Have you been feeling fearful these days, as though the world has become a much more dangerous place, almost overnight? You’re not alone. Keeping populations in a state of heightened fear and dread is big business these days, and everyone wants a piece of the action.
Corporations who live and die by short-term financial metrics, want to find ways to grind out more profit per employee. In a challenging economy, continuing layoffs and cuts to hours and benefits and ambiguous corporate communications keep employees from seeking raises or better assignments. Nobody wants to speak up about dangerous or illegal working conditions or crushing demands. Everyone’s just trying to “stay below the radar” and avoid being the next casualty.
Congress, where elected officials pledge their loyalty to the NRA, Grover Norquist, political caucuses, and the corporations that funded their election and re-election, is another bastion of fear-mongering. Truth in advertising suggests that instead of business suits, Congress-critters be forced to wear NASCAR-like jumpsuits with patches denoting each of their sponsors. But… I digress. Congress likes to focus on vague fears like The Deficit That Will Force Your Grandkids into Economic Slavery, while the obvious, in-your-face fears like Climate Change Which Spawned the Superstorm That Washed Away Part of the Country go largely unremarked upon. When Americans can be frightened by the looming perils of complicated issues, it’s so much easier to strip them of their freedoms and rob them blind.
Advertisers, always early adopters of any new revenue streams, have launched campaigns suggesting that “you may be eligible for [insert worthless scam here]”, drawing you in to learn about dreadful things that might happen. Your car might break down. Your identity might be stolen. You might lose out on all life’s possibilities due to low testosterone. If you act now, and part with your hard-earned dollars, you might be able to forestall these apocalyptic outcomes… but only if you’re among our first 25 callers.
The pharmaceutical industry is doing quite well in FearWorld, and not just in selling more and better anti-anxiety drugs. If you watch television or read magazines, you’ll quickly learn that you’re beset with medical conditions that have been proliferating out of control. From erectile dysfunction to Restless Leg Syndrome, depression, chronic pain, and every other ailment you (or Madison Avenue) can imagine, there’s a cure. Just ask your doctor about Panacea. Sure, it’s got some side effects, like thoughts of suicide, shortness of breath, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and death, but do you want to get better or not?
The media, willing to throw your peace of mind under the bus in their quest for ratings, loves nothing better than fear. Your local ABC, CBS, or NCB affiliate will post little announcements like, “Do you know what deadly danger lurks in your child’s lunchbox?!” and unhelpfully notes that “Dozens of kids have been sent to local hospitals. On Monday’s 10:00 nightly news, we’ll tell you why”. Home invasions, child abductions, pit bull attacks, criminals on the loose, toxic clouds… it’ WAY too dangerous to go out of your house. Just grab your Snuggie, grab another bowl of chips, and sit back down on the couch and stay glued to the TV.
At the national level, Fox News has elevated fear-mongering to an art form, maintaining millions of perhaps-once-independent thinkers in a state of perpetual dread through their hyperventilating commentary. With the advent of e-mail forwarding, Fox’s army of People Aggrieved That Obama Is Governing While Black can keep their remaining friends and relatives informed of the latest outrage – real or imagined – that threatens their very way of life. Advertisers can easily prey on these folks, particularly since their sane relatives have long since given up trying to reason with them.
Can’t spend your day glued to the television? No worries, talk radio will keep your blood pressure elevated. Between the verbal assaults on women, gays, brown people, public servants, Liberals, foreigners, and anyone other than that handful of Aging and Increasingly Irrelevant Angry White Guys, and the insipid ads exhorting you to stash away gold coins before the coming Crapocalypse, you’ll be maxed out on your med and your credit cards. Hey, keeping fear at bay ain’t cheap.
The NRA is just one of the many organizations who have been able to cash in, big time, on fear in America. Join with us; we’ll take care of you. Whatever fear resonates with you – immigrants taking over the country, chaos in the streets, nuclear attack, economic meltdown, natural disaster – you’ll be way better off if you’re armed with the latest weapons to protect yourself, your family, your property, and your freedom. Even though many of their members are willing to work for reasonable reforms, their leader is reloading, ratcheting up the rhetoric. Maybe he’s the one feeling the fear of coming irrelevance.
Last but by no means least, there’s the Internet. Whether you’re Googling your symptoms when you’re home alone with a fever and finding that all paths lead to “Terminal Brain Tumor”, or reading your favorite blog (or checking out the opposition’s crazed rantings), you can work yourself up into a full-blown panic attack. No time to surf the Web looking for things that will fan the flames of fear? Have fear come to you, with Tweets, updates, and alerts. Every time one of your gadgets beeps or buzzes, Something Dreadful Might Be Happening.
So: what’s a person to do in a world full of fear? Ask yourself: who benefits from my fear? Is it a person or organization that wants to intimidate me into certain behavior? Someone who wants to prey on my fear to sell me some product or service? Someone who is themselves fearful, and acting on the premise that the best defense is a good offense?
Chances are, you can figure it out, and once you do, you can help your spouse, your parents or grandparents, your kids, your friends, your coworkers, or your neighbors see what’s behind that curtain. Together, we’re powerful, and our critical thinking and our faith in the general goodness of our fellow beings ensure that we can face the real perils in the world, and keep the imagined ones at bay.
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
—Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays, “Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”