The Culture of Fear & Loathing
FDR understood an element of our national psyche that is dangerous to both ourselves and the world. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.“ Americans are a fearful people. It’s as if our ancestors held onto the rational fear of the power of church, state and lawlessness that they escaped from when they immigrated to this land. Then the rational fear morphed into irrational fear and they passed it along to successive generations. The inchoate fear is constantly in need of something to attach itself to, and each generation finds one or more new targets for it: Indians, new immigrants, African Americans, technology and on and on. The older ones are rarely ever extinguished; always available to be transformed into a target for a new age. A new enemy. A new way that we can engage in new stupid and irrational behaviors.
Duct tape and plastic sheeting should replace the “baling wire and chewing gum” metaphor for responding irrationally to a perceived threat. Almost five years after 9/11, our fear that attached to Muslims extremists that day still grips us as the major problem confronting us. Doesn’t matter that fewer than 3,000 died that day and subsequently at 80,000 died in auto accidents and 200,000 in medical accidents. The attacks on 9/11 were spectacular, but they didn’t exactly demonstrate military prowess on the part of al Qaeda. It was a high concept and low tech attack. They succeeded because nothing like that had happened before. A truly simple high concept idea only succeeds once. The Pet Rock and 9/11 are one offs.
Pearl Harbor informed the country that what was happening in the Far East and Europe wasn‘t as far away as we thought it was. The country became mostly fearless in confronting those who challenged the world. The sacrifices were huge, but the mission was clear. In less than five years, this country mobilized a wartime military and defeated military powerhouses. It was a shining moment in the history of this country -- we gave our blood, sweat and tears. We fought the forces of fascism and won. And when it was over, we were proud and relieved for a brief moment in time. Then we became arrogant and as fearful, if not more fearful, than we had ever been.
Commies, gooks, drugs, crime, terrorists -- the monster under our bed doesn’t even need to have much form. Like small children we cower and cringe and beg Daddy to kill or lock up the monster so that we can feel safe again. If Daddy says, “Hide under your desks and you’ll be safe from a nuclear bomb,” we do it. If Daddy says, “The pod people are hiding among us,” we say our freedoms are expendable to get them. And when Daddy says, “We have to defeat them abroad before they invade us,” we say, “Do it” even if “them” and “defeat” are not defined.
The bomb attacks in London the week once again demonstrates the huge difference in the national psyches of Americans and the British. Blair demonstrated an acceptable level of statesmanship even if he didn‘t look much like a leader, something the Brits and Europeans already knew about him. However, compared to Bush, who on his own couldn‘t come up with anything better than something about standing for hope and compassion and against evil, Blair didn’t come off too badly. The UK isn’t hunkered down looking for some country to bomb and the citizens accept that they may be hit again and it is a risk that can’t be eliminated. That stiff upper lip and getting on with it exhibits a national maturity not seen recently in America.
Did the adversity of the Great Depression and WWII only produce a pseudo-maturity in this country? Or did we grow up under the leadership of FDR and then regress to adolescence in the post-WWII McCarthy era? The Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam challenged us to grow up, get real. And for a few years as civil rights and social contracts were expanded, it appeared that we were. Maybe that was also only an illusion. Otherwise, how do we make explain the continuous social and political push to recreated the 1950’s without the protections of the New Deal while one of the most backward of the European countries of the 1960’s has moved forward to the 21st Century..
Back in the 1960’s, Spain seemed to be stuck in the 1930’s. Living under the yoke of the only fascist dictator to survive WWII. One that facilitated the rise of the rightwing Catholic priest who spawned the dreadful Opus Dei movement. “Guernica” was housed in the NY Museum of Modern Art while Spain continued to live it. Few Americans thought much about Spain at that time. The world left Franco alone. He died and Spain restored their monarchy. It wasn’t until right before the invasion of Iraq that I had given any thought for decades to the political situation in Spain. More so than the in the UK, the Spaniards seemed not to want to participate in it. After all, what did they owe to the US? Instead of lining up with Spanish speaking countries in the western hemisphere or France to their north, they joined Bush’s other lapdogs. It appeared that Spain might have changed but not by as much as those anti-war demonstrations suggested. The political fallout from the Madrid bombings were hard to read as a backlash against Azner since we were led to believe that if not for his attempt to blame them on Basque separatists, he like Bush and Blair would have survived a post Iraq invasion election.
The past week indicates that a lot more has been going on in Spain than bulls running through the streets of Pamplona once a year. Either the superficial news reports about Spain that make it into the US MSM have been mostly worthless (a distinct possibility) or the Madrid bombings was a tipping point. The government and the majority in Spain are on the cutting edge of the world in the area of equal rights. While this country is working overtime to push homosexuality back into the closet, same-sex marriage is now legal in a country that tiny Catholic Spain. Not forced on the them by the courts as it was done to the people of Massachusetts, but with widespread support in the populace. Equally telling were a couple of NPR interviews with ordinary citizens after the London bombings. An elderly man talked about how he never hesitated for a micro-second to get on a train and was almost blasé in acknowledging that more bomb attacks can happen and little can be done to stop them. A women talked about how police security on public transit was increased for a few days after the Madrid bombings but only for a few days because it was deeply unpopular. It reminded them too much of those dark days under Franco, and they preferred to accept the risk of another bomb sometime in the future than return to living in a police state.
Who would have predicted four decades ago that America would now be on the verge of establishing a fascist theocracy run by an idiot and his Stepford wife? With Democratic politicians screaming for more and more security at our borders and on our mass transit systems? Our military running torture chambers worthy of Franco? That the national debt would be over $7 billion and rising faster than ever before? And Spain would become so cool? Even Hunter Thompson wasn’t that prescient.