MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his 1932 inaugural address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was referring to the personal and national concerns about the devastation of the Great Depression. However, he could have been speaking about the destructive impact of overblown fear on the survival of democracy and on personal well-being.
Fear is the subject of this week's Truthout Progressive Pick, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream, by Sasha Abramsky. He incisively explores how humans are hard-wired for fear. It is after all, an emotion and reflex that is common to most species to ensure individual survival. In the human, it is ignited in the amygdala, a small part of the brain, which releases a hormone that incites fear. This activates preconceived notions to invoke fear retained in another part of the brain called the hippocampus. All of this happens and emerges as a perceived threat to humans before the more discriminating neocortex can determine what is an actual personal risk.
Thus, a fear doesn't need to correspond to the actual likelihood of being harmed; it can be induced through a repetitive framing of irrational fears that are stored as memes in the amygdala and hippocampus. In an age when television transmits messages directly into the home -- as a sort of high-tech member of the family -- bitter and hateful fears do not need to reflect reality. They can be installed in the brain as perceived reality through artful propaganda and repetition. Thus, one can understand, upon reflection, the impact of a network such as Fox.
As much as Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, was derided for using the term "alternative facts" to characterize falsehoods, she was accurately representing how Fox and other right-wing television stations and media in general create an alternative worldview that appears real. For many television viewers, what streams through their plasma screens is reality.
Abramsky weaves his research about the scientific, biological and historical nature of human fear into how it served as a key factor in Trump's election. As Abramsky writes:
Our anxieties and terrors were being nurtured by people and institutions who stood to make a buck out of those fears, or build a reputation, or mobilize a crowd around them.
In the campaign for the US presidency in 2016, those fears were nurtured as never before. The result was the election to the most powerful office on earth of a ruthless demagogue, a man who promised to register people because of their religion and to torture terrorism suspects "because they deserve it."
Abramsky has much to say about how, as a whole, we so often are wildly inaccurate in how we assess national and personal risk. The so-called war on terror is an example of a national and personal fear that represents how we push to the side other more pressing and proportionate concerns. Yes, a few thousand people have died in the United States (mostly in the 9/11 attacks) due to international terrorism, but as the Business Insider reported in January, the Trump administration is excessive in proportionality:
The idea that foreign terrorists pose a grave threat to Americans is sacrosanct to President Donald Trump's immigration ban....
According to a September 2016 study by Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, some 3,024 Americans died from 1975 through 2015 due to foreign-born terrorism. That number includes the 9/11 terrorist attacks (2,983 people) and averages nearly 74 Americans per year.
Since 9/11, however, foreign-born terrorists have killed roughly one American per year. Six Americans have died per year at the hands, guns, and bombs of Islamic terrorists (foreign and domestic).
In contrast, there are approximately more than 10,000 persons who die each year in the US due to gun homicides. This figure includes the ongoing mass shootings, the vast majority of which are enacted by white male US citizens. Yet, very little is done to resolve the US's domestic gun killing problem. Billions and billions of dollars are spent each year on the repetitively declared war on international terrorism in the US, but when it comes to a statistically far more dangerous chance of being shot, little is provided to mitigate the firearms peril besides lip service. This, in essence, is one example of the misplaced risk assessment that is brought on by the demagogic use of sensationalistic irrational fear.
In the last paragraph of his book, Abramsky writes:
How we navigate this brutal reality [of rage born of irrational fears] in the years to come will be the dominant feature of our age. How we work to make our dreams of a fairer, less divisive, less fear-driven world come true will be the defining challenge of our time.
With 2018 just a little more than a week away, it would be wise to ponder how we can make ours a transformative society and not an irrationally fear-driven one.