by Howard A. Myrick

While sitting in a local coffee house, engaged in a favorite pastime – people-watching and eavesdropping – I couldn’t escape hearing a conversation I’d heard numerous times before. The conversation centered on the growing feelings of fear about current conditions in the country and world, helplessness in not being able to do anything about fear-arousing issues and experiencing a resulting sense of anger.

The issues triggering their fearfulness included existing and escalating levels of rancorous political dissent, hyper-ideological polarization, partisan hostility (especially at the national level) resulting in near-paralysis in “getting anything done,” while politicians debated such hostility-triggering subjects as immigration, trade wars and economics.

And in the meantime, ordinary citizens struggled with concerns about paying bills, cost of living increases, wage stagnation, the widening gap in wealth distribution (i.e., the rich getting richer, the middle class and poor falling behind), etc. The bombardment of conflicting information and lack of candor from politicians, the news and social media was also cited as cause for feelings of fear and uncertainty.

Reflecting on the possibility that the expressed concerns were unwarranted and/or over dramatized, several inescapable realities had to be acknowledged: Reputable economics analysts have concluded that there is a dangerous and widening disparity in income and wealth distribution.

As Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz put it in The New York Times in December 2013, “When 1% of the population takes home 22% of the country’s income … reasonable people can look at this absurd distribution and be pretty sure that the game is rigged.”

Another concern discussed: the resurgence of racism, anti-Semitism and the growing hostility toward “others” of various stripes. This has been manifested in venomous tweets, acted out in ugly displays, parades and public demonstrations by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, ethnonationalists and a growing number of other hate groups. This all flies in the face of what Americans believe to be the virtues that have set the nation positively apart, earning (not without some lapses) the reputation of being “the shining city on the hill.”

It is indeed regrettable that at this moment in the nation’s history, a development given the label “white fear” has evolved or resurfaced, reflecting a pushback by white people who believe that they are being “left behind” by metropolitan elites, their ways of life “under siege” and on the path to becoming a minority in their own land. These wrongs are supposedly caused by an influx of immigrants, social programs targeted at achieving diversity, affirmative action and generally living up to the credos so proudly espoused by the nation’s leaders and politicians.

Equally regrettable is the fact that this “white backlash” is variously fabricated and sustained by politicians and power holders for the express purpose of instilling fear for partisan political advantage, e.g., using the strategy of “divide and conquer” as a way of gaining and holding power.

Given that the so-called “white fear” is unfounded and is to a large and dangerous extent being used by unscrupulous people and entities driven by greed and self-interest, remediation and countermeasures are possible and need to be urgently adopted and implemented. These concerns, if unaddressed, pose a dangerous threat to the nation’s social, cultural and economic well-being. They also pose serious threats to the nation’s credibility abroad and maintenance of its hard-earned role as an international leader. This is especially problematic at a time when the country is faced with real threats from abroad, including genuine terrorists – both international and domestic – intent on spreading mayhem and panic.

This is the time when fear should and must generate anger – but anger of the kind sociologists describe as creating the “approach” emotion (not the “retreat” emotion associated with sadness and despair). It is time for the kind of anger associated with controlling one’s circumstances, finding ways to confront challenges and making changes to engender optimism.

It is the kind of anger that prompted the words of civil rights icon Rosa Parks: “People always say I didn’t give up my seat on the racially segregated bus because I was tired … No, the only tired I was, was giving in.”

This sentiment, too, was expressed powerfully by Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network:” “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

So my strongly held opinion and equally strongly urged recommendation is this: Don’t be pessimistic, dismiss any notion that anger is a universally negative human emotion and embrace the fact that anger, when properly channeled, can be the impetus for overcoming fear and achieving positive change – especially at this critical juncture in our nation’s evolution. Civic engagement, political activism, voting, speaking out and holding elected officials to account are steps that can and must be taken by everyone and at every level. The ultimate goal is survival and continued forward movement toward the achievement of a “more perfect union” and truly deserving the title of “The Shining City On The Hill,” the example for others to follow.

Howard A. Myrick is a Mt. Airy resident, Professor Emeritus of Temple University and a retired U.S. Army officer who served in Vietnam. He is also a former public broadcasting executive for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a Pennsylvania Public TV Network Commissioner.