Why it's not the worst of times, but sometimes feels like it

Are we living in the worst of times, or has the way we consume the news just amplified the bad news so much that it seems that way?

'I would love to get the hell out of here,' says Globe & Mail columnist Gary Mason

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are two of the main reasons why things seem worse than ever, says columnist Gary Mason, right. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin-Submitted by Gary Mason)

Are we living in the worst of times, to paraphrase Charles Dickens — who, by the way, wrote the line a couple of centuries back — or are we just gazing too longingly at the half-empty part of the glass?

That was the thrust of a recent column by Globe & Mail columnist Gary Mason, who said that times are so bad, he wants to unplug and escape from the relentless awfulness of the daily news feed.

Mason appeared on Alberta at Noon Monday, to talk about it.

The worst of times

"We've dealt with Donald Trump for a year now," Mason said. "For me personally that's made me pretty pessimistic about the occupant of the White House — and what's flowed from that? Particularly, race relations in the U.S. are as bad or worse than they've been in years.

"You've got the gun violence, the school shootings — you have school shootings almost once a week," he said.

"It is depressing."

Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold (right) caught by the cafeteria security cameras at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20th, 1999. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Beyond the borders of the U.S., it's even worse

"Beyond the borders of the U.S., you have what's going on in China — Xi Jinping has installed himself as a leader for life, effectively becoming more of a dictatorship than it already is.

Chinese President Xi Jinping claps while addressing the media as he introduces new members of the Politburo Standing Committee at Beijing's Great Hall of the People Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

"[With] Russia, you've got Putin doing essentially the same thing," he added, "running sham elections, while quite possibly killing people on the streets of Britain using nerve gas. You've [also] got people using Facebook data to influence the outcome of elections."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen on stage during a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo - RC158C021090 (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Mason was prompted to write the column by the seeming endlessness of the negative news cycle.

"It was just all of this stuff that came crashing down. I was just sitting with my wife one night, having a glass of wine, and I said to her, I would just love to get the hell out of here, go buy a place in the country, buy a dog, and just sit it out and see what happens."

'Justin Trudeau wouldn't hurt a fly'

While Mason seemed to be of the belief that's it the worst of times elsewhere, he also didn't cite any Canadian examples in his column — an omission he says was deliberate.

"The distinction I made in the list was that I really see people that I've referenced in the column and situations as kind of destabilizing to the world — I'm talking about world leaders who can cause other nations great harm. Just dangerous people in my opinion — and I don't include Justin Trudeau among those people.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada in general don't fit into commentator Gary Mason's thesis that we live in the worst of times. "Justin Trudeau wouldn't hurt a fly," Mason said in a radio interview Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I don't think Justin Trudeau could hurt a fly basically," he said.

"Canada stands apart in terms of the problems we have — to be honest, they're kind of minimal, compared to the problems a lot of other people have in a lot of other countries.

"That's kind of the distinction I was making," he said. "I was talking about people who I consider have caused the world to be a much more unstable place than it was, 10 years ago, 20 years ago."

While Mason — and a number of listeners — seemed to think things have reached a tipping point, University of Alberta historian James Muir presented a starkly different perspective on the present moment.

"It might be true we're not feeling terribly happy about it, but it's not that special," Muir said. 

1918 was way worse

To illustrate, he suggested taking a look at how the world was doing a century ago.

"100 years ago, it's the last year of World War I," he said. "We're at the beginning of the last German offensive, in March and that's followed by the Battle of 100 Days, when the Allies ended the war — and that [single] battle, between the middle of July and November 11, had two million casualties.

"It's an incredible number [of casualties]," he said, "and yet that was small in comparison [to what was about to come].

"Beginning in roughly January of 1918," he said, "people … start getting sick. They contract the flu that they can't fight off — and within a couple years somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died of the Spanish Flu around the world.

"In comparison, there are wars today and illnesses today," he said, "but nothing like that."

A new media environment

What both commentators seemed to agree on was that what makes now seem especially awful might be the way in which people consume news today, as opposed to how we used to do it.

"I'm on Twitter quite a bit," Mason said. "It's like a tap, that's constantly open, and it never shuts off.

"It's just running out and most of the time the news — it's not great. You kind of wish there would be a tap that's just good news, but that's not realistic."

The upside of social media

Muir also agreed with a caller's suggestion that some remarkable social movements have been birthed through social media that are changing the world for the better.

"That smallness of the world, that capacity to quickly communicate around the world, leads to things like the Woman's March being organized, leads to things like the march [against guns] on Saturday being organized," Muir said.

A rally against gun violence held on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. (Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)

Mason, despite his digital gloom, conceded that the present moment has produced some glimmers of inspiration.

"I look at the millennials," he said. "I've got two myself — I see that generation and that gives me hope, because they're incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and want to do good things.

"They're behind the whole movement we're seeing in the U.S. now to bring in some form of gun controls," he added. "It may be 18-year-olds who end up provoking that change. That gives me hope too. But then I look at leadership around the world," he added, "and that can get me down a little bit."

With files from Alberta at Noon

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About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email:


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