Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fear Sells

"So, first of all, 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 Delano Roosevelt

I'm a history geek, so I'm often curious about what our ancestors would think about modern American life. It is, in some ways, an idle curiosity, as there is no possibility FDR, my grandmother, or Chester Nimitz (please, insert your own favorite historical figure) are going to show up on my front porch and sit down for dinner, a glass of wine, and have a quick chat about the state of affairs. But it would be cool. Very cool.

So, we are left only with their words, writings, and perhaps our own cloudy memories of the actual lives they lived. If you stop for a minute, can you imagine what Martin Luther King did in the morning when he woke up? Wrote speeches about civil rights or checked on his kids? Made coffee? Checked the lawn for burnt crosses? Imagine what Eleanor Roosevelt did in between her moments of greatness. Shopped for comfortable shoes, maybe. Worried about what Franklin was doing, and perhaps who he was doing it with. Surely, they lead extraordinary lives and shaped extraordinary times, but they also had to live through some very ordinary events. I don't know what they were (shaving? eating breakfast? paying bills?), but I have every faith the giants of history weren't brilliant all the time. Amazing people, but people nonetheless.

So back to FDR's famous quote. The famous opening masks the more important phrase, that "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." I would love, as mentioned earlier, to ask him to share his opinion about how our generation is handling fear. There seems to be ample evidence that we not only seem paralyzed by our modern fears of international terrorism, unemployment, stock market fluctuations, cyber-bullying, or rampant gun violence -- to name but a few -- but that we are drawn to stories of macabre and horror with almost an addict's need.

You don't believe me? Okay. I'm not trying to convince you, but turn on CNN or Fox, or your local news. What are the stories about? Kidnapped kids, oil spills, massacres in Iraq, mine disasters, teen suicide, hordes of illegal immigrants, crooked politicians... Need I go on? Even many advertisements are now geared towards making you feel crappy about yourself or your life - your smile isn't straight enough, your credit rating is too low, your daughter is going to get kidnapped out of the mall if you don't have a tracking device on her cell phone. Try to watch the news or the ads impartially, and see if you want to argue.

But why? In my humble opinion is that fear sells. Not exactly a new idea, I understand. But think about it for a minute. 9-11, two wars, a typhoon, a mega-quake, Katrina, the BP spill, Abu Graib; the list of shitty things that have happened in the last ten years seems profound and unique, worse than at anytime in our history. Add to that the 24-7 news cycle, instant and near omnipresent access to news and media. Mr. Orwell, you were off by a mere 26 years - not bad, old salt. It's hard to not be exposed to all of these compelling, heart wrenching, oft-tragic stories.

Step back, though, from the brink. How idyllic do you think life was for a stock broker, say in late 1929? Or for a farmer in Oklahoma in 1933? Or a black man Birmingham in 1955? Or a woman looking for a corporate job in the early 1970's? I don't mean to imply that life is easy nowadays; quite the contrary, especially if you are out of work right now or your mortgage is "under water.' All I'm posing is that the crap we seem to be mired in is just that - crap. Shitty things have been happening to nice people since the first cavemen had his hunting club jacked by a rival tribesman. The difference, then, seems to me to be a matter of how we cope with adversity.

See, I think modern Americans think bad times are a new phenomenon, when in fact bad times have always been there, in between the good times. Even more probable, bad times have always run concurrently with good times. What is different, though, is that we too often think we have some right to be free of fear, pain, loss, or anger. But in truth, there is no such right. In fact, we should be afraid of the influence of social media on our teens, we should be angry when crimes are committed, we should be sad when a young child is taken from their family, we should be worried that an oil company puts profit ahead of safety or environmental concerns.

What we shouldn't do is to succumb to the idea that we are victims, or that we are powerless to deal with what we see as a bombardment of tragedy, or that what we going through in our personal lives or as a society is unique to our times. I recommend that we embrace that we are afraid, but reject that that fear should rule our every decision -- or non-decision. It is okay to be sad, but not at the expense of also recognizing small joys found in the smiles of children or in the kinds words from strangers. I say that while we recognize our losses, we take time to account for our gains. In short, the glass is always and has always been both half-full and half-empty. Only individuals can choose how they see it.

So, fear sells. But don't delude yourself - you can choose to buy it. Or you can choose not to. You are equipped with all of the gifts your ancestors possessed - and perhaps far more -- but you alone can exercise the one truly universal, undeniable American - human? - right; free will. You have every right to retreat, which may make every bit of sense. But you also can advance, even when that course of action may seem to be the irrational choice. But for me, irrationally advancing seems so much more appealing than being rationally in retreat.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. I smiled when you mentioned that I seem to be the "glass half full" type in your comment. I'm not sure I would always put myself in that group. The Mr and I often seemed to get caught up in the mire. There are times when I definitely want to retreat, and yet, we keep on. And why not? I'd rather watch cartoons then the news anyway.


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