Overcoming Fear Culture and Fear Itself
On the eve of a new presidency, Americans are singularly poised to challenge the things that scare us silly
Image by Mark and Rosemary Jarman / jarmanart.com
This article was published with What Are You Afraid of?—great writing on anxiety, fearlessness, bombs, the economy, science, and what scares us.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took the stage and delivered his first inaugural address, he beheld legions of frightened Americans. The year was 1933. A quarter of the nation was unemployed.
As he bellowed those now-famous words—the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—Roosevelt couldn’t have fathomed the face of his country a mere 75 years later. For there’s no doubt that “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” seizes the citizenry more tightly today than ever before.
The dangers of modern life have a stranglehold on people’s imaginations. Sociologists call the phenomenon risk society, describing cultures increasingly preoccupied with threats to safety, both real and perceived. And while the human species is prone to miscalculating risk, there’s more at work here than frazzled modern nerves: Americans are fearful. Truly fearful. When they’re asked, a majority say with certainty that the world is more dangerous than ever before. Even in the face of evidence that negates this misperception, there is no relief. We lock our doors, say our prayers, and still can’t get to sleep.
For the first time in history, fear is tearing society apart. In the past, fear has engendered solidarity—as it did in the 1950s, when nuclear anxieties bound Americans together. Contemporary fear throws wedges between us. This isolation, in turn, renders the public ever more fearful. What’s more, media outlets, politicians, and businesses all have learned to capitalize on this distinctly modern sense of dread, and thus profit from finding ways to cultivate it. Until we find a way to resist fear, we’ll live at the mercy of these emotional entrepreneurs—and in doing so, be party to the personal, cultural, and political consequences.
The good news is that on the eve of a new presidential administration, in the midst of two intractable wars and an economic crisis, we are singularly poised to challenge those things that scare us most.
Fear is not a new emotion. Throughout history, it has marked societies and even mobilized them, whether they were facing down plagues or the threat of nuclear annihilation. What’s unique about 21st-century fear is how people experience it. Since the 1980s, society at large has bolted frantically from one panic to the next. Fear of crime reduced us to wrecks, but before long we were also howling about deadly diseases, drug abusers, online pedophiles, avian flu, teens gone wild, mad cows, anthrax, immigrants, environmental collapse, and—let us not forget—terrorists.
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