CDS Column: The truth about FAKE NEWS

It’s all fake news.

Do you think about where your journalism comes from? When you read a story, do you trust it?

There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” lately. The acerbic term for the fourth estate coined by the 45th president seems to have captured the hearts of many Americans, people who’ve grown tired of reading stories so disconnected from their lives they seem conjured, concocted, made up.

Having worked in media and as a reporter, I get it. There is a gaping hole in journalism, in the retelling of the everyday. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the news is “fake,” but I couldn’t claim it as “real” either. News is somewhere in between, something gray and messy and incomplete. As journalists and as citizen readers we would do well to remember that.

Pick up a newspaper (chances are you’re holding one now). Where do you go for “the truth”? The cover story? An inside piece? The sports pages? Classifieds? Every section is told through a lens, and that is a complicating thing. Take the cover story, the most important news of the day. It is likely about a serious issue, something where reasonable people stand on differing sides. It is an issue with nuance and complexity, and there on the front page it is told in 1,200 words.

Just 1,200 words. What complicated truth can be told in that? How do you sum up the issues that dominate our political lives today in a dozen paragraphs?

Write 600 words on race in America. Tell the whole story. Make it complete.

Write 1,000 words on abortion. Don’t leave anything out.

Write 5,000 words on poverty. Make it a definitive work.

The truth? You don’t. You can’t. You edit. You cut. You leave out. You offer what you can in the space provided, trusting that good readers will forgive your omissions and chalk them up to brevity rather than bias. Every story, every article and every column does this. Not one can carry a full accounting of the truth. No newspaper gets it all. This isn’t a Sun problem, this is a journalism problem. It is a life problem.

Television, too: 24-hour news, but still we can’t get close to a full relating of the American experience.

And the internet: Infinite space, and yet there is more confusion than clarity.

Whether we’re talking documentaries or books, their hours of words and storytelling are yet incomplete. They only offer a partial telling. There is no truth, no single source explanation of the world and of what happens around us. Every retelling, every explanation, is woefully inadequate.

That is the heart of journalism, the truth of reporting. Every reporter wades out into a world of gray and comes back to lay down a story in black and white. That simplified version then goes out to thousands of people, each of whom looks at it slightly askew.

Is it “true”? No, but it contains truth in it. It may be built of slivers and pieces, but they have been cut and edited, inevitably leaving out as much truth as it carries.

This is not a new phenomenon. This is our ancient heart. This is the fourth estate, a foundational part of democracy. It is the citizen’s ticket into the political area, the piece that keeps them informed to vote and decide. It allows us to be more than puppets to presidents and senators. It is an imperfect system, just like every branch of government. The newsroom feedback loop is no more corrupt than the houses of power — it carries good in it, and at least as much messiness as good.

But if we remember journalism is an incomplete story, if we remember there is no “truth” in the news, that every retelling is incomplete, then we stop seeing it as “fake.” Like all things in American democracy, journalism is not clear cut. It is a quick, messy telling of life, too short and too simple, a first draft of history, homework passed in on deadline. It has its purpose, and when combined with our own experience, it has value.

A newspaper’s truth, after all, is not in stories alone. To get a full view you need to read every part: the classifieds and the crosswords, the columns and the comics. Read the ads as well as the articles. The complete picture, that is where the truth hides. If you read one day’s paper you get only a snapshot in time. But if you read the paper day after day, its depth starts to emerge. The swings and stories begin to balance out. A fuller picture takes hold. The reality of life starts to pile together. A truth emerges from the overlap.

Look at the corrections sections, where newspapers admit their faults. Suddenly the medium seems almost human.

Otherwise it’s all fake news. But only if you believe it.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

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CDS Column: Lift the Lamp

In January I began volunteering for a nonprofit that works with high school students to help improve their writing. As I writer I love talking about writing, and this was a way to give back.

I got paired with a 18-year-old Muslim of Somali descent named Abass.

Abass was born in Ethiopia where his parents were refugees, then moved to South Africa before his family made it to the United States. They lived first in Lowell, Mass., and then they moved to Maine. Because of his time in South Africa Abass spoke English well, so he was in good position when started school. He will graduate this year, and he hopes to study dentistry at college in the fall.

Abass smiles a lot. His face moves quickly from into a grin, and then just as quickly back to normal. He is warm, engaging, makes jokes when he’s nervous and is exceedingly friendly. He teases the girls in his class, the boys in his class, everyone, and they tease him back. He’s playful, a bit of a class clown. He is well-liked.

Abass speaks three languages. His parents, however, don’t speak English, so when it comes to filling out any sort of documentation or legal paperwork (taxes, signing a lease, college applications) he winds up serving as translator, explaining things to them instead of the adults explaining things to him. That has forced Abass to grow up fast, but he hasn’t lost his joyfulness. Even 7,000 miles from the country of his people, he carries hope.

Abass is a Muslim and a Somali. If he were applying for a visa today, he would have to contend with the executive order signed on Friday.

It’s been a long two weeks.

In fact, it hasn’t even been two weeks. Inauguration Day was less than that ago, and the executive orders didn’t really begin unfolding until the following Monday. That means it’s been only nine days. But a lot can happen in nine American days.

It doesn’t seem so in the Mount Washington Valley sometimes. There’s no airport with incoming international flights, no mosques, few Hispanics or other people of color. Here, in the northern reaches of one of the whitest states in the country, feels detached from the conversations igniting our country right now. Building a wall with Mexico might push up food prices, but it won’t change the complexion of our streets. Restricting refugee visas won’t break up local families. These are almost academic arguments here, not something poised to come home to roost in our community right away.

But then I sit down with Abass, and I realize how much these conversations matter.

It is striking how divergent American views can be. We read the same sacred national texts, revere the same icons, and yet come away with strikingly opposing views. America is our religion, and we can become unitarians universalists to the Westboro Baptists. The Westboro Baptists are gathering loud of late.

Our creed, captured so eloquently beneath the feet of the Statue of Liberty, is simple: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

America’s promise is a promise we ourselves were granted. It may have been generations ago, but at one time it was our grandparents, or great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents, who wanted to be dentists. It was they who spoke three languages and translated their new homes to their immigrant parents. We are the offspring of refugees and asylum-seekers. We spilled onto these shores, scores of English, German, Irish, Norwegian, Polish, Lebanese, South African, Chinese, Sudanese, people from every country and continent, and slowly we made ourselves American. We made America. We grew in size and in strength, emboldened because of our diversity and our courage and our hope. It was not without challenges and disgrace—the slaughtering of Native Americans, the slavery of Africans and their descendents—but still ever striving upwards towards the promise of Thomas Jefferson: “All men are created equal.”

I see that now, in a young man who has dreams of being a dentist. A young Muslim, from a country on a list, who wants the freedom to strive and flourish.

We live a long way from this fight. It is a more than an hour drive to the room where once a week I sit with Abass and we work to improve his writing. But if he is willing to show up, I will too.

These are our fights. This is our country. There are so many days where I wish I could forget it, where I would prefer to grab my climbing gear, strap into my skis, and forget about the chaos unfolding right now, the sweeping American changes emanating from Washington. But I choose not to. I choose to sit with Abass, to talk to him about verb tense and character development and setting, to ask him about his family and his story and what he would like to write about.

And in those conversations I am met by a smart young man, a man with dreams, a man with hope and passion and drive. We would be lucky to call him an American. We would be lucky to have him as part of our country.

I will not close the door, and I will not sit quietly by as others do. Donald Trump is right, this is the time for patriotism. In my country, “all men are created equal.” I will not remain silent.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Welcome.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Live, Vote or Drive

How do we keep having these arguments?

Massachusetts voters streaming into New Hampshire and swaying our elections. That could happen, hypothetically. Despite voter ID laws and town clerks who know residents and a robust, tried-and-true electoral process, Massachusetts could be deciding New Hampshire’s votes.

But they’re not. There is no evidence of such fraud. There is supposition, a rumor, something the White House is talking about, but it’s just “alternative facts.”

And yet we keep having these arguments.

Rumors and innuendo are not a basis for policy. New Hampshire knows that. Ours is a state of no-nonsense people. New Hampshire voters are sophisticated. They are accustomed to the political milieu, seasoned from serving on the front line of the presidential vetting process. We Granite Staters are no electoral novices. The Live Free or Die ethos means we belong to fire districts, water precincts and lighting districts in addition to a town, a county, the state and the federal government. Every one of these entities is an exercise in democracy. Each puts out its own annual report, has a board, holds public hearings and requires a vote. If we choose, we might spend half our non-working waking hours ensconced in elections. Not only does the nation trust us to make early judgments on the character and capabilities of those who one day hope to run the country, but we see fit to practice democracy at almost every level and in every corner. Voting is our lifeblood, something rooted in New Hampshire history more deeply than in any other state.

And now our votes have found their way into the national discourse: A flood of Massachusetts carpetbaggers allegedly made their way north to strip Kelly Ayotte of her senatorship and President Donald Trump of a rightful victory. This is the word out of the White House, beginning with the president and repeated by his advisers.

Let’s be clear: The president and his team have brought no evidence to support this claim. None. The White House has a hunch, but offers nothing to back it up beyond words. As with other accusations of voter fraud, it’s an opinion, nothing else.

But this time it isn’t about about California. This time it is about us. It’s about our little state. And this claim hits at our heart — our political process, a sacred part of the Granite State.

Our political apparatus is ingrained into our state identity. When it comes to presidential elections, we have home field advantage. Every great election begins with us. Tryouts here commence a year before the rest of the country. New Hampshire does not play politics, we live it, from the federal level right down to the North Conway Water Precinct and the Redstone Fire District.

As a result, despite our small population and rural character, New Hampshire is no political backwater. Our residents and institutions carry the sophistication needed to govern thousands of scattered municipal districts, as well as the chops required of a state trusted to cast the first vote. We have seen scandal before, and political fraud. Small but well-schooled, we are not naive. This is our game, and we know how to play.

And yet we are left listening to accusations out of Washington that our political apparatus is full holes. Accusations floated without evidence by the president of the United States that Massachusetts political operatives pulled the wool over Granite State eyes.

To sling unfounded accusations at the New Hampshire electoral process is to undermine our electoral heritage. Such slander casts dispersions on our “First in the Nation” position, a role we have carried with dignity for decades. If there is voter fraud, quit teasing and expose it. New Hampshire Republicans and New Democrats alike would stand side-by-side to uproot such perversion. Our coveted electoral position demands it — we all have too much to lose to sit by and let such mischief continue unchecked.

But these claims are baseless. There is nothing behind them. They are all bluster, no truth.

But baseless claims are hard to fight. There is no arguing a shapeless provocation, empty of evidence. How do you prove fraud when all fraud is supposed, not exposed?

The White House casts suspicion on the sanctity of our political heart, on the laser-cut accuracy of our selection process. This dispersion sullies not only the electoral count, but also our presidential primaries, every federal ballot cast, the state election, every local election, each precinct and district. In a word, the president has put the Granite State on notice — without evidence — that our democratic processes do not hold water. We are not a cup, he says, but a sieve.

But it is these claims that are the true sieve. We in New Hampshire wear democracy close to our skin. We live it, know the taste of it, the feel of it. It’s a dance we’ve practiced before. And we also know the smell of something rotten. These accusations are rotten. Without evidence they can only be called lies. And New Hampshire has no room for lies, nor “alternative facts.”

Cast dispersions on New York elections if you wish, Donald Trump, or on California or Texas. Pick any of 49 other states, but leave our Granite process alone. We know politics. We know elections. Step forward with evidence, or be silent.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Friday Feedback

As a columnist, it often feels like I’m sending my thoughts out into the darkness. If they make a splash, I never hear it. It was different when I was reporting full-time. Back then I’d be in front of the selectmen every week, and if someone didn’t like what I wrote I’d hear about it almost immediately.

As a columnist, however, it’s different. You get pulled aside in the grocery store sometimes, but only if people know who you are. They read your stuff, but at the end of the day you don’t have much of an idea how people react.

And then today happens. I was looking for a few stories to send to an editor, so I went onto the Conway Daily Sun website and plugged in my last name. The following letter popped up:

To the editor:

Reading a recent edition I couldn’t help but think about the time that has passed since The Conway Daily Sun started publishing in 1989. Mark and Adam should be proud of their creation. I worked on their cars in the 1990s and got to know them well enough to respect them and their efforts.

I, for one, want to thank them for producing a quality product and giving it away. I look forward to them continuing to “stir the pot.”

I read Erik Eisele’s column “We the people” with great interest and another recent column by Eisele, “Conway Daily Firestarter,” where he wrote about being close to his audience and the commentary and feedback that comes with that. He is a courageous individual, and I commend him for his honesty.

In “We the people,” he identifies three subject areas; money, religion and government. Difficult to argue that they are primary issues in most people’s lives.

I believe his last two paragraphs offer a concise explanation of the problems that have festered in the three subject areas and the only solution that has any hope of success in the survival of this noble experiment.

Personal responsibility begins with the understanding that “We the people,” all of us, collectively have the obligation to make this work. It starts with a conversation.

Peter O’Brien

Fryeburg, Maine

In the media world today budgets are tight. These columns don’t pay a ton, but they are a chance to write what I see, to write about things I think are important. It feels nice to read those things are important to other people as well.

In the same search, meanwhile, I also discovered another recent letter to the editor:

To the editor:

Before I criticize Erik Eisele, let me compliment him on being a wonderful, energetic reporter who covers a lot of ground and does it very well.

Now my complaint about his column, “We The People,” Dec. 7, in which he laments that many human constructs ultimately fail and includes religion as one: First, his presumption that humans created religion reflects an unfair bias against and/or at least a shallow understanding of religion. Even unschooled Native Americans attributed religion to a Source outside or above their nature.

Second, his urban legends generalizations — that the “The Catholic Church has a history of atrocious acts dating back hundreds of years. Countless wars have religious roots, as did slavery…” — aren’t worthy of a seventh grade composition. There have been wars and atrocities between opposing religions but the Crusades, for example, aimed to free people oppressed and attacked in the Holy Land, much as is occurring now. When Crusades exceeded that mantra they did not do so because of the Gospel, but in spite of it. In regard to slavery, St. Paul urged slaves to be obedient so they could survive and be freed, which subsequent emperors encouraged. Spartacus revolted and cost 6,000 lives. At the time of Christ, up to 90 percent of the population was enslaved and it wasn’t because of religion but rather primitive economics. The clear thrust of Judao-Christian teaching is freedom from sin and other subjugation.

So, what difference does religion make? Every day, the Catholic Church feeds, clothes, shelters and educates more people than any other private organization in the world.  The Catholic Church is credited with starting formal education and teaches 3 million students daily in more than 250 colleges and 1,200 high schools and 5,000 grade schools without government support. Catholic nuns opened the first hospitals and orphanages and today one out of six people receive care at Catholic hospitals. During the Civil War most nurses were Catholic nuns. The sisters of Charity ran a hospital in New Orleans where the plasma system was developed, and it has saved perhaps millions of lives.

Religion serves a salutary purpose and urban legends do not.

John F. Donovan

Freedom

Mr. Donovan felt compelled to take issue with my perspective, but he opened with a compliment of how much he appreciates my work as a reporter. That is EXACTLY the sort of conversation I hope to be a part of. I do not expect my writings to always be right. Heck, they probably hardly ever are. But they are meant, as Mr. O’Brien said, to start a conversation. And Mr. Donovan did exactly that. He used my ramblings as a starting point to engage in conversation. America is the richer for such discourse, as no single person has the wherewithal to make the best decisions for a land of 330 million. I couldn’t help for a better exemplification of democratic ideals.

With this much awesomeness, it feels like the weekend…

From the Backseat: What makes a Millionaire?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

I mean, he’s rich. But is he rich because his family was rich? Because his dad made a lot of money in real estate back in the day? Or is he rich because his entrepreneurial ventures have been successful?

Is he good at his job? That’s the question.

I know lots of people already have answers. His supporters say he’s clearly a billionaire with a business empire, and therefore my question is dumb. His opponents say he was born rich, and it is his string of failed businesses — casinos, an airline, a university, meat products — that make my question dumb.

But these are partisan answers. I’m looking for something different. I’m looking for a nuanced definition of entrepreneurship, of risking it in business and seeing new ideas take, and then to compare that definition to the president-elect’s record.

I don’t know a lot about being an entrepreneur, but I know it requires a willingness to fail. No one comes up with a brilliant idea first go, and no one learns everything they need to know to be successful in college or an MBA program. It takes experience, and experience is just a gentle word for failure. Success is built on foundations of failure, and it’s only in hindsight that the failures look like inevitable lessons along the way.

Maybe that’s what Donald Trump’s casinos, airline, university and steaks were — a trail of lessons. Maybe Trump was already rich, so unlike some guy selling widgets out of his garage, his failures were bound to be public and spectacular.

The fact is, I don’t know. It’s almost Inauguration Day and I don’t have a clue. That wasn’t how America approached this election. There were those with undying support willing to look past his failures, and there were those who dismissed him completely, laying his successes at the feet of his father.

I imagine it’s more complex than that. Surely, Trump has both made money and lost money. But my question is whether the rate at which he made it leans closer to success or failure.

Then again, maybe Trump’s goal all along wasn’t money, but power. If that’s the case, his past seems to have definitely been worthwhile. There’s no doubt he was successful at getting elected the most powerful position in the land.

That, however, strays from my point. Is Trump, the businessman (versus Trump, the politician) successful? He sold himself as a businessman — and America bought. But is he a good one? It feels like a question someone should have asked, but never did. There must be a business professor out there, or a handful of business professors, who can explain what a normal failure rate for entrepreneurs looks like. There has to be someone able to contrast that with the record of the president-elect. Is he doing well for himself? Did he do poorly? Is he at the top of the game? The middle? The bottom?

These are questions we’ve stopped asking. This election left so little space for issues, so little time for a hard look at resumes. Instead, we scrutinized temperament and character, talked border walls and Muslim bans, bickered about emails and tax returns. We never took a step back to ask basic questions about who was running. We engaged in partisan conversation, and the only clues to whether or not Donald Trump was a successful businessman came from looking at those who support him and those who opposed.

Now, here we are in January, and it’s still not really clear who we elected. That seems a poor recipe for success.

CDS Column: Health (Insurance) Checkup

It’s December. Insurance month. I spent last night filling out forms for health insurance, and soon I’ll have to go about making my annual car insurance payment. December is no longer just about holidays, it’s now also about paying hundreds (make that thousands) of dollars for something I hopefully won’t ever need. It’s all part of the joy of modern living: Upside — my heart might stop but there is technology capable of kickstarting it again; downside — that technology isn’t free.

When I think about it that way, a couple hundred dollars a month to pay for health insurance isn’t too bad. I mean, if for a couple hundred bucks we were offered the choice between living in medieval Europe or modern New York, I’d take that deal. Medieval Europeans never got such a thoughtful offer, and internet and cable almost amount to the same amount.

And really, that’s basically what we get — forgo modern health care and things become Hobbesian quite quickly: “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” So I guess I want to begin from a place of appreciating what I’ve got. I want to start from there.

My car insurance, my other December insurance bill, isn’t expensive. I’ve got one car, and it’s paid for. I live in the Live Free or Die state, which means I don’t even have to have car insurance if I don’t want to, but I feel like I should, that it’s the adult thing to do. My car insurance is the liability kind, which means I pay roughly $250 a year to protect other people from my negligence. That’s it. Not bad. Every year I get a little older, and every year the cost of protection declines. I’m a (relatively) safe driver, so things haven’t spiraled out of control. It’s a formula I like. It’s also a formula I can afford.

My health insurance, meanwhile, costs almost the same each month as my car insurance costs per year. I am young(-ish), active, a healthy person in their mid-30s. I don’t smoke and, as a man, I’m unlikely to become pregnant, which means most of my current health risk is in unforeseen illness or injury. Over time that will change, but right now I’m a pretty safe bet.

And as a safe bet, I cost several hundred dollars a month to insure. As I grow older my medical risks will climb, which means the cost of insuring me will also climb. That’s a formula I understand, one I can’t do a lot about. I’ve even got a window into how much that risk rises: From last year to this year, my insurance went up 7 percent. Looking ahead to next year, I’m facing another 7 percent increase.

I’m not clear what the exact case is, whether my premiums are climbing because this year my age makes me 7 percent more expensive than last year, or if I’m actually the same risk but health care budgets are expected to expand 7 percent in 2017. Probably it’s some combination of the two, but either way 7 percent seems a lot. The U.S. economy didn’t grow 7 percent this year. I did not get a 7 percent raise for 2017. I doubt even my doctor got a 7 percent raise.

So 7 percent. If this is a trend, we’re in trouble: A 7 percent increase compounded over time would make my premiums double roughly every 10 years. If I pay a nice round $200 a month today, I’ll pay $400 a month at in my mid-40s, $800 a month in my mid-50s, and $1,600 a month in my mid-60s, at which point the government swoops in with Medicare to offer some much needed financial relief.

What a model. If mortgages had the same cost implications no one would buy houses.

And 7 percent is an improvement; 7 percent is actually a slower rate of growth than health care premiums have been on in past years. Somehow we’re doing better, but even as we do better things are growing out of hand.

What to do? I know health care is a hot-button topic, one plagued by talk of death panels and government takeovers, but who wants to be paying $1,600 a month for basic health coverage when they’re 65? Maybe that’s the cost of buying our way into the modern era, of avoiding a time when tuberculosis and cholera were common ailments, but this doesn’t seem normal. It doesn’t seem sustainable. It doesn’t seem like something any of us can do for long.

Health care, however, is a monopoly business: You only have one life. You can’t replace it, and you don’t get another one. And for that life people can make you pay what they want.

President-elect Trump, meanwhile, is talking about repealing Obamacare. He’s promised to replace it with “something terrific.” I hope he does. Obamacare helped slow health care premium growth, but it couldn’t slow it to a manageable level. If Donald Trump can do that, if he can figure out a way to live in the modern era without simultaneously edging us all towards bankruptcy, I will applaud him.

But it is important to realize our modern lives exist within a monopolized industry. Health care is a monopoly business, and as with any monopoly, government has to have a hand. And judges can’t just go trust-busting here like they did with Standard Oil. Health care is a complex new version of monopolization, one built on technology and science as much as the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors and nurses and pharmaceutical companies and hospitals and all of it are diverse actors, a non-traditional monopoly, part of America’s sub-7-percent growth. Figuring out how to unwind its intricacies to make “something terrific” that is also affordable will take nuance, thoughtfulness, a delicate touch.

If Donald Trump can do that, I will applaud him.

The next checkup is December of 2017. I hope to see you then.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Deaths of Despair

Did you see the news? Last week, in the town of Sherman, police arrested three people in connection with a meth lab. It was the 123rd incident of its kind in Maine in 2016. That’s more than double the number last year; in 2015 Maine had 56 meth lab-related incidents.

And then on Friday a Hebron man killed his 27-year-old daughter before taking his own life. Did you see that too?

This is the news today, constant radar blips of “the way life should be.” They are markers an assistant professor at Penn State told me about recently: she calls them “deaths of despair.” And Maine is full of them.

Shannon Monnat is a rural demographer. About a month ago I interviewed her for a story about the heroin epidemic. I came across her research on addiction rates and how they relate to a community’s economic prospects. “Deaths of despair” is the phrase she’s coined for spiking addiction, alcoholism and suicide rates across America.

But rates don’t spike equally. Urban centers are largely spared this crisis. Drug addiction today is a rural problem, and the impact is felt heaviest in the rural communities and small cities that have struggled in the global economy.

Small cities. Rural places. Hmm. Sounds like Maine. Go on…

“These small cities and rural towns have borne the brunt of declines in manufacturing, mining, and related industries and are now struggling with the opiate scourge,” said Monnat. “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities. Here, downward mobility is the new normal.”

Suffering. Hopelessness. Despair. The new normal. 123 meth labs in a year. Murder-suicides. We are watching the effects unfold daily, on the news and in our communities. Each event acts as a radar blip. Misery is a tough pill to swallow, and as a meal to eat every day, it’s poison. But when job prospects seem hopeless it’s easy to sink into despair.

Monnat’s analysis doesn’t end there. Her most recent research looks at the 2016 presidential race, comparing election data with addiction data. And what she found is striking: counties awash in misery, those rural communities and smaller cities plagued by higher addiction rates, came out for Donald Trump.

“Clearly there is an association between drug, alcohol and suicide mortality and Trump’s election performance,” said Monnat, though she cautioned the relationship is a complex one. “What these analyses demonstrate is that community-level well-being played an important role in the 2016 election, particularly in the parts of America far-removed from the world of urban elites, media and foundations.”

“Ultimately, at the core of increasingly common ‘deaths of despair’ is a desire to escape,” she continued, “escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame, and hopelessness. These deaths represent only a tiny fraction of those suffering from substance abuse… Drug and alcohol disorders and suicides are occurring within a larger context of people and places desperate for change. Trump promised change.”

Despair, it seems, has political implications in addition to societal.

This almost shouldn’t be news. Every day we get signals about this despair. Some are small—another drug death, another mill shutdown, another suicide—while others are large, the 2016 election outcome being the most prominent. Sitting in quasi-urban Portland, a small city somehow buoyed by its quaint appeal and its status as a haven for NYC exiles, it might be easy to forget we sit surrounded by misery. But we do. We are a rural and small city state. There is so much misery here that drugs, alcohol, suicide and Donald Trump have become rational choices, the result of living in communities where no other path seems open.

Monnat’s research states America’s problem, and Maine’s problem, succinctly: in “many forgotten parts of the U.S. (often referred to as ‘fly-over’ country by those living on the coasts),” she said, “downward mobility is the new normal.”

Despite our coastline, Maine is one big fly-over state. The evidence to that fact fills our newsfeed.

Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.