A history of anxiety

When a country undergoes fast and unexpected change or feels under threat, its people are subject to commit outrages. By now the list of offenses and crimes committed against immigrants that violate our own moral codes in the Unites States are worthy of a human-rights investigation.

Yet, is today different from other eras when intemperate prejudices by a loud minority shaped public attitudes? One example some may remember hearing. It’s how Benjamin Franklin alienated German migrants to the colonies in the 1760s by calling them "Palatine Boors." That’s the equivalent of saying they were "bad-mannered money suckers." Franklin is now often used to illustrate how the German communities forming back then didn’t come about without rubbing the establishment the wrong way. He even had some complaints about their language and how English might be in jeopardy.

Sound slightly familiar? The other part of the story, often left out, is that Ben Franklin, already famous and wealthy, stood for reelection to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764. He lost because the Germans, angry about the ethnic slur, turned out to vote against him.

A tempting moral could be one about political justice, but it actually runs deeper. That was 244 years ago. Much has happened since then.

Back then the national communities, with the exclusion of Native Americans, were getting established for the first time. It’s what we call nation-building today. But the form it took is virtually settled now, with our institutions, traditions and laws in place. Yet "community"–with over 40 working definitions making the settlement part of town, neighborhood, subdivision, identity and interest groups — is a work in progress, and never really complete.

That’s just the nature of a dynamic society. It doesn’t really worry conscientious citizens. But something else is bothersome.

The editors of The Economist put their finger on it. "Countries, like people," they said, "behave dangerously when their mood turns dark." That darkness can result in bad law. It reflects anxiety turned into disdain.

It is not fear. Fearful people cower. They run away. People act out of anxiety.

In her amazingly insightful book, "A Brief History of Anxiety," Patricia Pearson recognizes the sense of alarm that makes up fear. She mentions dread, suspicion and anxiety.

The anxieties from 9/11 brought an end to the pop economics that had us believe we would get rich by willfulness and individualism and deregulation. Followed by an endless war with a stateless, un-uniformed enemy, it compromised civil rights and fed alien suspicions, the dread of a future continuing like our immediate past. Many today believe the more we work, the further behind we get. Ninety-nine percent of us didn’t advance economically in the last five years.

That’s what popular anxiety looks like to us. But by definition it is the result of someone new coming onto the scene. Plenty of people support the notion that somehow those "other people" are at least partly responsible. Even if they are not the disease, they are an unwanted symptom.

Referencing a WHO world mental health survey, Pearson points out that we are the most anxious people on earth. A person in the United States is four times more likely to experience generalized anxiety disorder than someone in Mexico. WHO reported that despite economic differences, 94.4 percent of Mexicans have never experienced depression or a major anxiety episode. (Other data show Mexicans, when they get here, get like us.) We are nine times more likely to experience anxiety than a Chinese laborer.

Pearson uses anthropological data to show that people in some cultures don’t even have a concept of fear as we know it. Others have ritual practices, which break the spells and bring relief.

Our communal cultural ritual for breaking the spell of rampant anxiety is an election. And as in colonial times, those who spur on dissention instead of encouraging civil community building, even Benjamin Franklin, deserve to lose.


(Josi de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He is author of The Rise of Hispanic Political Power (Archer Books). Email him at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)