Americans have sadly become a people beset by fear, rendering dubious the phrase “home of the brave” in the national anthem.
It is not that we are no longer capable of individual acts of courage. We see plenty of bravery along swollen levees of the Mississippi River, in flood-
ravaged Vermont, at bedsides in hospices, and among soldiers in Afghanistan.
But collectively, we seem to have become a people addicted to fear, whether it’s about our economy, our children on the way to school, or the weather.
When hurricane Irene recently stalked up the East Coast, I watched friends here in the Berkshires of Massachusetts glue themselves to The Weather Channel. They quaked and planned escape routes from a storm that was still more than 500 miles away and that ultimately missed most of them.
Being prepared is one thing. My wife and I lost power for 2-1/2 days, and we tied down docks and boats to prepare. But the incessant hand-wringing of residents, the breathless news reports and their dire predictions, and the overreaction of some officials (close New York City’s subways before a drop of rain has fallen?), generated a hurricane of fear. Yes, I know, hurricane Katrina. But still.
Recent polls show public attitudes in the trenches. Consumer confidence is the lowest since April 2009. A Gallup poll finds the number of Americans worried about losing their job has also returned to 2009 levels, with 3 in 10 fretting over that possibility.
But hold on. Yes, the economy is stagnant and it is traumatic to lose your job. But that is a regular occurrence in many careers, such as construction and trading stocks.
This is not the Depression or the Dust Bowl
Today is nothing like the Great Depression, when unemployment reached 25 percent. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s displaced hundreds of thousands of people from the Plains states. During those years, many American men – some of them my friends – literally lived in boxcars and hobo camps.
Many of them eventually went on to have fine careers, and that can happen to today’s jobless. Even now, certain careers need workers, including health care, manufacturing engineering, trucking, business analysis, and – not surprising – helping businesses optimize the reach of their websites.
America’s fears are nothing if not fluid. Two years ago, the angst was over a threatened US swine flu pandemic that never materialized. Ten years ago, after 9/11, people worried most about Muslim terrorists in their midst.
It is undeniable that the attacks on New York and Washington created a huge sense of vulnerability. But in retrospect, it was ludicrous for a nation of nearly 300 million, with the world’s largest economy and unrivaled armed forces, to have cowered in fear of a band of tatterdemalions living in caves.
But Americans’ great angst antedated 9/11 and its politicians who created airport absurdities like “code yellow,” “code orange,” and “code red” – needlessly fanning public fears that justified their own jobs.
Too often fear is grounded in ignorance. I suspect an earlier generation of Americans might have been far less fearful of the Soviet nuclear menace if at the same time they had been made aware of Russia’s appalling backwardness. We easily might have tempered our paranoia of the Soviets with the realization that outside Moscow, there were virtually no other cities in the Soviet Union with potable drinking water. Many rural Russians lived in conditions little different than those of the 19th century. Texas had more miles of paved roads than the entire Soviet Union.
Overblown fear about the Soviets
Now, as then, there was profit in scaring the American people senseless. During the cold war, the Pentagon and defense contractors profited from pumping up the Soviet threat. More recently, after 9/11, a huge domestic security industry has burgeoned in airports and public buildings.
Cable networks like The Weather Channel and the television networks – not least among them Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News – rake in millions of dollars in advertising revenues by frequently frightening their audiences.
Americans already have shining examples of leadership and courage. Consider Apple’s Steve Jobs, for instance. Alas, too often in this economy we hear other business moguls whining about a paucity of national leadership. As my former CNN boss, Ted Turner, used to tell the weak-kneed, “lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
Here is a simple test for all Americans, from individuals to political leaders. Pause and ask yourselves, “Am I acting out of wisdom and knowledge, or am I letting fear dictate my decisions?” Risk-taking is indispensable to capitalism. There is nothing wrong with adventure within the limits of law. Economies seize up when people shrink from risk.
As a people, we should take to heart the words of 19th-century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, who counseled: “The First Duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it. He cannot act till then.”
Of late, our national obsession with comfort and “security” risks becoming a national failing. Barbarians have ever been at the gates of civilization. What we most need now is to again be reminded that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” coupled with a healthy dose of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “self-reliance.”
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.