by Dan Sullivan
The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so. — Josh Billings
Many of my Georgist colleagues don’t want to hear more about global warming, which is all right with me. However, there is a much larger issue behind the global warming issue, and it is particularly pertinent to the difficulties that Georgists encounter. It is what Harry Pollard called “pop dread,” combined with what Mark Twain called “corn-pone opinions.” These phenomena are important because they sweep people into overreacting and losing their grasp on the actual truth. Hence anyone who doesn’t want to tax capital is a right-wing patsy of the big corporations, and anyone who wants to tax land is an enemy of private property. In short, pop dread and corn-pone opinions are the cornerstones of the mob mentality, sanitized and reserved as they might appear in polite society.
Pop dread is a result of the news media’s proclivity for repeating anything that is salacious, shocking or frightening, sometimes using the word “alleged” when they could be sued by a particular person, but often passing on hearsay as gospel when they are just repeating a popular superstition. While there might be truth in the charges against targets of pop dread, the truth is never as frightening as the pop dread itself.
Lest people think that I am arguing only against demagoguery from the left, let me say right off that the “red scare” was the greatest example of pop dread in the twentieth century, and that “Islamic terrorism” promises to be the greatest example in the 21st. However, this century is young, and there is plenty of time for other contenders.
Instead, let us start with a few simpler examples, stripped away from the massive struggle between the environmental movement and the energy monopolies. Such examples are instructive because they show how the media itself rewards dread-mongers.
“Road rage” is a fine place to start, because it is basically a fiction created entirely by the media, with no real vested interest behind it. It survives because it appeals to violence, fear, vulnerability — and most of all, alliteration. Newscasters can roll the term off their tongues while staring directly into the camera looking deadly serious.
However, the actual incidences of vehicle-related assault per million miles driven has been going down steadily since the advent of automotive air conditioning. Apparently, people don’t get as hot under the collar when they’re not, well, hot under the collar.
What has increased is not the incidence of road rage, but the reporting of road rage. Minor incidences that once went unrecorded are now reported to the police, and incidents that once passed unnoticed on police blotters are now headline news. The public now thinks that there is a great increase in road rage, just as they think there have been more police chases since the advent of the news helicopter.
Today’s kids are not allowed to touch their “booty” after trick-or-treating until parents carefully inspect it, because news shows have reported so many “shocking” incidents of candy bars laced with straight pins, razor blades, glass, etc.
Strangely, though, no child has ever actually eaten such a candy bar and been hurt by it. Experts now agree that these things are placed into candy bars by the children themselves, who then run to their parents and become the center of attention as “victims” of nefarious child-haters.
There are several cases of children bringing booby-trapped candy to their parents in one town, moving to another town, and having the same child again report dangerous candy to his parents. There have also been no cases of children from multiple families in a neighborhood finding booby-trapped candy. Still, the news media solemnly warns parents each year to check their children’s candy, perpetuating the myth.
Another problem steeped in pop-dread fiction is child molestation, and this one has a bit of corn-pone opinion behind it, so I should explain what that means. Mark Twain was once told by a slave, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone (i.e., where his bread is buttered), en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” Twain went on to argue that the strongest influence on opinions is personal identity, not financial reward. Thus, for example, Democrats tend to believe everything that makes Republicans look bad, and vice versa.
Vested interests, in this case social workers, perpetuate myths that enhance their own importance, but, according to Twain, do so more to bolster their self-image than for mercenary reasons.
In any case, daytime talk shows, from the relatively well-meaning Oprah down to the most salacious panderers, have showed a steady parade of social workers telling the world, as if there were a clear consensus, that child molesters cannot help themselves, and that no child is safe when a convicted molester lives in the neighborhood. As a result of this hysterical fiction, people convicted of sexual offenses involving minors are put on lists that are often distributed to their neighbors.
What are the actual facts? Those convicted on non-sexual assault charges have a much higher chance of being brought back before the courts. (The actual statistics are kept for each particular type of theft, eg., petty larceny, larcenous breaking and entering, armed robbery, grand theft auto, etc.)
The “pop-dread” aspect of this is obvious, but what about the steady stream of social workers who for years perpetuated the lie that there was “consensus” that child sex criminals could not be rehabilitated? On the positive side, they made themselves feel more important because they were protecting children from such terrible monsters, but the real factor was negative pressure against those who might break ranks. Anyone who challenged them was accused of being in favor of child molestors, and nobody wanted to be painted with that brush. It is even more of a stigma than being told that you are on the side of the energy monopolies because you question the “consensus” about global warming.
The consequences of pop dread are severe. For example, bicyclists are so afraid of being run over from behind that they let themselves be squeezed into the right edge of the traffic lane, where they are in far greater danger. There they get hit by people opening doors of parked cars, pedestrians stepping out from behind cars, cars pulling out of hidden driveways and plunking the forward end of the car into the paths of the cyclists, cyclists losing control because of debris in their lane, cyclists being thrown by potholes and sewer lids or being sideswiped by a car from maneuvering to the left to avoid such hazards. (They cannot maneuver to the right because they are already squeezed to the right.)
Other consequences less easily measured are that people drive more fearfully, which might cause them to make dangerously hasty lane changes when tailgated, etc.
Maybe it’s just as well that people are afraid of Halloween candy, because, although the straight pins and razors have not actually injured anyone, the excess sugar is ruining the health and shortening the lives of millions. On the other hand, what has disappeared from Halloween is not the commercial candies, but the home-made ones, such as caramel apples, home-baked cookies, etc. While these products are not health food by any stretch, they are at least healthier than commercial candies. Maybe the real tragedy is that we fear our neighbors but trust the candy makers.
The pop-dread about child molestation has the most serious consequences of all, because it actually increases child molestation. It makes parents, teachers and others afraid to be affectionate and physically demonstrative with children for fear that they will be accused of molestation, yet the children who are most susceptible to being molested are those who are starved for affection and physical contact.
Similarly, potential child molestors are far more likely to act out if they feel isolated and alienated from adult society, and the false portrayal of them as hopelessly pathological monsters who ought to be locked up isolates and alienates them further. It also prevents them from seeking treatment on their own, because those who treat them must also turn them in to authorities, who will subject them to all the hysterical laws that pretend to protect children.
The point is that fear is a great manipulator, as is denial. In contrast, the term “healthy skepticism” exists because while both fear and denial are self destructive, skepticism keeps us alive and free, both as individuals and as a species.
As Georgists, we see both fear of our proposals and denial of the problems they address. Moreover, we see the effects of “corn-pone opinions” in the reactions by bureaucrats who would be rendered unnecessary and aristocrats who would be unable to continue living off of privilege. We are not met with formidable arguments, but with dismissal. After all, there is a “consensus” among economists that land is no longer that great a factor in the economy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not get it exactly right, but he was close. We have nothing to fear as much as fear itself.