WASHINGTON, July 15, 2016 — In the 1960s, America was a worse place than it is today.
Jim Crow still ruled the South. In 1963, white supremacist terrorists planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, klling four little girls and wounding 22 others. The next year, three civil rights workers—James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were murdered in Nashoba County, Mississippi.
In the 1960s, homosexuality was a mental disease and homosexual behavior was a crime.
In the span of just five years, President Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. Riots erupted in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
From the early ’60s through the early ’70s, the Vietnam war killed 50,000 Americans and far more Vietnamese. In the early ’60s, duck and cover exercises in schools took on extra urgency during the Cuban missile crisis.
The Soviets built the Berlin Wall.
In the early 70s, the National Guard fired on students at Kent State University, killing four. The Weather Underground detonated bombs at the Army Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and at several police facilities.
Some people wonder whether America today is like it was in the 1960s. We’re not even close. The United States is in many ways a much better place than it was then, and so is the world.
In the 1960s, one in four men killed by the police was black; today that number is one in 10. Killings of black men over age 25 have declined by 61 percent since the 1960s. Jim Crow is gone; we have a black president and a black attorney general. Racism is with us still, and still virulent, but in terms of race, America is a far better place than it was.
Homosexuality is no longer a crime; same-sex marriage is the law in all 50 states. Business titans, politicians, ambassadors and sports stars are now openly gay.
Things are by almost every measure better now than they were 50 years ago. Gun violence is down. Intentional homicide took 10.8 people per 100,000 in 1980; in 1993, there were seven intentional homicides by firearm per 100,000, and 3.6 in 2013.
Other violence is also down. In 1993, 725 per 100,000 were victims of gun crimes not resulting in death; in 2013, that number was 175.
If things are so much better, why do they seem so much worse?
In the 1960s, there was no internet. There were no camera phones. The death of Philando Castile streamed live on Facebook, and bystanders sent out same-day video of the shooting of Alton Sterling. News of the attack on police in Dallas appeared online within minutes.
In the 1960s, we read about bombings and shootings, but we didn’t see them on a live Facebook feed as they happened. We saw them days later, if at all, and there was no video.
Time and editorial decisions tempered the news that got to us. A killing in Missouri might be reported in Missouri, but not in Wisconsin. Information was filtered; now, there’s no editor standing between you and the events in Nice. You get them raw.
Things don’t just seem worse because the news comes faster and unfiltered. They seem worse because our friends repeat over and over again that they are.
Social media create echo chambers that intensify the divides between us. Put a group of slightly left or slightly right people in a group, and they tend to gravitate to the most extreme positions as people hunt for the median position, which will tend to shift to the extremes; individually, people might want to compromise and move to the center, but the fractures created by electronic media move us as groups to the extremes.
As the groups grow more extreme, their views of the other side grow more negative. Our social groups serve as a distorting mirror on the world, magnifying the ugly. Whether you’re conservative or liberal, your social media friends are working hard to scare you.
Perhaps you don’t like Hillary Clinton and won’t vote for her. Fifty years ago, you couldn’t have seen instant replays of her speeches compared with older speeches or juxtaposed with the FBI director’s comments, and you wouldn’t have had so many online sources to immediately confirm your biases. You might have disliked her or Trump or Obama or Bush, but the visceral loathing would have been less.
Your feelings about the candidates are exacerbated by the immediacy of media and then the echo-chamber effect of your friends.
Things aren’t worse at all; they’re better. Our food is safer, our air is cleaner, our rivers are less likely to catch fire. Prejudice is alive and well, but mixed-race couples race scarcely an eyebrow even in Mississippi, and gay kids in Louisiana are more likely to complain that their town is unsupportive than that being out is a threat to life and limb.
Fewer people are starving, and the poor nations of the world are gradually getting richer. Instead of being terrorized by the Baader-Meinhoff gang and the Red Brigade, Europe is terrorized by ISIS. Your odds of dying by terrorism are still remote. The police are less likely to kill you if you’re black, and the Klan doesn’t have the clout they had.
Our country is far from perfect, and in some ways it isn’t even very good, but it is far better than it was. You have more access to information. The police are militarized, but under greater scrutiny. For every step back, there’s a step forward, and sometimes two. Root canals don’t hurt.
It’s a good time to be alive.