President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It was an expression praised for its clarity and its inspiring call to action. Roosevelt was facing the depths of the Great Depression – a time when the nation feared its best days might very well be far behind it.
We know the rest of the story. FDR beat the depression and managed to beat the Nazis, though he died a little less than a month before the allies declared victory in Europe. What followed was an ever-present fear of communism and nuclear war, including drills in which school children practiced diving under their desks. Today we’re afraid of terrorists – foreign ISIS marauders and domestic school gunmen – crime, climate change and more.
Just yesterday, a World Health Organization study claimed that we need to be concerned about processed meats. We all had a hunch that hot dogs were not good for you, but the study’s suggestion that hot dogs and bacon could potentially increase our risk of cancer is chilling to all of us who are not vegetarians.
Our political process has largely come to lean on fear as a crutch. You’d never hear a modern politician quoting FDR. There’s plenty more to fear than fear itself: immigration, same sex marriage, taxes, guns, big banks, etc. To listen to any of the debates leading toward next year’s presidential election, the tone is often desperate. The stakes are high. If we don’t make the right choice, we could meet certain doom.
Now there are important issues in this country and the world that require our fixed attention. Personally, I find myself in agreement the most with former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who has used his fortune and influence to fight poverty and now climate change. ( only we could get a presidential candidate like that!) There is a lot about our world that could be better.
Yet, we live in times that have never been better. People are living longer now than they ever have. In the last 150 years, life expectancies in industrial countries have risen from 35 to approaching 80. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by 50 percent in just the last 15 years. And the last decade has seen fewer deaths around the world in conflict than ever before. In fact, you’re more likely to be killed walking through your neighborhood than you are by a terrorist attack.
In this country, it’s the same. Crime has never been lower. Our roads and public spaces are safer. Our fears of children being abducted have never been less well founded. Yet most Americans don’t feel safe. We’re fed a pretty steady diet of television news and political ad campaigns that make us feel as if civilization is in a free fall. The only sensible thing to do is arm the home security system, buy a few guns for self-defense and prepare for the zombie apocalypse, a terrorist invasion, an armed insurrection or whatever comes first.
To be honest, the trick or treater dressed as Jason from “Friday the 13th” just might be a lot more frightening than the rest of the things you’re afraid of.
– Pete Mazzaccaro