Some things don’t change.
A week or so ago, I was on a long, empty sidewalk on Maynard Road in Cary, NC, heading for the Food Lion for groceries. Maynard is four lanes wide, cutting between ridiculously-tall stands of oaks and fragrant pines you’d be hard-pressed to reach your arms around, the trunks are so large.
Far ahead of me, coming towards me, was a man in his twenties with a dog on the end of a leash. The man was starting forward, stopping, getting the dog to heel and then setting out again, repeating the process over and over again.
At the end of the leash was a gangly young black Lab, all angles, ears and too-large paws.
You can probably see a dog like that in your head, the way it strains and scrabbles at the end of the leash, desperately interested in everything and everyone.
Both the dog’s owner and I knew what was going to happen — he moved to the far left of the sidewalk, and I moved to the far right, but even with the expanse of concrete between us, the dog reared up against the leash, paws battering at the air, big pink tongue dangling out, desperately wanting to greet me.
His owner and I both laughed, and then we went ahead in our different directions.
An absolutely average scene in a small American city.
It’s nothing like the America that comes out of the divergent sides of the American media right now.
Broadcast America is chockablock with extremism. Destructive extremism.
There are people building careers — and in the process, making huge amounts of money — saying things they flat-out have to know are either deliberately slanted or flatly untrue.
When I was there, for example, Fox News was all in a tizzy about the sentencing of Michael Flynn. The former three-star general and national security adviser to President Donald Trump was scheduled to be sentenced, a sentencing that has since been delayed. What was Fox News’ take? There should be rallies demanding his freedom. It was unbelievable that “this great patriot” might go to jail.
What wasn’t being mentioned?
That Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a senior Russian consular official. That at his own sentencing hearing, Flynn admitted that he knew it was a crime to lie to the FBI.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, much hay is made about a comment made by the judge overseeing the sentencing: “Arguably, you sold your country out.” Those same outlets are primed and ready to take any possible attack, real or imagined, on President Donald Trump direct to air, apparently believing it’s better to be first with a story than it is to deliver an accurate one.
None of this is helped, of course, by the fact that U.S. politicians have discovered you can simply lie to public and your supporters will believe it, no matter how transparently false the lie actually is.
There are carnival barkers on both sides. Sometimes, you actually even see them slip on air — in the midst of going on about the manifest evil of Hillary Clinton, a smile will break through, as if the hosts themselves can’t believe what they’re getting on with.
But out there on the other side of the radio speaker or the television screen, there are ordinary citizens depending on one station or the other for their information — solidly believing that what they are hearing is true.
What they are hearing is getting darker every day. That’s why there are cases where people have already taken up arms — shooting a Republican politician at a baseball game, carrying weapons into a pizza restaurant to stop a entirely-fictitious children’s sex ring run by Democrats.
And the people who are ramping up the rhetoric seem oblivious to the fact that they are playing with fire.
The truth is far more nuanced that either “Trump is evil” or “The Democrats are slime.”
But that’s not what ordinary Americans are being told.
The hate pump is being well primed, and no one should be surprised at what might eventually flow out of it.
The only real hope is the more comforting reality of neighbours and sidewalks and a foolishly-happy young dog at the end of a leash.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.