America the fearful

“All we have to fear, is fear itself” enjoined President Roosevelt in the face of truly fearsome circumstances. Ever since politicians have worked hard at building a deep reservoir of fear upon which they can prey to gain even more power. But Americans are not wusses, we have shown admirable bravery in the face of extreme danger, so why is this tactic so successful in politics?

For example, when two planes were flown into the World Trade Center in 2001, people in the building, on the ground and across the nation and the world responded with bravery and fear was displaced by action and resolve. Then the politicians got hold of the disaster and immediately sought to gain additional powers by preaching fear and emphasizing divisions and squelching dissent. If this phenomenon were limited to the Bush Administration, we could look for relief in the coming elections.
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But it is not that easy. In my lifetime, American bravery helped defeat the Nazis, but that was quickly followed by the incessant drumbeat of the red scare. As we look back on those years, there is really little evidence of anything to which the deep fears of the American people of that era is appropriate. As a small kid I was taught to dive under my school desk or find shelter as air raid sirens trumpeted through the cities.

Of course all along we were instructed at times aloud but always by the undercurrent, to be afraid of what we then called negroes, at least if we were trying to be polite. Today we are just coming down from another campaign of fear, one aimed at a group of people who are the least to be feared among us, gays.

There are, of course, all sorts of fear campaigns in the past and present that dictate large swaths of public policy and personal behavior. From the color coded Terror Alerts, to avian flu, to economic collapse to the almost invisible ways we are taught to fear – looks, weight, left or right handedness, income insecurity, spousal faithfulness, etc etc.

On many issues there are reasons for any of us to pay attention and possibly even have concern. But the appropriate response for these conditions is to investigate further, check reality, and either take action or reach the realization that there is nothing to do. This then leads to peace of mind and leaves one in power.

On the contrary, we more and more respond to such issues and concerns by buying something, getting cosmetic surgery, a divorce, drugs, alcohol, or any number of other responses that are inappropriate and ineffective. But most of all, we are left with less power as a result. Then there will be some politician telling us he or she has the answer to our problems by just opposing the object of fear, which of course, they have selected.

We live in a all consuming ad campaign. All commercial ad campaigns dwell on unfilled needs and wants. Since we have fewer unfilled needs than any time in our past, for the most part, ad campaigns must look to wants. The most effective approach is to create a fear out of our wants and then shove the solution in our faces knowing many of us will buy it.

Now fear is an appropriate response on rare occasions. But to act on fear is always a mistake unless it is a tiger facing you down or some other immediate – and I really mean immediate, danger. If the danger is more than five minutes ahead, fear is an inappropriate guide to action. Far better is reasoned, thoughtful actions drawing on experience, knowledge and the opinions of others.

Our political system is now almost completely dominated by fear. Democrats play on fears of unemployment, government power, group identities and “greedy businesses.” Republicans play on terrorists fears, foreign born people, gays, etc etc. We all see the fear mongering of the other party, few see that of their own.

One of the problems is that everyone has fears. Yet everyone denies their own fears as such, but pretend to ourselves and others that it isn’t fear that motivates us by a reasoned position. So long as we deny we are motivated by fear, we are impotent and being manipulated by someone else.

One of the great revelations of my life was seeing that everyone around me was just as afraid as I was underneath, covered over by bravado and denial. Once you can face this head on with no qualifiers, no explanations, no cover stories, you finally can take on personal empowerment. It is much more difficult to do this than it may seem. For me it took lots of guidance and work. For you it may be different.

But let me assure you, to the extent you do not see the power of unrecognized fear in your life you are being manipulated by someone. It may be the fear you have covered over about your spouse leaving in which case you will do things you otherwise would never think of doing. It may be the fear of Mexicans overrunning your city which you disguise as a desire to “enforce the law.” You may want to “defend the sanctity of marriage” and oppose gay marriage when the truth is you were scared when as a child you felt an attraction to someone of your own gender.

The list is literally endless. Life is shaped by fear. But very few people are able to face that and throw off all the rationalizations, explanations and cover-ups. That is why America is so easy to manipulate by those who know this fact of life. To the extent you are afraid of anything you are a pawn, a slave to someone or something outside yourself.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Face it and grab the power of life.