In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” What if that were true? We know that fear and other psychological stress affects our ability to think rationally. This is the founding principle of advertising — create anxiety, then push a product that promises to relieve it. Losing your hair? Hair turning gray? Teeth not white enough? Got underarm odor, bad breath, dandruff? Here’s one we hear a lot today: Is your libido not what it used to be? Do you have difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection? There’s always a magic remedy for these ailments, but first you need to create insecurity.
The use of fear for political influence goes back a hundred years or more. When I was growing up in the 1950s there were communists under our beds, and hiding in our closets. McCarthyism ruined careers and lives with the Black Lists — are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? The fear of black people — especially black men — has been part of national paranoia for hundreds of years. They’re going to rob you and rape all the white women. But then, racism goes back to America’s founding; it’s part of our DNA.
Fear is the weapon of choice for the oligarchy, the wealthy and powerful few who rule the country. “Divide and conquer” is their motto, because by keeping subgroups at each other’s throats, it diverts their attention from the ruling class. For awhile it was the Italian immigrants, then the Irish, or the Chinese, and always the blacks. Illegal immigrants from Mexico are one of the current groups under attack. After 9/11, the Muslims took over the top spot for fear and hatred, and the manufacture of fear went into hyperdrive. The Constitution-shredding USA Patriot Act was rushed through Congress before anyone even had time to read it, and Ben Franklin’s warning about the fallacy of giving up liberties for temporary security was forgotten. After all, what was the name of the new government agency? The Department of Homeland SECURITY. Some guy on an airplane tried to light a bomb in his shoe, so now we have to take off our shoes at the airport. Then another guy tried to light a bomb in his underwear, so now we have to have strangers grope our private parts.
During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Dick Cheney ramped up the fear to another level. If we elected John Kerry, the terrorists would hit us again. There was a color-coded threat scale, and every time a Democrat did something good, or a bill to control assault weapons was coming up for a vote, we’d go from yellow (always be afraid) to orange (crap your pants!). Ramp up the fear some more. Naomi Klein talks about this in The Shock Doctrine, how after a crisis, people can be more easily manipulated, due to their vulnerability. She calls it disaster capitalism. An example comes to mind that clearly illustrates this. During the financial meltdown in August of 2008, Treasury Secretary John Paulsen spoke befofe the nation, his voice and hands trembling. He needed $700 billion immediately, no questions asked, to avoid a catastrophe. The money went for obscene bonuses for the very Wall Street criminals who caused the crisis in the first place.
As if we didn’t have enough fear and hatred, America elected the first ever black person as President, and conservative white people went absolutely ballistic. Obama’s going to take your guns away! Sales of guns and ammo went through the roof, even though gun restrictions have become looser than ever. He’s a socialist, Marxist, Stalinist, Kenyan Muslim! And the Birther movement was born. This fear and marginalization of “the Other” has been pounded into the American psyche by Fox alleged News, and over 900 right-wing hate radio shows, blaring twenty-four hours a day, every day. The well-intentioned, if deeply flawed, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was attacked with all kinds of hysterics. Death panels! They’re going to pull the plug on Grandma! It was mostly lies, but lies told often enough become more believable to an ill-informed electorate.
If it seems that it’s conservatives who always use fear to manipulate us, that’s because they’re the ones who are afraid. The conservative mind abhors anything that isn’t exactly like it; colored people, immigrants, gay people, liberals, and I’ve already written a whole screed on their terror of women (see “The Right’s Fear & Loathing of Women” in the archives). They’re the gun crazy shoot first if you even feel threatened fanatics behind the “Stand Your Ground” laws in half the states. There are 300 million guns in the United States, about one for every person, even though only one in five Americans owns a gun.
This country is now in the grip of a deep psychosis, and much of it has been caused by propaganda being spouted twenty-four hours a day by Fox alleged News and over 900 hate radio stations. They’re going to take our guns! The terrorists are everywhere! Sharia law in the courts! The Republicans want to destroy Social Security! The government is reading your emails! Gay people want to convert your children! The government and the corporate media periodically report failed terrorist attacks that turn out to be cooked up by the FBI, just to keep us on edge.
What is the nature of fear? I’m no spiritual leader or psychologist, so what the heck do I know? Well, I know I have fears, and when I look at what’s behind them, most of it is fear of loss. I may fear losing a girlfriend or wife, and being alone. Losing my job and hence an income, losing my mind, losing my freedom, losing my country. The Eastern mystic Krishnamurti says that fear comes from attachment to things or ideas. He says, for example, “Where there is desire for self=protection, there is fear,” which immediately makes me thing of the NRA’s fear-mongering of gun nuts. All this may be a little esoteric for most of us, but I’ve found that the more that we understand our fears, the easier they are to bear.
I invite you to examine your own fears. Which are real, and which have been manufactured by outside agencies like political or religious systems, with agendas of their own. The false ones you are free to shed, while the real ones may be easier to deal with when you know more about yourself.
I’d like to take all this a step further, and let us suppose that fear itself is an actual force, almost a living thing. Maybe not a conscious being, like in some science fiction novel, but something that gains energy by engendering negative energy. Think of a cancer tumor; is it self-aware? Probably not in the way we think of being awake and aware. But it is a living collection of cells that feeds off its host, and diverts energy (in the form of nutrition) away from the host to feed itself and grow. If fear is a living force, it can always find weak minds to spread its poison, to keep feeding itself. We should do everything we can to starve it of food. And by gaining control over our fears, we can help do just that. We can own our own fears, but we don’t need to own those of someone else.
The thing you fear most has no power. Your fear of it is what has the power.
— Oprah Winfrey