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It's been a kind of surreal day. I've been doing some reading for my reading list and feeling a bit overwhelmed because good God, how is February half gone already and all that. But I am (I think) making decent progress. I definitely need to clean up; the bedroom is messy enough that it's distracting to look around.

Anyway. Trying to wind down so I can get to bed, I've been catching up on some of the RSS feeds I follow, and I found a really interesting article:

Fear of Crime

The author tells the story about how when he moved to NYC for school his uncle gave him a hunting knife for protection in the dangerous big city. That's a story I am familiar with, though in my case I was moving to Cleveland. I wasn't given weapons, but I did get suggestions from at least a half-dozen people on how to protect myself. Part of this was being a young woman (I was twenty-four at the time), living on my own in a large city. Never mind the fact that I was living in an apartment with a 24/7 security guard that specialized in grad and international students and that was quite literally within sight of my school. Cleveland was a lovely city, and I miss it a lot, and I truly can't remember ever feeling unsafe personally.

This wasn't blindness or callousness, and it was probably helped by the fact that I was a bit of a homebody. I had a group of friends (waves @ TCBS) that were long-term Cleveland natives, several years older than me and settled in the suburbs. So I would get picked up and deposited at my door, we would go do something nice, and beyond that I was stuck in my campus and fannish life. I didn't really feel the need to go out and do stuff, certainly not at night. But I know for those people back home, the only time they heard the name "Cleveland" was when there was a crime-spree that made the news down South. And just like everyone around you seems to be saying this week's vocab words (because you are keyed in to hear them), I think that when you know someone in a far-off city you arew more tuned in to news about it. Suddenly that place can seem like a very, very dangerous place to live.

We all know that happily-ever-afters make for bad stories (or at least short ones). They also feel rather personal and somehow less real, at least to me. I remember watching the new Alice in Wonderland a few days ago and having a bit of a eucatastrophe moment. It's when Alice kills the jabberwocky and all the card-knights drop their swords, and you hear this clanging that's similar to when swords meet but is different - it actually made a peacenik like myself weep happy tears. Even remembering that scene has me smiling. But things like that, even if they were reality (or, to speak more precisely: in re rather than in intellectu), they would hardly be worth mentioning. They would feel like "my" happiness ratbher than something universal. Even when the good news gets reported on, it's more as an oddity rather than anything else.

Getting back to the Slate article, it makes the point that for a wide variety of reasons people tend to think the world is more dangerous than it is (statistically speaking). Those reasons actually make a lot of sense, and I suppose it makes sense in most every way to overreact to fear. Evolution-wise, you're more likely to survive if you stay as far away from danger as possible. All things being equal, which of course they never are: sometimes being gun-shy costs us important opportunities. And "tough on crime" does make a good sound-bite. And people desperately want information when they're scared, so I can easily see why that drives news ratings up. Who wouldn't want those things?

But there's another aspect that I think can be all too easily overlooked. Because I see a real similarity between this phenomenon and our perpetual war on terror on the one hand, and our "social" wars on the other hand. Reading the reports of CPAC, one of the Ron Paul supporters made the argument that conservative moral issues like abortion and gay murder should be put on the back burner until the economy is fixed. (It never will be.) For years Americans were told that we shouldn't insist on those pesky Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. There were real Bad Guys to catch, and so long as we were at war, us "decent folk" should just grit our teeth and bear it. After all, we didn't have anything to hide, right? Sometimes I feel like my country was sold on temporary sacrifices that are structured in a way that they'll never go away.

I know that there are other people besides the news organizations and the politicians who spin fear into gold. That phrase military-industrial complex is almost cliche, but there's some truth into it: for some people, perpetual war in all its formats is good, even as it is driving my country into the ground. The other theme that came out of CPAC was this idea that America was exceptional, that we should be leading the world, how outrageous it was when polls said most Americans thought China was the superpower. But I don't know where this myth that America was some great world-leader came from. My country has done a lot of good for the world, and I'm proud of that. But we didn't really have long-standing empires like the British, French, and Spanish did. If we won World War II it was because we stood on the shoulders of giants: those Europeans, and especially the British who had been being bombed regularly while we sat safe across the Atlantic. Between slavery and our horrid handling of Native Americans, I don't see my country as having any great claim to the moral high ground, either.

I can't help wondering whether my nation's anxiety goes back to this myth? When you expect to be #1 and you aren't, when you expect everything to be perfect and it's not, it's too easy to believe that things would be right if not for... whatever. Crime. Immigrants. Business practices. Micro-managing nanny states. Whatever.

Or maybe this is all just human psychology - we're just wired, predisposed, something, toward seeing the world in this way. I really hope not - that would be truly depressing!

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
marta_bee
Feb. 14th, 2011 09:42 pm (UTC)
I quite agree. I don't want any part of that responsibility, personally!
dreamflower02
Feb. 13th, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
What I found interesting in that article were the comments. People's reaction to the notion that our fear is disproportionatet to the reality ranged from "Statistics are easily manipulated" to "What else is new?" to "It's a conspiracy."

The truth is, humans have always had boogey-men. We have always had things we fear that are not real. When we are children, it often *is* a boogey-man-- that bathrobe draped over the closet door looks an awful lot like a monster. When we grow up, our fears tend to change to things that do happen in reality-- even if they are terribly unlikely to happen to us.

Our own life experiences can often color our perceptions of safety and danger as well. Losing my dad at an early age to a workplace accident took away my trust that a loved one walking out the door on any ordinary day will return in one piece. My saying "Take care" or "Drive safely" when I say good-bye is unlikely to change what happens; nevertheless, if I do not, I feel as though something's amiss and likely to go wrong.

People who have either experienced crime or been close to someone who has, will also have their reactions changed by that.

marta_bee
Feb. 14th, 2011 11:10 pm (UTC)
I *blush* never read the comments these days. Or try not to, because they always make me more frustrated than anything. But those reactions seem right on key with the reaction I have gotten from various people on this topic. You're right, people do react more to being past victims. Maybe there's a time delay involved? You'd think that people being victims of past crime would be less of a factor as there was, you know, less crime, but that may take a while to show up in people's perceptions. I know that I have a similar reaction to suicide: because of family experience, I am very affected by suicide and suicide attempts, and very scared that people going through tough times will do that. Statistics about suicide's rarety wouldn't change that reaction.
labourslamp
Feb. 13th, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC)
I don't see how American exceptionalism has anything to do with American imperialism, at least historically speaking. Our nation came of age during the era of nationalism, so the idea that there's something about America that makes it essentially different (if not better) go all the way back to Frederick Jackson Turner, Alexis de Tocqueville, or, if you want to waaaaaay back, John Winthrop--all of whom predate the modern American world-leader model. And because the ideals that the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights embody, I think there's some truth there, even though we never have lived up to those ideals.

America as a world power, dominating the world not only ideologically but also commercially and militarily, didn't really start until World War I, because we financed so much of that war, and it didn't become apparent until World War II. And I don't think we did anything to deserve that--it's just that our allies were all exhausted by the war, someone was going to have to fill in that power vacuum, and we and they wanted that someone to be partial to our interests. Plus there was the Cold War, and if that doesn't create a situation whereby Certain Sectors can profit, I don't know what does. And now that we've gotten in, we don't know how to get out, because there isn't anyone else out there that we'd be comfortable surrendering power to. Certainly not our chief financier.

As far as crime goes, I think part of it's human nature, and I think part of it is the fact that we haven't yet adapted to some of the most recent changes in crime and the way we see it. One of the more fascinating explanations for the drop in urban crime is the legalization of abortion a generation prior--that's something we haven't had to contend with before. And of course, the increasing availability of information technology, which makes sensationalist headlines even more available to distort our perception of reality than before.

"Sometimes I feel like my country was sold on temporary sacrifices that are structured in a way that they'll never go away."

You and me both. At least (for the moment) the PATRIOT Act is due to expire at the end of the month.
marta_bee
Feb. 15th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I quite agree with your reading of American imperialism. We have the Monroe Doctrine going back to 1823, for example, and the idea of manifest destiny all throughout the 1800s. The difference is that there were broad areas of land that were populated but without European-style weaponry to defend themselves, right on our borders. I tend to think of America's westward expansion as a type of imperialism, and the Mexican-American War always seemed like a war over an empire. Certainly the idea prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, that the European powers should stay out of the civil wars in Central and South America seems very much like empire-building.

On crime and abortion: I had never heard that, but I find it fascinating! There is a certain logic to it, if you don't have children being born into unstable situations. I wouldn't mind reading more on it.
labourslamp
Feb. 15th, 2011 02:43 am (UTC)
I stand corrected on American imperialism--I guess I was looking at it more to the extent that our earlier exploits were limited to the Western Hemisphere. Though even that started changing with Admiral Perry, etc. At any rate I do think that the USA only began to dominate "The West" militarily and economically in the twentieth century.

I'll poke around for more information on the crime/abortion correlation. I've only heard it in passing but it does, as you put it, have a logic to it.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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