Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Petrified Forest: Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product.

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Lewis Lapham writes in Lapham’s Quarterly:

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Great self-destruction follows upon unfounded fear.
—Ursula K. Le Guin

Speaking to citizens of what in 1933 was still a democratic republic, Roosevelt sought to strengthen the national resolve in the depth of the Great Depression, “preeminently the time,” he said in his first inaugural address, to tell “the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” no need to “shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” His fellow countrymen took him at his word, and the national resolve proved strong enough to emerge from the Depression, in 1941–45 to win the war against Germany and Japan, in the years since to bring forth the wealthiest society and the most heavily armed nation-state known to the history of mankind.

Heroic resolve, but not heroic enough to surmount the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception. The force of mind rooted in the soil of adversity didn’t take hold in the flower beds of prosperity; placed under the protective custody of the atomic bomb and sicklied o’er with the pale cast of money, the native hues of resolution lost the name of action.

Fear itself these days is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of a tweet. Popularly priced at conveniently located checkpoints on drugstore and supermarket shelves, at airports and tanning salons. Diligently promoted by the news and fake news bringing minute-to-minute reports of America the Good and the Great threatened on all fronts by approaching apocalypse—rising seas and barbarian hordes, maniac loose in the White House, nuclear war on or just below the horizon. Our leading politicians and think-tank operatives shrink from both truth and falsehood, regard mental paralysis as the premium state of securitized being. Our schools and colleges provide safe spaces swept clean of alarming, unjustified speech, credit a rarefied awareness of nameless, unreasoning terror as evidence of superior sensibility and soul.

Not the outcome envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the one raising the question addressed in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. How does it happen that American society at the moment stands on constant terror alert? In no country anywhere in the history of the world has the majority of a population lived in circumstances as benign and well-lighted as those currently at home and at large within the borders of the United States of America. And yet, despite the bulk of reassuring evidence, a divided but democratically inclined body politic finds itself herded into the unifying lockdown imposed by the networked sum of its fears—sexual and racial, cultural, social, and economic, nuanced and naked, founded and unfounded. Why and wherefrom the trigger warnings, and whose innocence or interest are they meant to comfort, defend, and preserve? Who is afraid of whom or of what, and why do the trumpetings of doom keep rising in frequency and pitch?

Fear itself doesn’t need the publicity. The oldest and strongest of the human emotions, awakened in the embryo fighting for breath in the birth canal, fear is nature’s free gift to all its sentient creations. The author Caroline Alexander credits the ancient Greeks with having many words for fear—almost as many as the Inuit have words for snow—and this issue of Lapham’s Quarterlydoesn’t lack for text and illustration of straightforward terror, nervous apprehension, panic that impels battle rout, shock that strikes dumb with amazement, horror that jabbers the teeth, trembles the limbs.

In my capacity as human being, I’ve met with most if not all of the descriptives handed down from antiquity, but in my profession as journalist, I’ve encountered primarily the distinctions between what Sigmund Freud in 1917 defines as real fear and neurotic fear, the former a rational and comprehensible response to the perception of clear and present danger, the latter “free-floating,” anxious expectation attachable to any something or nothing that catches the eye or the ear, floats the shadow on a wall or a wind in the trees. Real fear invites action, the decision to flee or fight dependent upon “our feeling of power over the outer world”; expectant fear induces states of paralysis, interprets every coincidence as evil omen, prophesizes the most terrible of possibilities, ascribes “a dreadful meaning to all uncertainty.”

I’m old enough to remember when Americans weren’t as easily persuaded to confuse the one with the other. In grammar school prior to the advent of the atomic bomb, I was taught that looking fear straight in the face was the root meaning of courage, told to learn from the example not only of Alexander the Great and Admiral Lord Nelson but also from the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2017 at 2:49 pm

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