The used the phrase “stay safe” for the first time put in my memory I saw a television news program. After the correspondent had delivered his report, the moderator thanked him and then said with a concerned look, “Stay out there safely.”
It was actually irritating to me because I was a reporter and editor for decades and, with the rare exception of first-person features, we kept ourselves and our efforts to get the story out of the final product. It was part of the canon of our profession: focus on the story and the facts.
This “stay safe” seemed to me to be a deliberate departure from that canon – a new kind of subtle marketing maneuver with the unspoken message, “Our people are risking their lives to bring you the news.” It was an incremental advance in the constant creeping sensationalism and emotionality of this medium: “It’s a dangerous world out there – don’t get hurt.” In reality, the world was not more dangerous, but by implying this, these networks imperceptibly increased the fear of their viewers and their need to be on the To stay up to date.
Since then, “Stay safe” has been the new American mantra. Instead of “goodbye”, “see you then” or “later, old man” someone usually says “stay safe”. I know it’s well meant, but it bothers me. Since when have we Americans been such a fearful, frightened, and safety-obsessed race?
Let me take a step back and explain a little. I’ve known for years that I see things a little differently when it comes to safety and risk. Some might conclude that I am weird.
For example, when our children were trick or treating years ago, I was a bit shocked when some parents in our neighborhood didn’t let their children trick or treat because they thought it was too dangerous. Instead, they drove their children to the well-lit business district nearby and monitored their route from shop to shop. We all lived in Squirrel Hill at the time, one of the safest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, which statistically was and is America’s safest city. I told one parent that if everyone withdrew from their own neighborhood, one day it might actually become the dangerous place they feared.
On September 11, 2001, I covered the historic events of that day for the Post-Gazette when our children’s school called to say it would close early and we could pick up the three children? It turned out that many parents had come before the school decided to close. I remember thinking, “Why? Pittsburgh is in no danger. What do we teach our children to be afraid of? Are we going to let these terrorists who hijacked four planes cripple our whole country? ”
And four days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when one of the two bombers was dead but the younger one remained at large, the governor shut down the entire city of Boston – schools, transportation, shops, everything – and told everyone, ” Shelter “to be in place.” Because a teenager was at large, should 1 million others be crouching at home? I didn’t get it, and I didn’t agree.
However, I have never considered myself a real runaway in the human herd in the past 15 months. Since the beginning of COVID, I have felt that the public policy responses – lockdowns etc – have been a dramatic overreaction, especially in Pennsylvania. And if anyone ever gets to the bottom of this, I think history and science will show that these locks were far more harmful than the actual disease.
COVID was clearly dangerous for the very old, people with comorbidities, and those who were overweight. It was also a little unpredictable; relatively rare, but very notable, are said to be healthy younger people among the 580,000 US victims. But here are two important facts: In a country of 333 million people, COVID deaths account for 17 / 100ths of one percent (0.17%) of Americans. For those under 75 years of age, it is 8 / 100ths of 1 percent (0.08%).
I think the fear / hysteria was out of proportion to reality. The fear was understandable at the beginning, when we still knew little about COVID and the prognoses – long since revised downwards – were so bleak. But after we learned how it spreads, who it attacks, how to deal with it and secrete those at risk, the fear did not subside. It took on a life of its own – fueled by the politics of the election year – and galloped faster, though the facts argued it should be slower. But the facts and those who opposed the hardening orthodoxy were often disguised on the news broadcasts with their daily new caseloads and deaths, always a new record, of course.
COVID wasn’t the only one fueling the bonfire of fears. After protests and riots broke out after the assassination of George Floyd, parts of some cities – most notoriously Seattle – became “self-governing autonomous zones” under the rule of the mob. And the toxic brew of 2020 continued through the November elections, reaching a final boiling point with allegations of rampant voter fraud and ultimately the January 6th Capitol Riot.
But even before these events, we in America built a culture and even an industry of fear. Fear sells products. It has spread from body odor and bad breath to advertisements for chemical spraying every surface in your home and office to the front door cameras so you can see who is ringing your doorbell from your paved secure space. And of course, Angst sells guns, which have sold record after record since last summer.
Most of all, fear sells television advertising. When the situation calmed down in February and the television stations no longer had to report on former President Trump, they turned back to “mass shootings”. Yes, these shootings are news – and they are troubling. But the cable news in particular has transformed these events into sensational orgies of emotion and fear. They do not provide context by reporting that the homicide rate is lower than in 1960 and less than half that in 1980 (which is true). And they don’t question whether their satiety coverage bears any responsibility for the spread of mass shootings. Instead, they vie for ratings and cry and moan.
Fear definitely sells, but it is also crippling. It distorts and damages, and that damage has consequences. For example, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf quickly jumped behind New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who imposed panic COVID lockdowns and closed countless small businesses as “non-essential”. Wolf’s legacy will be that, along with New York, Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of small businesses closed in the country during the pandemic – 31 percent. That’s hundreds of thousands of enterprising people who have lost their livelihood and wealth out of fear.
Fear has also led to an intellectual orthodoxy that could surpass the McCarthy era. At US universities, the marketplace of ideas has narrowed dramatically, where professors lose their jobs if they express unpopular positions or even initiate discussions on controversial topics. Americans are afraid to give their opinion on many topics now for fear of being “doxxed” or “canceled” by “lively” social media mobs. And this fear leads countless Americans not to do or say what they think is right, but to do and say what they think is right and “safe”.
Perhaps the worst part of our year of fear is the damage we cannot yet see. The $ 6 trillion in national debt accumulated will weigh on future generations, but that is “just money.” Even worse is the damage to young people in public schools, some of which were closed for more than a year, although the risk of COVID for young people is statistically zero. That was unscrupulous. They have been robbed of their learning, social life, sport – almost everything – and especially for young people these years are never coming back. Worst of all is the fear they have internalized. They are afraid to go out into nature without a mask and they learn that America is the home of fear and fear, a place where they need safe spaces to hide from a dangerous world.
A friend of mine says this is China’s century. He looks at America and does not see the spirit of the past – the imagination, the innovation and the will. While I am not denying some of what he says, I am not going to admit his main point. But if we continue to be a nation of media-programmed cowards obsessed with “staying safe”, my friend will almost certainly be right.
A long time ago my father told me the old adage, “A coward dies a thousand times, a brave man dies only once.” my mom and grandmother would think how scared people are now. Americans used to be made of stricter material. And maybe, if we take away all the media noise, political pose and protests, maybe a majority of Americans still are. Time will tell, but I think we have to save this country from the scare mongers and what Teddy Roosevelt called “the insane fringe”.
Here’s a good place to start. It is summer. Let’s all turn off the TV news and social media, go outside and breathe some fresh air. Remember how lucky we are to be Americans and how America became the greatest country in history. Think of the courage it took to be a frontier worker, an astronaut, a civil rights activist, an entrepreneur – a founder of this nation.
And instead of staying safe, let’s stay strong, stay free, and stay brave. Let’s get up and be Americans.