Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Anger and Outrage--America's Fastest Growing Religion

Last week I had an epiphany.

I have been operating under the mistaken belief that those who continually forward emails full of vicious lies and distortions smearing President Obama, his family, and others with whom they politically disagree were simply mistaken. I was sure that if I could send them conclusive proof that they were forwarding deliberately manufactured lies--not honest mistakes--then they would be grateful and thank me.

But they never did. In fact, they almost always got angry and berated me for being a liberal--which I guess is a term they use to describe people who care about the truth. They never said "Thank you so much! I can't believe I just sent a horrible lie about our president to a whole bunch of my friends. I will have to get back in touch with all of them right away and make sure they know it's not true!"

Then my friend Doug, a highly respected attorney, helped me see the light. I had just responded to a number of people who had sent me an email claiming that President Obama had sent $17 million dollars in stimulus money to officials at Oregon State University to help save the job of Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson, who was supposedly about to be fired as the school's basketball coach.

Now to any reasonable person (particulary a sports fan familiar with the Pac 10), this piece was obviously phony. In the first place, Robinson is the best coach Oregon State has had in over a decade and has turned their basketball program around. OSU fans were scared that he would leave for a bigger school and were thrilled when he signed a contract extension through 2016 last March. As Snopes, Urban Legends, and other truth sites have pointed out, every sentence in the email is false. And, as with all these creations, it is a professionally manufactured lie--not the result of an average person making an honest mistake.

So I wrote back to the friends who forwarded me this piece (under a headline encouraging me to be outraged) along with proof that it wasn't true. But this time I asked Doug "now that you know it's a lie, what are you going to do?" His response made it clear to me just how misguided I have been--and a whole lot more.

"I'm going to keep sending it out," he said. "After all, Obama lies all the time so we have the right to lie too."

Then it hit me. We are not dealing with rational discourse about politics, economics, and what is best for America any more. We are dealing with a religious cult of tens of millions of people who are addicted to anger, outrage, and hatred and the media outlets that feed that addiction.  Issues that most of us consider to be questions of truth and reason have now become questions of religious faith.

These are Americans who now believe with perfect faith the our black president, dark-skinned Muslim terrorists and Mexican immigrants, and liberal Democrats are the cause of every problem we face in America today. These self-described patriots don't just disagree with their adversaries--they actually think the bad guys are pure evil and out to deliberately destroy everything that is great about America. 

These cult patriots are true believers in the same way that Orthodox Jews believe that the entire Hebrew Bible was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai--in the same way that devout Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. It is not a matter that lends itself to intellectual discussion.  It is not about reason or facts--it is a matter of faith.

Rational discourse and fact checks that prove that what is being said is untrue have become irrelevant to people for whom this was never about truth and accuracy. Glenn Beck has become the high priest of Fox News and of the new religion and his language and demeanor have become increasingly evangelical as this trend has continued.

The business network CNBC has jumped on board as well. The late-morning business program "The Call" now includes a regular segment entitled "Viewer Outrage." Think about that. They are now committed to a televised segment of outrage on a daily basis in the way The 700 Club might commit itself to airing daily prayer or bible passage.

But all this anger and outrage and thinly veiled racism and bigotry and lies are only the symptoms. The disease is the widespread and growing sense of fear that is gripping millions of Americans who just a few years ago felt smart and confident about their circumstances and future but who today are more frightened and confused than they have ever been in their lives.

For an entire generation, most people got used to secure employment, a growing economy, rising home, stock, and real estate prices. There were ups and downs along the way but we were all told that if we worked hard, owned quality investments, and hung in for the long term that things would work out fine. And for 25 years they did.

If a person put away a nest egg, they could count on at least 5 percent a year from risk-free investments and an average of 10-15 percent a year in riskier investments. Most of my clients who retired during that period (I work as a financial advisor when I'm not busy saving the world) would  go on to buy the nicest house they ever owned, live better than they did when they were working, and see their net worth go up year after year due to the rising value of their investments. This was the case despite the stock market crash in 1987, the savings and loan crisis of the early '90s, the popping of the tech bubble, and even 9/11. We always came back stronger than we were before.

But all that has changed for the worse during the last five years. Million of Americans have lost 100 percent (or more) of the equity in their homes. Most growth-oriented investments such as stocks and real estate have been losers instead of winners. More importantly, most investors have lost confidence in the future pulling more than $33 billion out of stock mutual funds already this year and moving that money into bonds and CDs that are yielding virtually nothing.

Ten years ago there was full employment and companies such as mine were offering a $1,000 bonus to any employee who helped find a new worker because the labor market was that tight. Today, we have tens of millions of Americans out of work and most companies are looking to make even more cuts even as business has improved dramatically.

In its effort to stimulate the economy by dropping interest rates to zero, the Federal Reserve has actually hurt most investors by making it impossible to get any income at all from bank deposits and money market funds. A person with a million dollars in the bank used to be able to get $50,000 or more a year in income. Now they are lucky to get $1,000.

People who thought they had a grip on their lives are now scared and looking for someone to blame. They used to look forward to leaving something to their children and grandchildren. Today our kids are inheriting a reverse annuity--a mountain of debt they can never outlive. The Patriots blame estate taxes and Obama's anti-wealth policies, but deep down they know the truth. We just didn't have the guts to act like grown-ups. We paid our bills with credit cards and when we were maxed out, we put them on our kids' tab.

We have two basic choices. We can look in the mirror and realize that the challenges we now face are due in large part to choices we made as voters and citizens. We elected and supported government leaders who spent too much and taxed us too little. We wanted to keep our Medicare and drug benefits and Social Security and to expand homeland security and fight two wars but we didn't want to pay for it. We re-elected a president and Congress who told us we could have it all and make no sacrifices. Those same officials allowed our financial institutions and oil drillers and miners and others to take huge risks in search of profits and personal gain without regard to the consequences to all of us when those gambles crapped out.

And it's not all about money.  There are a whole lot of older people who confused brains with a bull market.  They made millions of dollars between 1980 and 2000 mainly because they were alive and in business or the stock market or real estate at the right time.  They worked hard and some were quite intelligent but because they lived during a time when the stock market went from 1,000 to 14,000 and real estate went through the roof they got rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Human nature being what it is, most of them came away feeling really smart instead of really lucky.  Now that things aren't working out so well, instead of feeling really stupid (which is no fun at all) they are just getting angry and blaming all of their challenges and things they just don't understand on the villains cited above.  The truth, of course, is that they were never that smart in the first place and now they are not that stupid but rather than unpack all that, they are forwarding slanderous emails and listening to the media high priests of fear and hatred who are preaching exactly the exact sermon they want to hear.

Instead of looking at how they need to change their own behavior and expectations, these cult Patriots have chosen to blame others and get very angry. They have chosen to blame a president who wasn't even around when everything had already come unglued. They have chosen to blame every member of Congress, even though WE were the ones who elected them. They have chosen to blame a variety of dark-skinned people starting with our Black president but not ending there. We also blame dark-skinned immigrants who, like most of our parents and grandparents came to America seeking a better life and who make a huge contribution to our economy and society.

And now, nine years after 9/11 during which Presidents Bush and Obama have repeatedly insisted the U.S. is at war with terrorists--not Islam,  Fox News and opportunistic politicans are choosing to revive a new wave of bigotry and resentment against the millions of law-abiding, tax-paying Muslim Americans (thousands of whom serve in our military and dozens of whom were killed in the 9/11 attacks) under the guise of showing respect for the Real American victims at the World Trade Center.

The anger and hatred and lies being spread about Muslims and the leaders of the cultural center are yet another embarrassment to our country. The notion that an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory three blocks from Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" while there are already two strips clubs operating even closer to the site without any concern is yet another indication of how our sense of nation fear and confusion has eliminated any pretense of honesty or fairness in how we think or what we today come to call "news.

My friend, teacher and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL has taught that anger and fear can be very useful as an alarm system--the flashing red lights and clanging bells that alert us that we are facing a serious challenge. But he goes on to point out that people should not make important decisions while they are angry or afraid, wisely pointing out that those actions never seem to work out well and are often disastrous.

Before a disease can be cured, it has to be accurately diagnosed. As long as a growing group of people continues to believe that our national sickness is all about dark-skinned people who are not like us and evil politicians, our problems will only get worse. This first step toward a cure has to be a return of honesty and rational, fact-based conversation regarding where we are and how to proceed.

And the first step toward that first step must be a rejection of news media and politicians who are the false prophets and leaders of this new fast-growing cult. And finding the "delete" button on our computers when we receive an email that blares in its headline that we should be angry and outraged and claims to have identified the villains who got us into this mess.

It's going to be long and hard but, as Will Rogers once said, when you find yourself in a hole and need to get out, the first thing to do is stop digging. Because they are angry and afraid, too many Americans have used anger, outrage, and demonization as a shovel and as a result they are sinking deeper and deeper into the pit.

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