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Staff Editorials

A brief encounter with the spirits of the Jasper parks

By Dan Pool

Editor

On Halloween night I was visited by  three ghosts, each more horrible than the last. They were the spirts of our Jasper parks. There was the Park-Present, The Park of Misfit Design and Park of Irrational Dreams.

I first detected a horrible aroma in my study – like the poop of some fowl from Hell. The eerie figure was distraught and said it felt unloved. “Sure they replaced some playground equipment and even added a little more and made a dog run which isn’t used that much, but hey it was a nice thought.” But this jealous, angry spectre knew that the big money (SPLOST $525,000) was being directed elsewhere.

“What more do I need to do?” this morose spirit implored?  “Don’t I tolerate all manner of use and misuse, from those foul fowl (do you think I want to be covered in goose poop?); To the kids that must ride bicycles on my tennis court for they have no where else to go; To the people who crowd in every weekend. I welcome all, yet the bulk of the SPLOST spending goes not to my needs.”

Seeing this poor creature  at wit’s end, I unburdened my suspicion that the powers-that-be want a newer, prettier park. “It’s sad but it happens and they want something they can show off to out-of-towners whom they hope to lure here.” But I urged this poor park to hold its head high, “You’re the park where families go on Saturdays, kids swing and slide and old folks gather to eat fried chicken.” The spirit, somewhat cheered, departed.

Next showed up a spirit so thin and misshapen I couldn’t even ascertain that it was a park at all, just a parking spot in the woods, with a small gazebo. I demanded to know what it was, for this apparition frightened me. I imagined all sorts of crimes committed in it presence.

With a whimper, the being spoke saying, “I’m that park on Lumber Company Road, named for a noble councilwoman but you’ll probably know me only as the ‘raper park.’ So unfair, so unfair.” it continued. “No crimes have been committed there [Police records show ‘tis true]. My woods are not evil, just poorly planned.”

I agreed this wraith had a rough time. To cheer it up, I pointed out that the terrain is quite nice, but who knows what to do with it? Turns out this park of Misfit Design is more a mystery than a ghost story. 

Finally as I drifted back to sleep, I heard loud, loud music coming from another dimension and bright lights and squealing tires. I inquired, “What the devil are you?” And this creature threw back it’s mirrored sunglasses, straightened its ascot and said, “Back off man. I’m the future. I am going right downtown and we’ll have an amphitheater, water jets and tower to look at the mountain. I’ll stretch to residential areas and might even have a nearby dining plaza. Let a real park show you how it’s done.” He gestured toward the other departing spirits with a smirk, “losers,” he called. 

But how, how will it get here? With a diabolical laugh, he said “grants of course.” 

Then I knew that this Park of Irrational Dreams spake without reason or sound mind. For its one thing to believe in ghosts but quite another level of gullibility to wait around on a grant for a third park when you’ve got two that need attention right now.

Right as I fell back asleep a fourth little spirit entered but recognizing it quickly as the ghost of the Peace Park/water park in downtown, I threw a shoe at it. “You were never a park, just an empty lot with some stones that now is just an empty lot. We’ll talk about you when we discuss streetscapes, not tonight.”

 

Keep Calm and Move Forward after the election

A few months ago, one of the Progress’ contributors wrote about how a heated presidential election in 1884 impacted Pickens County. Not only did one local community go so far as to rename their town after Republican candidate James G. Blaine (who lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland), tempers flared to the point that some here feared for their lives. 

In his column, Blake Moss recalls a prominent Pickens politician’s grandson who wrote an editorial that was critical of Blaine, and that “sparked major controversies.”

“When one commenced to read it there was no stopping till the end, except to cuss, if you were a Republican,” one local judge wrote of the piece. 

The Democratic author ended up leaving town because he was fearful of violent retaliation. 

Moss goes on to write, “The final results came in on a snowy November day. Many locals gathered at the rail depot in Jasper and the Democrats broke into celebration - Grover Cleveland had won the election. That night celebrations were held in Jasper over the narrow victory, the Democrats ‘tore up the hats of every Republican in town’ and somehow the celebrators secured a lot of gunpowder and two anvils in hopes to ‘wake the dead.’” The gunpowder was detonated between anvils in front of the courthouse in Jasper.

  That election was notable because it was unusually nasty (an article in American Heritage calls it “The Dirtiest Election”).  The below-the-belt style from the 1884 race unfortunately mirrors the election cycle we have had on both presidential and local levels this year. We’re writing this editorial the weekend after - yet again on social media - accusations were lobbed and arguing ensued among a commission chair candidate and his opponent’s supporters, and we’re writing it just a few weeks after the debacle that was the first presidential debate. This is, of course, not to mention all the other mudslinging that has come out of other state and local elections this year (sheriff’s and tax commissioner’s races we’re looking at you). And the hostility has been from candidates and from the public.

The record lines and record turnout we are seeing during early voting are heartening. It’s inspiring to see people wait for hours to cast their ballot – but this election season has been exhausting for everyone and we’re ready (and we think most people are ready) to move on. But an NPR article reports public safety entities are “preparing for tensions and the possibility of violence” on Election Day, November 3.  

“Military officials don't anticipate any particular problems of violence at the polls themselves, but they do say that with the bitter campaign, street protests and the rise of armed groups, violence could occur after the election, regardless of who wins,” the article states.

The Wall Street Journal also recently ran a piece, “Facebook Prepares Measures for Possible Election Unrest” that describes Facebook using tools to slow “the spread of certain posts and tweaking users’ news feeds.”

According to these and many other articles, the weeks following the election aren’t shaping up to be any better than how things have been leading up to it  - but we don’t want the losing party to retaliate violently by “[tearing] up the hats” of the opposing side like they did in 1884 (or whatever the modern day equivalent would be). We’re not anticipating winners will be announced on Election Day with the record numbers of mail-in ballots that need to be counted, but when the call is eventually made we’re praying for a peaceful transition of power between candidates – and their supporters. 

Celebrating when your candidate wins (preferably not with gunpowder between two anvils, but whatever the less-destructive modern equivalent would be) is expected – but the leaders we want to win don’t always. After this election let’s please exercise some civility, suck it up if our candidates lose, move on, and figure out how the next phase of our country – and county’s - futures – can be better than they are now.

Volunteer, for the community, and for yourself

Recently someone commented to us that there were only about 20 volunteers in the whole county – across all groups.

A little exaggeration but not wildly off-base. This explains why the same people you see passing out the Rotary boxes of food are also serving on a government commission. And the same people arranging signs for the Marble Festival are handing out bottles of water at the Flapjack run, or the same people parking cars at a political rally are cleaning at the Old Jail.

This perception of the same volunteers contrasts with a survey from  AmeriCorps (a national volunteer organization) in 2018 which found almost 30 percent of people volunteered at least some the prior year.

Regardless of whether it’s the same group manning the front lines repeatedly or someone grudgingly serving once a year, volunteers have made a massive impact in this county. Consider that the Good Samaritan Clinic, CARES food pantry, Boys & Girls Club, Community Thrift Store, and Talking Rock Nature Preserve trails all sprang to life because people  gave up their time to promote a larger good. 

The list of volunteer groups making a difference is long and varied, everything from JeepFest to knitting groups giving away blankets. The AmeriCorps study found that most people volunteer through their church (about one third). Behind this, about equal percentages (around 25 percent each) volunteer for youth/educational groups or  sports/arts groups.

Here are a very few examples of how our county has been served by some of the groups who may get overlooked and there are plenty more who don’t get enough credit.

  • A very small core of the Sassafras Literary Society has operated their youth writing contest for 39 years. To all the people who have won awards over decades and the parents who still have works by aspiring young authors, this contest has meant something. Perhaps no one has credited it as launching them on the bestseller list, but it certainly pushes a students to focus on putting words on paper.

• The Jasper Methodist Women’s group who put on the yearly Marble Festival 5K,  have created a true county tradition (barring COVID this year) for the many who come home to visit parents and take a brisk fall walk/run. This event brings Pickens County together.

• Keep Pickens Beautiful is often behind the scenes with direct work (recycling at events) and years and years of prodding us to take our area’s appearance seriously, they have set a tone and made us all look a little better.

• And hats off to all the parents who are asked/cajoled to work that fall festival, concession stand, coach a team or help with a Scout trip.  You hopefully made a difference in some kids’ lives. And though you may have sore feet from standing so long manning a booth, the time they spend is rewarding and can be enjoyable.

By nature, volunteers aren’t paid, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t rewarded and it’s not purely a feeling of doing good. Studies abound online noting that people who volunteer gain numerous social advantages from being included in a group working towards a common goal.

These personal benefits may include: forming new friendships and social connections; increasing self-esteem (those good feelings stick with you); and increased happiness in general.

If you are not already a volunteer with one of our great local groups and churches, try it for a month and see if you don’t come away feeling better about life. Rest assured from the Optimists to the Lions to the biggest churches to the smallest, everyone welcomes a enthusiastic new volunteer.

 

One small glimpse into misinformation and conspiracy theories

By Dan Pool

Editor

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About a decade ago, a man who ran a small business here, approached me about a story that was a matter of life and death. This man, who is no longer with us, had convinced himself based personal experiments that eating apple seeds cured cancer.

He was very serious and felt he had fully tested this theory -- on himself only; there was nothing approaching any bona fide medical tests. He had a sense of urgency that this story needed immediate release as the medical industry was trying to silence him he thought.

For a brief period, he called frequently (he ran ads for his regular business as well) and at one point I almost gave in.  I considered whether a short article might pacify him and not do any harm if we explained that the theory was completely untested.

We never did the story, as it simply wouldn’t have been accurate and second, it could have had real consequences.

First, the established medical community holds the opinion that apple seeds contain toxic substances and are harmful to anyone who ate too many and they back their view with real science. What would the effect be on a cancer patient with a compromised immune system who ate something toxic? What would the emotional impact be on someone who had lost a spouse to cancer to see an article claiming all they had needed to do was eat apple seeds? Or what if the parent of a child with cancer doing poorly suddenly quit the hospital-prescribed treatment to go home and eat apple seeds?

This in a microcosm is how conspiracy theories start: one person tosses out an untested, no-fact view and someone passes it along. This story would have been very compelling: local guy from small town cures horrible disease, everyone celebrates and spreads it around --except it’s not true. It’s simply not a fact.

What makes conspiracy theories so hard to disprove is believers can so easily claim the lies go deeper and deeper. Take the moon landing. If you try to argue that there are pictures, videos, interviews with men who have walked on the moon, the denialists retort those are all fake too.

Our example of not publishing something that has very little credence is not an isolated example. It’s what reputable newspaper publishers have done for at least two centuries and even at this small weekly, we have stranger stories brought to us that never made the printed page. Social media, and the internet has not developed any such standards.

But that may be forced to change with both liberals and conservatives saying this no-holds-barred atmosphere goes too far. Conservatives argue that it allows a widespread bias against their views; liberals say it allows hate speech to go unchallenged.

The political argument often refers back to “Section 230” which is part of the Communications Decency Act and in a very simplified version gives social media companies immunity from any harm that posts by others on their platform cause. One of the quietest members of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, indicated this month that it’s time to take a look at that.

From the position of this editor, I’d concur that it’s high time to impose on the social media giants, the same responsibilities that newspapers operate under.

With freedom of speech, people most certainly have the right to say whatever they think and opinions, even distasteful ones, should be protected. But that First Amendment right doesn’t offer an excuse for any medium (whether print, broadcast, or social media) to simply ignore any responsibility for what they have created and profit handsomely from. 

And part of that is recognizing the difference in opinion and political rhetoric versus malicious efforts to intentionally present misinformation.

And the bottom line is facts are facts; they are either right or wrong. 

 

We can’t all be drunk on social media

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff Writer

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I’m writing this at the risk of sounding trite, because how many times can we hear about overuse of screens and social media without zoning out? But I’m legitimately, and deeply, concerned about us - especially our children.

Last week I was on vacation and spent time with my kids while they were out of school. We hiked. We went to a movie. We went bowling. And thanks to a jolt from a Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma, my smart phone was mostly tucked away and my usage down by 80 percent. It was a wonderful lo-tech week. In the documentary, former heavyweights at places like Facebook and Twitter discuss how the companies they helped create (and later left due to ethical concerns) are now tearing society apart. They discuss surveillance capitalism; pervasive technology and algorithms; mass manipulation; rising suicide/depression; and many other disturbing issues. For a while  I’ve questioned my own screen time and social media’s place in my life, but the documentary was validation for something I  think we all innately know, but something we can’t get a grip on because we’re profoundly addicted.

“Consumer internet businesses are about exploiting psychology,” said former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya who, like most featured in the film, doesn’t use social media. “[They] want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit.”

A few years ago I read a book about behavioral science called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. It details how “choice architects,” as the authors call them, can impact people’s decisions by implementing strategies that encourage, or “nudge,” behavior. Want kids to eat more veggies at school? Put veggies at a certain spot on the lunch line. “Nudging” works because people do predictable things based on psychology. Social media (at least the way many of the platforms are structured) work using similar logic, by using our psychology to nudge us – but in these platforms’ case it’s in ways that aren’t beneficial to our wellbeing. 

Fortunately my teenage son doesn’t care about social media (don’t get me started on video games). My almost-teenage daughter loves TikTok, though. The spike in teen girl suicides that aligns with the rise of social media is a tragic by product of self-esteem issues these platforms create. Just look at teenage girls’ feeds these days. They go something like: 

•Girl posts selfie and gets a, “Wow! You look gorgeous!” (followed by three flame emojis and a few kissy faces.) 

•Original poster coyly responds, “Who me? You’re so sweet, but you’re the gorgeous one!” (also followed by a few flame emojis and probably some hearts.) 

This isn’t all teen girls, of course, but it’s a predominant discourse. They – and us adults – want likes and attention. Unfortunately, as Palihapitiya says (and which I’ve experienced myself), this attention is “short, brittle popularity that leaves you more…vacant and empty than before.”

A few days ago the normally tight-lipped Facebook released an “unprecedented” statement about The Social Dilemma. Forbes called their response “defensive” and said it fell “a bit flat,” probably because Facebook is terrified people like me are about to stop using their service nearly as much – or at all.  

It scares me to death to think about how technology is changing our relationships, and what the next generation will be like because of it. I’ll be trite again and use a Luddite reference - I’m not arguing we denounce all tech, as the reference has come to imply, but we need to muster some will power, control our social media time, and live our real, 3-D lives again, preferably with outside time.

Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer featured on the documentary, believes a portion of our society must exist outside these platforms. He provides a powerful metaphor about a world where everyone is addicted to social media: “If absolutely every person in the society is a drunk, it’s going to be impossible to have a conversation about the problems of alcoholism,” he said in a separate interview. “There has to be somebody who’s sober.”