Americans have become a fearful lot. And I really do mean scaredy‐cats, a bunch whimpering, simpering, Cowardly Lions afraid of everything from chocolate milk to clowns, from fake eyelashes (it’s a thing) to 11 year‐old playground bullies.
I’m not sure how this happened, but fear has become a pervasive element in our culture. It’s virtually everywhere, replacing optimism and confidence and our famous pioneer spirit in the same way that “feelings” have replaced “thinking.”
The lawyers have a lot to do with that, because we have millions of them. And because we have millions of them competing to salve our “feelings” with remedies that can only, apparently, be found in cash settlements, we have become the most litigious society in the history of the world.
We’ve done that without pausing to consider that litigation may be – in many, many cases — more of a problem than a solution. So a lot of people are just afraid of being sued, about some thing, some time, by some one, which is probably legitimate because any one can sue any body, at any time, for any thing.
And they often do.
Maybe the fear culture is somehow based in the knowledge, mostly not talked about — like the bad uncle with prison tats who shows up drunk at Christmas – that we are essentially bankrupt as a nation, running on fumes and easy credit to rack up bills that no one alive, apparently, has any intention of ever paying off, so that the bill for the Great Baby‐Boomer Dine and Dash will someday land on our grandchildren like a cartoon safe falling out of the sky.
Anyway, here’s a brief survey of things Americans, by their own admission, were scared of last week:
Romaine lettuce, Facebook, the Dow Jones Average, cheerleading injuries, chemtrails, aliens (galactic or planetary), drones, staying in Syria, leaving Syria, staying in Afghanistan, leaving Afghanistan, Mad Cow disease, witchcraft in elementary schools, Kelly‐Anne Conway, inflation, deflation, Amazon’s Alexa telling children to murder their foster parents, drought, fish kills, planetary warming, planetary cooling, credit‐card debt, flooding, tornados, wolves, volcanoes, tick‐borne diseases, Trump, MAGA hats, Pelosi, Rand Paul, people with guns, people banning guns, snow, North Korean EMP bombs, watermelons, robot surgeons, Chevys, opioids, China, light bulbs, landfills, Mueller, ISIS, Virus X, Russia, ANTIFA, asteroids, cancer, coffee, roundabouts, heart disease, walls and slats, actors, people from Portland, people from Honduras, angry deer, white supremacists, Black Panthers, people from California, self‐driving cars, bears, Boy Scout jamborees, forest fires, football players, Elon Musk, Vladimir Putin, statues of Robert E. Lee, and glitter.
Reading the news forensically, which is a necessary approach, it appears that at least some Americans are afraid of all these things at once, and virtually every day. Other citizens have more concentrated fears, such as the folks who, in one California city, called 911 over 27,000 times – to complain about gas‐powered leaf blowers.
Which is just sad because there is a whole lot more of the Scary Stuff crammed into the big bag of potential night‐terrors, including some alarming stories about radioactive pigs and wolves roaming around Europe — but for our purposes what happens in Ukraine stays in Ukraine.
It’s tempting to say some of that fear is really just anger, but fear works because those emotions are born of the same mother, which is a lack of control over other people, circumstances, or things.
A lot of this contemporary fear‐mongering, and the subsequent fear‐based living and decision‐making, is driven by media saturation, which is a for‐profit business, after all. And fear‐widgets sell, so editorial decisions are made easy when the choice falls between a heart‐warming story about a kid raising money for his pet turtle with a broken beak, or a nightmare story about a factory robot that went inexplicably rogue and killed some hapless fellow on the assembly line. Factory robots going berserk sell advertising, with a dollop of fear for a side‐dish.
Television editors will, on occasion, squeeze a feel‐good piece in between the terrors, a kind of synthetic filler — like a slice of American cheese in an already bad ham sandwich — but generally book‐end a broadcast with more breaking news meant to terrify us in various ways even though, in our typically humble and generally mundane lives, we are virtually powerless to do anything at all about the Great Big Fears Consuming the World.
So the fear and anxiety stories just get pumped into our bubbles every day with precious few ways to vent them off, unless you are into goat‐yoga, or just prefer to hide in mom’s basement blazing away on Humboldt Fatso while playing Fortnite or listening to Tony Robbins tapes on an endless loop.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of a strange way to live.
Not that fear is ALL bad. Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, writes convincingly that fear is also an evolutionary advantage, giving us a kind of genetic forewarning of dangerous people, places, or things. Which would be more true if we weren’t being conditioned to believe that virtually everything around us is scary, or potentially scary, or that we are all living on the precipice of some cultural, political, and ecological cataclysm.
There are people among us who think they have all the answers. They don’t. Blowhards and know‐it‐alls, particularly those of the political stripe, are really just people overcome by fright who have morphed into frenzied tent‐revivalists, and who would love to baptize you in the church of their own nightmares.
What’s often missing from discussions about contemporary life, and all of the fear it engenders, is the long view of history, which might be helpful to dispel the notion that the whole world is cracking up on our watch. Because it isn’t. It isn’t any more or particularly worrisome today, in 2018 America, than it was in, say, Rome in 46 BCE, two years before Caesar got shanked beside Pompey’s Theater on the Ides. In many ways it is much, much better, which would be a surprise to both both Cicero and Brutus. We are evolving in different ways – most critically in the speed at which information is exchanged — but there are loud echoes in our modern complaints about everything from pollution to crime to government run amok from ancient civilizations in both Greece and Rome.
The current presidential situation isn’t even the worst one we’ve had in American history, bad as it is, and Trump ranks nowhere near the top tier of truly horrendous leaders from the last several thousand years of human history.
But fear‐based living seems new as an internalized American trait. It’s also dangerous, because policy and life‐decisions made out of fear are most often short‐term fixes to longer‐term issues. And it is hard to imagine a nation as fiscally unsound, as strategically short‐sighted, and as politically divided as ours not slipping into another Civil War as one short‐term, fear‐based decision succeeds another. And for evidence of short‐sightedness all you need to do is look at the annual congressional “Farm Bill” fiasco.
History tells us that another Civil War is inevitable. What that will look like, or how and when it will kick off, is anyone’s guess, but we can all rest assured that it will happen. I’ve said before that my concern isn’t some violent clash of Americans on Americans, as horrible as that will be — and it truly will be horrific. My worry is that I will be already dead, or far too old to play a meaningful role in whatever side of the conflagration I end up on, too consumptive and arthritic to put some hard earned skills forward for the cause. Timing is everything, after all.
At any rate, maybe — just maybe — in this holiday season, when very powerful forces at work in our culture would like to scare you into thinking we are condemned to stand forever on the trap door of existential apocalypse, we can all just turn off the big electronic global freak show long enough to enjoy a respite from the chorus of panicked humanity constantly crying wolf.