A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana, showing that young children who are fearful in childhood are likely to be conservative when they grow up got me to thinking.
It’s not just that a whole generation of kids who get regularly belted by their parents, who are warned that if they behave in a certain manner they’ll go to hell, or that their faces will freeze in some horrible contorted way, or that they will be thrown out of the house, are becoming Republicans. It’s that virtually the whole country is populated by adults who have been raised in a climate of fear by a media and a government that are hell-bent on scaring the shit out of everyone.
The result is that a nation that once, for better or worse, was full of people who could strike out for unknown regions to stake a claim on land when they didn’t even know how to farm (land admittedly belonging to native Americans who could understandably be expected to react with aggressive hostility to being expropriated), who could weather brutal winters with nothing to get them through but a musket and a store of root vegetables in the cellar, who could stand up to the mightiest military of its day and throw off a colonial yoke and boldly create a new country, now cowers in fear at the imagined threats of a landlocked group of uneducated and incredibly poor people living in a country that is a throwback to the 16th century.
America is supposedly the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” as our unsingable national anthem puts it at its most unsingable point, but to tell the truth, it is no longer either of those things. Don’t believe me? Just try telling a cop who stops you for standing off the side of the road with your thumb out and says you are breaking the law against hitchhiking, that he is wrong and that the law does not in fact bar thumbing. For exercising your right of free speech, even if you were polite about it, he will in response threaten you with arrest. Argue (which is your right), and you’re likely to be slammed against his vehicle, cuffed, and dragged off to the slammer. Never mind that the cop is wrong about the law, and that your charges will be tossed out later. If you resist, or mouth off further during this arrest process, you might even be tased. In the end, you are busted, probably bruised, too, and you’ll be detained for a couple of hours until your family can come spring you by paying an extortionate bail.
In an environment like this, you’re not free, and the cop is certainly anything but brave. And that is the situation we’re in today in the U.S.
When the Twin Towers in New York City were attacked and struck by two planes and collapsed, I agree it was a horrible shock, but at no point was the survival of the United States, or even of the American people, threatened. Even if you throw in the attack by a third plane on the Pentagon, which collapsed a section of the world’s biggest building, the US wasn’t facing any existential risk. But the reaction of the American public to this attack on 9-11-2001, encouraged mightily by the US government, was to hunker down, beg for police-state laws, and to stop all normal activity. (In fact, any serious damage to the US following those attacks was caused by the reaction of government, business and the people of the US to the event, not by the events themselves.)
In my town, the local school board cancelled all school trips for the rest of the 2001-2 school year, claiming, with the full support of most of the parents in the school district, that there was a risk that terrorists might attack school buses!
This is not rational behavior. It is irrational fear.
The same fear that has led to public support for bi-partisan funding of the most bloated, grotesquely over-armed military in the history of the world. That porkbarrel military is not any good at fighting wars, as the defeat in Iraq, and the looming defeat in Afghanistan by forces armed with AK-47 rifles and home-made mines has proved, and it’s not any good at fighting terrorism, as the spreading of fundamentalist Muslim terror groups across the Middle East and northern Africa demonstrate, but it creates a warm feeling of comfort for terrified Americans to see those huge nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, bristling with heavily armed fighter bombers on their decks, plowing through the ocean, just as it makes people comfortable to see US troops, puffed out with body armor so that they look like pro-football players on a gridiron, standing at the ready at some far off desert outpost.
They’re “keeping us safe,” people think, even as they rush out to buy guns in record numbers.
The depths to which this nation has sunk in this miasma of mindless fear became apparent when President Obama, at both the first abysmal debate and the third, opened his remarks by declaring that it was his primary duty as president “to keep Americans safe.”
I thought the primary responsibility of the president of the United States was to defend the Constitution. In fact, here’s the presidential oath:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Note that it doesn’t say anything in this oath of office about keeping Americans “safe.”
It’s our Constitution and our freedom that the president is supposed to be defending, not our safety!
Imagine President George Washington, or President Abraham Lincoln, saying that their “number one goal” was to “keep Americans safe”!
I was at a gathering of journalists last night — the annual dinner of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship program. Actually it was a gathering of journalists, bankers, public relations executives and media tycoons, all of the latter of whom help to fund this program at Columbia University designed to train journalists to report on financial and economic affairs. A former director, Pauline Tai, from Hong Kong, an old friend, was talking with me and said that she was amazed in her visits back to the US, at how afraid Americans have become.
We remarked on how bizarre that was. America is far and away the most powerful nation in the world, favored in so many ways with abundant resources, with a diverse culture and population, and yet its people cower in fear — fear of the outside world and, sadly, even fear of each other. People in Hong Kong aren’t afraid. People in Taiwan and China aren’t afraid, and yet objectively they all live in much more vulnerable places — Hong Kong right next to a totalitarian government that could snuff out its civil liberties overnight, Taiwan under the threat of Chinese missiles just across a narrow strait — missiles that were test fired into adjacent shipping lanes during a crisis in 1995. And China itself a kind of pressure cooker of public frustration and anger held at bay by a sclerotic Communist Party elite that doesn’t really know how to change and reform without losing its grip in an uncontrolled explosion.
The same can be said of much of the rest of the world, from what I have seen in my own travels. Look at Greece. It is seeing its economy destroyed and pillaged by the greedy demands of banks in northern Europe and by the governments of the more powerful economies in the European Union, yet far from cowering in fear, its people are fighting back in massive public demonstrations.
Americans, worried about their own country’s economic future, go out and buy more and bigger guns and huddle in their homes in fear of the future. And then they vote for politicians who tell them they should be afraid –whether of terrorists, “death panels” in Obamacare, a bankrupt Social Security program, the budget deficit, regulations, or a black president — and who, to public applause, hand ever more power over to an intrusive and increasingly violent domestic police/army.
The worst thing about all this fear and fear-mongering is that it has turned the US into a nation of conspiracy theorists, so ready to believe the most far-fetched plots and schemes by the rich and powerful that we Americans are unable to see the real challenge facing not just us, but the entire world: the threat of catastrophic climate change. And that is a very real threat that cannot be avoided by cowering in a basement or by electing some tough-talking chief executive, or by buying guns. It can only be tackled by taking bold united action as a people to change the whole basis of the socio-economic system from one premised on encouraging wasteful consumption to one based upon utility and on bettering the lot of all as efficiently as possible — and doing this not just as a nation, but in collaboration with the rest of the world.
It is time for Americans to reject the fear-mongering, and to take responsibility for our own society and government. We don’t need a leader who will “keep us safe.” We need a leader who will denounce fear, who will declare that the freedoms that are enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights are the foundation of this nation, and that we will rely on them, not police and armies, to move the country forward to face the real challenges of the future.