A future person reading the newspapers from 2012 would surely conclude that Americans were a bigoted, gun-crazed bunch.
As always, the news cycle this summer has had its ups and downs – tales of hope mixed in with plenty of stories that make you want to scream (cough, ahem, Chick-fil-A).
Looking back at the stories that dominated the news over the past few months, it’s clear that many of them are indications of the state of our nation. In particular, they point to some of our major problems as a country: persistent economic inequality and prejudice against people of color, LGBTQ Americans, and women, to name a few. Though we have seen some progress toward a more equitable and fair society, a future person reading our newspapers from the past several months would surely conclude that the Americans of 2012 were a bigoted, gun-crazed bunch.
Here are some of the stories from this summer that illustrate just where we stand.
1. Shootings, shootings, and more shootings
There are some people -- conservatives for sure, but some moderates and liberals too -- who argue that “this isn’t the appropriate time” to talk about gun control legislation. I understand the impulse to avoid politicizing personal tragedies, but if the aftermath of three deadly shootings – in Colorado, Wisconsin and just this week, Texas – isn’t a good time to talk about gun control, when is? As this infographic  created for the Nation by Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn illustrates, every year we see some 20 mass murders using guns in this country. Meanwhile, 30,000 people die each year from guns, while 70,000 are injured. You will literally never find a time when multiple Americans have not recently suffered because of guns. So if not now, when?
That’s not to say it will be easy. If it was, the fierce gun control advocates out there (and there are many ) would have had more luck influencing policy. As the Nation’s Katha Politt wrote in her latest column :The trouble is, as with so many aspects of conservatism—the anti-choice movement, the Tea Party, Ron Paul—“gun rights” supporters win on intensity and single-mindedness. We have common sense, but they have a master narrative: rugged individualism, patriotism and self-defense....Still, the widely publicized shootings this summer illustrate that the need to get our gun laws under control has never been greater.
Of course, your average gun enthusiast is hardly tomorrow’s Holmes or Loughner or Page—you have to be mentally ill to commit mass murder—but without a gun, it’s difficult to kill and injure a whole crowd of people, no matter how much you’d like to. Gun advocates have devoted a great deal of ingenuity to trying to discredit this elementary point. And to the extent that gun-control supporters have become depressed and discouraged, they have succeeded.
2. The Olympics
The Olympics may have been hosted in the UK this year, but they sure told us a lot about Americans’ views on race and gender.
There was, for instance, the absurd chatter about gold medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair. Douglas made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win the all-around gymnastics gold, immediately becoming a role model for girls everywhere. Although this story may have been overblown on sites like Jezebel, she also took some legitimate heat  for not having a perfectly coiffed ‘do. To her credit, Douglas was unflappable. “I don't know where this is coming from. What's wrong with my hair?" Douglas told the Huffington Post  . "I'm like, I just made history and people are focused on my hair?"
Then there was the fact that, immediately after Douglas’ big win, NBC aired a commercial featuring a monkey doing gymnastics. Of course it’s likely that the commercial was scheduled in advance. But because NBC’s coverage was tape delayed, the network did have time to recognize the problem. Even more to the point: did no one over there think of the racial connotations of that commercial in the first place? (Apparently not.)
We also saw the U.S. media tending to give more airtime to “white, glossy female athletes to the exclusion of the women of color on their teams,” as s.e. smith notes over at Global Comment .
NBC and its commentators scored low on the gender equality scale as well, inventing bitter rivalries between women where there may been nothing but healthy competition. (See: the manufactured narrative about Russian gymnasts being over-emotional “divas.”) And don’t even get me started on the coverage of female beach volleyball players .
The women of the U.S. Olympic team kicked serious butt this year. If they had competed as a country of their own , they would have tied for second place in the number of gold medals earned and came in fourth in medals overall. They – and all the women at the Olympics this year – deserved better.
The Chick-fil-A story is one that just won’t die. Day after day, week after week, it reminds us that a large number of our fellow Americans were willing to spend hours standing in line for fast-food chicken sandwiches to prove how much they don’t want gay people to get married.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the story kicked off when Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy told a Christian newspaper that his company “operate[s] on biblical principles” and is “very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit.” This elicited both criticism from LGBTQ rights groups, which had targeted Chick-fil-A for its anti-gay attitudes many times before, and praise from members of the Christian Right who are against same-sex marriage and other civil rights for LGBTQ Americans. That praise culminated in the much-ballyhooed “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” which was concocted by Mike Huckabee and others to urge “traditional family” supporters to buy piles of sandwiches and waffle fries. For America and freedom. Or something.
Although the U.S. has seen a number of LGBTQ advances recently – new states recognizing same-sex marriage, a majority of Americans  now supporting that right – this saga demonstrates that we still have a long way to go before LGBTQ Americans have the legal rights and the respect that they deserve. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day participants may not speak for the majority of us, but they’re still around. And they sure are loud.
4. Healthcare reform goes before the Supreme Court
We learned a lot of things about the state of our nation in the frenzied days immediately before and after the Supreme Court issued its decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. We learned, in many cases not for the first time:
--That some media outlets care more about being first than being right.  (CNN and Fox News were in such a rush to report the news of SCOTUS' decision that they both got the news wrong.)
--That Republicans would rather have a political “win” than see thousands of Americans gain access to affordable healthcare.
--That John Roberts might possess a shred of compassion .
Above all else, we learned that we will get much-needed healthcare reform, even if the reforms aren’t perfect in every way.
The healthcare saga and other major stories of the summer show us that, however much progress we have made as a society, we have many battles left to fight.