. What ever happened to the notion of shared sacrifice and shared responsibility? What ever happened to John Kennedy's exhortation to ask what you can do for your country? These are very hard and challenging times for most Americans. The solutions do not lie in anger and demonizing the other. They lie in our own hope, perspective, ingenuity, and ability to be part of the solution.


We may not come up with a lot of good answers right away. But if we can stop feeding the beast and start to break our addiction to anger and fear and villains and hatespeech, it would be a good start.