By Martha Quillen
It’s hard to know whether the most serious problem facing our world today is rising temperatures or rising tempers, but perhaps they’re related. Maybe tempers are rising because modern life confronts people with so much that seems out of their control, such as climate change, war, terrorism, escalating costs and changing technology.
We live in an era of innovation, in which people can bank, shop, email and invest online. Computers provide facts, social networks, classes and entertainment. New vehicles can talk and give you directions, and will reportedly drive themselves soon.
Yet something is always going wrong. The system is down, or plagued by a computer virus. You worry about identity theft and cyberfraud. And people are constantly phoning, texting and computing in front of you in the grocery store aisle.
It can be maddening to live in an affluent, well-wired society. Yet I suspect it’s a lot more maddening to live in our society if you’re not affluent and can’t afford to be well-wired.
By mid-March, the 2016 campaigns were well underway, and rowdy crowds of people – who were being described by the media as mostly white, and poorer and less educated than most Americans – were flocking to support a campaign like no other. Trump was greeting them enthusiastically and promising to keep terrorists, Muslims and undocumented workers out of the U.S.A.
Meanwhile, the Republican runner-up was promising to “abolish the IRS” and to initiate a modest flat tax instead (which apparently wouldn’t need to be administered by any agency).
The Trump and Cruz campaigns were promising sheer fantasy, and their followers were …. Well, they weren’t exactly buying Trump’s blarney. In fact, when questioned most of Trump’s admirers admitted that they didn’t believe everything Trump said, but they liked him. And why not? Even though the Republican party endorses conservative social and religious values, it hasn’t addressed the dire situation facing all too many Americans: the stagnant wages, lost jobs, abandoned farms, closed factories, dying towns, failing schools and the consequent loss of status, opportunities, resources and prospects.
And the Democrats aren’t talking about that: they’re fretting about the rising surge of racism and rage sweeping our nation. Neither side, however, is discussing its possible causes, even though minimizing them (or at least seriously attempting to) might alleviate some of the anger.
But instead of examining our rage, or paying attention to all of the candidates and issues, the news is focusing on the Trump campaign, which has turned into the most extraordinary reality show on the air, with fisticuffs, protesters, security staff and white supremacists all coming together, screaming, shouting, cheering …
“What’s going on?” newscasters ask.
But that’s obvious. The Trump campaign has illuminated an ugly truth: the future is looking pretty bleak for many workers. A cataclysmic blend of developments are currently threatening America’s labor force: Globalization, robotics and the mechanization of agriculture and industry have reduced the number of blue-collar jobs available. And middle-class wages have been stagnant for decades. Yet monetary compensation for CEOs and white-collar professionals has soared, thereby ensuring higher prices and widening the income gap between haves and have-nots.
American policies encourage growth, development, international trade and military intervention, and they’ve kept our GNP high, our banks dominant and our country the richest on earth. But our nation’s actions are leaving a lot of people impoverished and angry, both here and abroad.
Afghanis and Syrians make up 43 percent of the world’s refugees. Somalia trails in third place, and Iraq has a significant problem. Today the world is ravaged by human trafficking, child exploitation, thugs, terrorists, corruption and chronic warfare. And ravaged nations are hemorrhaging refugees. In 2015, the U.N. reported that there were an estimated 60 million refuges in the world, an all-time high, and American military interventions, past and present, are considered a major contributing factor.
And as for that flood of unaccompanied Central American children that has stirred up so much anti-immigrant sentiment? Their dire circumstances are considered a result of Reagan doctrine military intervention in the 1980s.
“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement, as well as the response required, is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” says Antonio Guterrez, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
But that’s something America’s political parties, candidates, reporters and citizens seldom address. So why is that?
Clearly war begets war, and anger begets anger, and once conflicts start they go on and on, and yet we seldom address the underlying causes behind the anger, or try to mitigate them – not just in foreign nations but right here at home, too. Instead we just keep reprising the same fights, over and over again.
Salida’s political arguments seemed to be abating, but a couple of recent letters in the local newspaper showed that feelings are still raw. A few weeks ago, a Mountain Mail editorial explained the newspaper’s rationale for not printing letters that contain personal attacks. “No one should ever be afraid to write letters or talk to our reporters because they think they will be lambasted on the letters page,” managing editor Paul Goetz wrote.
In response, letters arrived to protest the paper’s policy, including two which contended that someone else had started the fight so others should get to continue it.
Given that notion, it’s clear why fights tend to escalate. Yet several of my friends loved those letters. Yeah, she started it, they contended. And maybe she did, but at the time I had no idea who she was, since I had quit reading most of the Mail’s letters long ago. They’re almost always about who said what and who insulted whom, and who was to blame, and frankly I don’t think anyone is actually to blame for most of Salida’s problems.
On March 21, the Mail headlined an article about Chaffee County: “Wages at 63% of National Average.” And I figure that’s what’s really wrong. Wages are low and prices are rising, and a lot of Salidans are really worried.
When people have problems, especially seemingly unfixable, long-term problems, they get mad and blame the powers that be (which is generally the government). And as often as not, they get no relief, so they get madder, and sometimes even join the Klan. That’s what happened in Colorado in the 1920s. Mineral prices plummeted, and then in 1921, the price of wheat tanked, and by 1924 the Klan was thriving. But within a few years the Klan was sinking faster than the economy had, because all the Klan did was fuel anger and make things worse.
Anger isn’t a solution; it’s a warning. And too much anger can become a much worse problem than the ones that inspired it. A Colorado History contends that “Genuine problems of considerable magnitude confronted the citizens of Colorado during those years, that should have received the attention of citizens and politicians alike.”
And so it is today, nationally, internationally and locally. In order to stop the anger, we’ve got to address the problems fueling it. It’s as simple as that, and as really, truly difficult as that. And that’s what we need to talk about: our problems, not our attitude.
Martha Quillen lives in Salida, where the wind can bluster more impressively than the crowds at a Trump rally.