Sasha Abramsky on the Decline of Empathy and the Future of Democracy (Audio and Transcript)
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the full transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to add the intelligence comes from my guests, otherwise it would be presumptuous. And my guest today is Sasha Abramsky, who has written a whole series, I think eight of them, really important books on poverty, on the prison population, on his own grandparents, who raised him in London. And he writes a lot for The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, the Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. But the reason I wanted to talk to him today, or we’re lucky to talk to him today, is he’s written a really provocative, and in the best sense of provocative, important book called “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” It’s a study of irrational fear in the United States. And I stayed up really quite late last night, ‘cause I thought well, you know, I could get through this in a couple of days. But you know, I really stopped at different points, and then at four in the morning I had to see how it ends. Because I think it really begs a very important question. There’s a hook in the book, of course, describing the victory of Trump, and why are we at this moment in our history, which fascinates most people, even around the world. And is it because of jumping at shadows, the book’s title; is it the triumph of fear, and does it spell the end of the American dream. So in fact, let me, instead of giving my own view of it at first, why don’t you tell us what the basic thesis is.
Sasha Abramsky: I mean, the thesis is it grew out of work I was doing for a number of years. I was traveling around the country, I was talking to people about economic inequality, about poverty; I’d done a lot of work in the criminal justice system, and the fact that we were putting just vast numbers of people behind bars, oftentimes for relatively low-level offenses that in years and decades past would not have resulted in that kind of ending. And it really began to fascinate me as a theme running through modern American history, that in many ways we were being saturated with images of risk and of fear. Whether that risk and fear was around terrorism or around the violence of young criminals, or whether it was around the collapse of economic prospects or the home foreclosures that kicked in after 2007-08 and so on. And that as we were becoming more fearful, and it was a combination both of things that merited fear, but also of things that we grossly overestimated the risks associated with them. As we became more fearful, one of the things that was happening was our politics was devolving, and that we were increasingly, A, living in our own echo chambers where we were only hearing things that reaffirmed or magnified our fears; and B, that as a result of that we were becoming particularly vulnerable to demagogic messaging. That if politicians came forward, and it wasn’t even politicians of a given ideology, it was just the idea that if a politician came forward willing to exploit whatever fears of the moment were in the news, and willing to play on people’s divisions rather than looking for ways of bringing people together, that there was something in the current moment that was leaving America particularly vulnerable to that. And so I started reporting the book, and I started thinking about the themes in the book about a year or two before Donald Trump declared his candidacy. And then Trump comes along halfway through my reporting, and suddenly I sort of had in real time a petri dish where I could see exactly what was happening, exactly how this was playing out. So the second sort of theme within the book is, what happens on the ground when demagogic politics takes root. And that’s really the premise of “Jumping at Shadows.”
RS: The tension in the book, as I see it, is that these shadows were not created by Donald Trump, in the sense of things that are frightening to us. And you know, after all, your previous books about the prison population and poverty have a lot to do with the bipartisan failure to deal with poverty, to deal with opportunity. Your book has a very strong section on the growing income divide, to alarming proportions. These are real problems. And in the body of your book, you apportion responsibility to the mainstream–to the mainstream media, to mainstream politicians. After all, the incarceration was accelerated by Bill Clinton’s crime programs, tough on crime; poverty was accelerated by his attack on the welfare system called welfare reform; you could go down the list. Certainly moderate republicans like George W. Bush gave us the fear of Muslims and international terrorism in disproportionate terms. And what Trump did was basically come along and capitalize on this hysteria. Is that not the case?
SA: Yeah, I think to a large extent that is the case. One thing I’m very bad at in my journalism, because it doesn’t interest me very much, is personality-based reporting. So a book like “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, I found it infinitely entertaining; I read it in about 12 hours straight. It was, you know, it was a really good soap opera read. But when I’m reporting, what interests me is the structures of ideas: how a culture changes over time, how things that were once considered taboo or outside the mainstream, over time morph into the norm. And so, you know, the question I wrestled with, is Trump cause or causation, cause or effect? Is he the cause of the bigotries that are coursing through our politics at the moment, or is his election the consequence of those bigotries? And the answer is both. Trump emerges after a series of long changes in our culture. He emerges at the back end of two decades of the War on Crime and the War on Terror, which normalized first mass incarceration and then normalized torture in the name of the state. He emerged at the back end of 40 years, from the early 1970s, of growing income inequality that plundered the future of tens of millions of Americans and made them feel, with good reason, that their children’s lives would be less stable and more precarious than were their parents’ lives. He emerged at the back end of a decade of the housing crisis, wherein millions of Americans lost their homes and lost the savings associated with their homes. So in all kinds of ways, Trump comes out of this historical process. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s not different from the politicians who came before him; he is. He’s deeply demagogic. He’s manipulative of the truth, or contemptuous of the truth, in a way that no other politician, at least since Nixon, has been. Even someone like Dick Cheney, who was a deeply dark politician, hasn’t played fast and loose with the truth in quite the way that Trump and his cohorts have. So I do think there is something qualitatively, standalone different about the Donald Trump presidency. But I think that if we’re going to understand where it came from, and the dangers that it represents to our moment–and also how we get beyond this moment and into a different, more humane, more decent political space again–we have to understand all of these big trends. And the premium that we now place on fear, the premium that we place on what I call in my book, “irrational fear.” And the way that that fear has become the coin of our political discourse, the currency of our political discourse.
RS: You know, in my own experience, like where I live in the, you know, building, I had very sensible people who–appearing sensible people–who voted for Trump. And the discontent, it seems to me, is deeper and more widespread about this, what has happened. And you mentioned the housing meltdown–I think it’s 13 million people lost their homes. You know, it’s real serious, the income inequality. So let me just put it right to you: whether Trump represents– and he clearly represents the ugliest face we’ve had in the presidency, in this sense; and there’s something good about that, at least he has a lot of critics. But really, isn’t this the product of a mainstream, establishment indifference to the lot of ordinary people, and caring a great deal about the super-wealthy?
SA: Yeah. When you were introducing me, you mentioned that I’d written eight books. And what I’ve done over the last–I’ve been writing since the early 1990s, so 25 years at this point. And the thing that runs as a common thread through all of my books is looking at the collapse of both the political consensus and also the collapse of the egalitarian premises of economic policymaking and tax policymaking in the postwar period. And what happens when you divest in cities, and what happens when you divest in job training, and underinvesting in education, and what happens when you cut taxes for the wealthy, and what happens when you cut social services for the poor. And that’s a common theme; it runs through my first books, which dealt with mass incarceration, and it runs through my middle section of books, which deal with poverty and hunger in America, and it runs into this most recent book about fear and the rise of demagogy. Now, part of the problem with writing a large number of books over a two-decade period is, you have to be very careful to avoid repeating yourself. And certainly in my earlier books, and in particular in “The American Way of Poverty,” I talk at great length about the fact that it was both political parties, as you say–both political parties that were ignoring ordinary people, and were ignoring the plight that was created by the stampede to a deregulated, globalized economy. So I’m by no means laying all the blame either at the republicans’ feet, or in the person of Donald Trump himself. I think this is a huge problem created over decades and bought into by both political parties. And coming back to this notion of whether or not Trump supporters are “deplorables,” clearly you can’t say all 60 million plus people who voted for one candidate share all of the same set of values. It’s too simplistic. But I think it’s fair to say that anyone who voted for Donald Trump was, at the very best-case scenario, willing to turn a blind eye to a stupendous catalog of bigotries. That if you were going to vote for Donald Trump–maybe because you were economically dislocated, maybe because you felt with good reason that both political parties didn’t care about your housing situation or didn’t care about your access to health care–if you were going to then turn around and use that embitterment, and that sense that society has failed you, to elect someone like Donald Trump, you could only do so if you were willing to ignore his anti-Muslim bias, if you were willing to ignore his anti-Mexican bias, if you were willing to ignore the fact that time and again he made anti-African American statements, if you were willing to ignore the fact that he was deeply hostile to the rights of the LGBT community. If you were going to vote for Donald Trump, you essentially had to say that all of those bigotries, and all of his personal crudity–the way he treated women for example–that all of that was somehow irrelevant. So, does that make the person who voted for Donald Trump a “deplorable”? No, in my mind that’s a uniquely unhelpful way to talk about what’s happening to our politics. But it does mean that the person at the top, the man who ended up being elected president, is a deplorable.
RS: I understand that, but frankly, that’s not the strength of your book. There are plenty of books around–and you don’t really even go in that much to what he’s done so far, or what he stands for. The thesis of the book, it seems to me, is torn between two ideas, and I just want to get at what it says, rather than who’s right or wrong. And one thesis, which is convenient to a lot of mainstream journalists and politicians and so forth, is that this is an abnormality. And somehow, something bad happened because he’s a particularly effective demagogue, and people lost their reason, and so forth, and inherent racism emerged. And that’s a convenient view; it lets everybody else off the hook. And in fact in your book, when you talk about Hitler–I mean, people, you know, the comparison, but you talk about the collapse of Germany, or the rise of fascism–you say there it’s not shadows, because there you really had big economic problems, and then a lot of people turned to fascism. But what really happened in Germany, and in world politics regarding Germany after the First World War, is that the system broke down for many people. And they chose, or went along, or didn’t sufficiently resist, you know, the obviously most dangerous, irrational person we’ve seen in modern history, because they were panicked, confused, desperate. And the only reason I’m stressing this, is so much about Trump is made about manners–his boorishness, his crudeness. But that would be the wrong way to view the danger of what I think is neofascism. And in Germany it wasn’t that Hitler’s manners were wrong; it was that the establishment went for that. Because they had failed in their own society, and there you had the best educated, most scientifically oriented society, and which in fact wasn’t particularly prejudicial towards Jews compared to other European nations, and so forth–lost its mind. And I know you resist the analogy with Germany in your own book–you say, they had real problems, we don’t have problems of that dimension–but there seems to be something very similar afoot here. That the establishment lost its way, did not attend to problems, whether they be immigration, housing, income, all the other things that you mentioned very effectively in your book. And as a result, this really dangerous figure, demagogue, emerges and has credibility.
SA: Yeah, I mean, I both resist and also don’t resist the analogy with Germany. I resist it to the extent that it seems to me there are some institutional braking mechanisms to both the Trump persona and the Trump policies that didn’t exist in the Germany of the early 1930s. On the other hand, in a lot of my writing, both in the book and also in articles I’ve done for Haaretz in Israel, for the New Statesman in the U.K., for The Nation and the Sacramento Bee here in the United States, I’ve also drawn out the analogies and the comparisons. And one of the things that fascinates me–well, a couple of things that fascinate me. One is the way that when a demagogic personality and his minions take power, it has tremendous trickle-down effects on the way the culture functions. And I do think the boorishness is a part of it–that the anti-intellectualism, the willingness to use violent language, the crudity, the attacks on the free press, the attacks on academia–all of this is part of a sort of fascist mindset package. But the other thing is, and you talked about this in your question, the buy-in that happens when you have business elites, and when you have industrial elites, and when you have policymaking elites who don’t necessarily like the leader, but tolerate him because they think he’s going to deliver economic benefits their way. And so you saw that very clearly in the rise of Hitler, that people like Von Papen, these traditional conservatives in Germany, loathed the personality of Hitler, but they tolerated him because they thought they could use him. And it turned out they were wrong; he was actually very good at using them, rather than the other way around. And you see this today, that business elites in the United States might not like the persona of Donald Trump, and people like Rex Tillerson or any of the others who bought into his administration in early 2017 might not have liked Trump as an individual, but they were willing to be sycophantic towards him because they thought they could control him, and they would get their tax cuts, and they would get their deregulation, and they would get their judicial nominations. And one of the things I’ve been writing about over the last several months is the Faustian bargain that that is: that yes, you can support Donald Trump to get your tax cuts, but it comes with a tremendous moral cost, a tremendous political cost, a tremendous cost in terms of America’s standing in the world, a tremendous cost in terms of the damage it does, both short-term and long-term, to the American culture. And so the longer this regime lasts–and I do think it’s a regime more than an administration–the longer this regime lasts, the more that the analogy with late Weimar or early Nazi Germany starts to make sense. Not necessarily because all the politics are identical, not necessarily because the raw violence is the same; it’s not. But because the cultural implosion of a sophisticated country going down a dark path, there’s the similarity.
RS: [omission for station break] A big theme in your book is how we treat immigrants and the “other,” foreigners. And I kept thinking, you know, you’re 46, I guess, and I’m 82. Well, I covered that border when Jimmy Carter–you went down to the border in Arizona, I guess, and Texas, I don’t know, in the book–you know, I covered that when Jimmy Carter was president and Leonel Castillo was the immigration director. And he had been the mayor of Houston, a thoroughly enlightened person. And they could not take any, or did not take any significant steps to make that border more rational, to increase the quota from Mexico and Central America, to really deal with the problem. So the compelling part of your book, where you describe people dying in the desert–you know, the harsh reality of what immigration–well, that’s the current system. Now, it’s true, Trump’s solution is going to only make it worse. But to raise the question of why we haven’t dealt with a sound immigration policy all of these years–bipartisan–actually, the republicans used to be better on this issue. They actually were in favor of a higher level of immigration and so forth, because they were needed for agriculture and what have you. Now, the fact of the matter is that yes, Trump comes along and benefits from this chaos, and–actually, not really, the problem is no worse, in fact in many ways better than it was, so it is a shadow issue in many ways. But the fact of the matter is, this is a problem that should have been solved half a century ago, and there was no interest. So we could take each one of the things in your book; you talk about torture, and you say, Trump has fetishized torture and he makes these terrible speeches. But who normalized torture? It was, first of all, George W. Bush and his government; people who are now respectable professors at universities; it was democrats who went along with an irrational war. We could go down the line on any one of these issues.
SA: Yeah, you can go further back, you can go to the 1960s and the Phoenix Program in Vietnam. And I talk about that in the book. You know, none of the things that I talk about in the book are meant to lead readers to the conclusion that all was good in the world and then suddenly, unexplainably, Donald Trump came along and all was bad in the world. That’s a completely inadequate analysis. Clearly there were these huge problems that were percolating and just coursing through the American body politic and the American economy and the American culture, and that had been growing more dangerous for decades, and had been festering for decades. And all of that was a precondition for the emergence of Trump. So nothing in my book is meant to posit the idea that Trump is aberrational. I think in some ways he’s the predictable end point of these things that, as you said, both political parties really failed to address or had no interest in putting the spotlight on, for decades. And some of those issues are economics, some of them are about immigration, some of them are about border control. And what we’re seeing now is it all come to a head in 2016-17-18. But I want to go back to something else. A large part of my book is not explicitly about politics. A large part of my book is what happens when we as a society miscalibrate the likelihood of bad things occurring. And that’s to do with how we get information; it’s to do with the way our media works; it’s to do with our entertainment industries; it’s to do with the echo chambers that are created at warp speed, and that we don’t yet fully understand in social media. And that leads to all kinds of weird results, and some of them are political, some of them are medical. So you see the anti-vaccination movement, which is misusing scientific studies to essentially create a very dangerous situation where large numbers of people aren’t immunizing their kids. It goes to how we educate our children, and the idea that we need to lock down our schools so that schools increasingly resemble militarized or prison environments, rather than education settings. It goes to what we regard as inherently dangerous, and a large part of that goes to what we pay attention to, not to actual real risk. So there’s a reason that more Americans, for example, think that spiders are dangerous than think that nuclear weapons are dangerous. When you calibrate these probabilities of risk, you have these studies showing that things like climate change and nuclear war are way down the American priority of risk. And things like spiders are way up the American priority of risk. Well, that doesn’t make any real sense, but it’s to do with how we process information. It’s to do with where we get our information from. It’s to do with who’s talking about things, rather than the inherent danger or the mass scale of the danger of something.
RS: The book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” And the really sobering message of your book is that it takes a certain kind of human being to function in a democratic society, to have agency, to be the center of independent thought, to be a critical thinker. There’s an assumption in the American experiment that the average, white male at least, and then hopefully extended to larger groups, would be an independent agent making decisions, and that’s why their freedom had to be protected. And what your book is really suggesting is that we have something like people like Erich Fromm talked about when they did talk about fascism. You know, we have a process which is destroying independent thought, and substituting fear. I think that’s the big idea of this book. It’s the destruction of critical thought and the advancement of an intimidating, fearsome image of the surrounding that leads to paranoia.
SA: You know, I increasingly feel old and curmudgeonly, because I teach journalism classes at UC Davis, and I time and again sort of stress to my students the importance of worldly knowledge, of being informed about the world you’re a part of, and the current affairs that you’re a part of. Because otherwise you can’t make rational decisions. If you don’t know who your senator is, or you don’t know when the election is, or you don’t know where to get information about how the economy is functioning or not functioning, if you don’t know who international leaders are. That it becomes impossible to act and respond as a citizen. And you know, I think technology is neither good nor bad; I’m not one of those luddites who says, “All new technology is a bad thing and we should go back to writing with quills, or at the very most writing with a typewriter.” You know, I don’t believe that. I think computers have a role in society, I think social media has a role in society, I think cell phones have a role in society. But what I draw the line at is this notion that technology is inherently good. That the more technology we surround ourselves by, the quicker we get the news; that somehow magically, we’re all going to be really well informed. Well, that only depends on if you’re getting accurate news. But if you lose the ability to distinguish what isn’t true from what is true, if you lose the ability to distinguish when you’re being sold a bill of goods from when you’re not being sold a bill of goods–well, at the end of the day, you’ve become a subject, not a citizen. Because you’ve become somehow inherently passive. And I do think that there’s a grave danger, in the social media moment in particular, that we surround ourselves with sensationalist imagery which trends on social media, or trends on aggregator news sites. And we’re very good at getting these trending stories, and we have all this clickbait which gets us to these stories. And we’re very bad at getting the deeper stories, the stories that explain context, the stories that take you out of your comfort zone, the stories that take you to other communities and that allow you to build a sense of empathy. And you know, one of the things that, frankly, horrifies me about this moment is that empathy seems to be an emotion that is in danger of decaying and corroding. And how a society functions when it lacks basic empathy, I have no idea.
RS: We’re doing this from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for KCRW. And our slogan this last year, on the journalism side, has been “empathy,” the word you just used, and on the communication side it’s been “critical thinking.” And yet, when I wander around, I wonder, do we really take these ideas seriously anywhere? And I think one of the important ideas in your book is that the human brain is quite fragile, and can be easily impacted, can be undermined. And you have all these MRI studies and everything; I mean, there’s a lot of really good science in this book that is worth reading, aside from all the things we’ve been talking about; you’re very good at summarizing all these studies. And really what it has to do with is, how do you preserve the integrity of the individual? Which is, after all, the assumption of a republic of free people. How do you preserve that integrity? And my argument, going back to the beginning of this, with your book, and I found it so interesting to be in continual struggle over your ideas, I think–forget about what you’re doing; I think a lot of the Trump-bashing is giving the establishment a pass. Because in fact, what you mean by an “establishment” is a group of people you count on to keep the population healthy, if only for their own interest, long-term. If you don’t have an educated populace, if you don’t take care of the interests of ordinary people, if you don’t keep them informed, you’re going to have an alienated, disoriented population. And when I look back at what’s happened during this trajectory that you describe in your book, the real damage was done by an establishment of well-spoken, well-educated people who were not boorish. But they didn’t care about the poor, they didn’t care about immigrants, they didn’t care about Muslims, they got us into one foreign adventure after another that involved using very ugly methods, they lied to us consistently. And when I look back on this trajectory that I lived through, even before you were born–I guess it was 1972 or something–a lot of damage had been done. A lot. A lot of lying, a lot of fear mongering about the Cold War and everything else. My fear is, they cannot be trusted to set it right. Say they get rid of Trump–so what? They’ll still keep lying, they’ll still defend torture, they’ll still invade countries without justification. Isn’t that the case?
SA: Yeah. I mean, I think there are two different issues here. One of them is that the rise of a national security state–which occurred pretty much without any pause from World War II onwards–the rise of a national security state poses huge challenges to democracy. Because, A, it vests world-destroying powers in a nuclear presidency, and B, it needs a vast security apparatus in order to function. So you have millions of people with top-secret security clearances, and hundreds of thousands of people who are spying on their neighbors, and so on and so forth. And it’s done using very advanced eavesdropping tools and computer tools and everything else; it’s not nearly as crude or as obvious as the Stasi techniques in East Germany, let’s say. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a part of how the country functions. So partly, you’re absolutely right that there is this sort of national security state that has been created over generations, which poses challenges to our autonomy as citizens. But the second thing, at a much lower level, is the way that information is processed and distributed. And one of the things I was fascinated by in some of my earlier books, when I was writing on the criminal justice system, is the role of local media. And this is decades before Trump entered the political scene. You had a local media frenzy based around the slogan, “If it bleeds, it leads.” So any crime story became the lead news. And people were saturated with images of violence and shootouts and drug sales and so on and so forth. And it helped reshape our approach to crime and punishment. And so throughout the 1980s, you had these images on TV, and then throughout the 1990s and 2000s, even though the crime rate was actually going down, and even though the murder rate in one city after another after another was actually going down, you wouldn’t have known it from local media. And so people were getting more and more scared about crime, and they were changing their personal behaviors in response; they were changing their political behaviors in response. And they were asking and getting from their state leaders vast investments in the criminal justice infrastructure, in the building of new prisons, in the hiring of new police officers, in the militarizing of police technology and so on. You’re absolutely right: it makes no sense to let the policy elites and the economic elites off the hook here, because we’re seeing on all these different levels, whether it’s the imposition of national security systems that have sort of accompanied the rise of the nuclear presidency, or whether it’s the way that we respond to things like crime and punishment, you’re seeing a breakdown of, A, the ability of citizens to make rational decisions, and B, you’re seeing a breakdown in the information generating systems that give them that ability.
RS: Depressing, but accurate, I fear. Ah, I’ve been talking to Sasha Abramsky, who is really, if you don’t know his work, he’s one of our most important, dare I say it, public intellectuals. Eight really, truly significant books. And I think his most important work, certainly for me the most provocative work, it really got me thinking and questioning: “Jumping at Shadows,” it’s a Nation book–“Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” So, thank you, Sasha.
SA: Oh, my pleasure.
RS: And our producers at KCRW are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore here at the USC School for Communications and Journalism. And I can’t thank them enough for making the facilities available. We have the brilliant engineer Sebastian Grubaugh. Thanks again and see you next week.
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