I wrote a piece a couple of months ago arguing that we are experiencing a very hateful time in our history. Not that we feel like we hate people more than ever before, but that we feel more hated than ever before. For some time, I had connected some of this with a persecution envy that seems to be everywhere, and feels so strange to me, but I’m starting to think that this hatred is stemming from our culture of fear. We are afraid of everything, and so much of what we see tells us that we’re not afraid enough.
As I admitted in a recent post (here), I watch Morning Joe every weekday morning in the shower. OK, perhaps I only admitted to watching it that morning, but the truth is that Morning Joe is part of my shower routine. Every morning, in addition to repeated ads trying to convince me that GE is a technology company and that I should ask my doctor if Cialis is right for me, there’s an ad that seems to run every morning — keep in mind that my showers aren’t that long, but I leave the show running while I shave, comb my hair, get dressed, etc. This ad is for a doorbell that alerts you on your phone if somebody’s at your door.
The message: be afraid, be very afraid. Somebody is trying to break into your home and take all your stuff.
Another from a home security company:
The message: be afraid, be very afraid. Somebody is trying to ruin your date night.
Of course I’m not saying that home burglaries don’t happen, they certainly do. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do what we can to protect ourselves from bad things that can happen to us, we certainly should, but I wonder what it would look and feel like if we, as a society, were afraid of things in proportion to the risk.
I started writing this post some time ago. Actually, everything above this line was written before Christmas (something I only know because the note immediately below my typing reads, “Last edited on December 21, 2015 at 2:28 pm” certainly when I should have been doing something work-related, but was writing here instead). I don’t know why it sat idle since then, I don’t know how I planned to wrap it up when I started it, but I was inspired to return to it after the President’s State of the Union address earlier this week, and a great piece by Max Fisher at Vox yesterday. Fisher highlighted a line in the address:
The least popular line in President Obama’s State of the Union address, judging by the hear-a-pin-drop reaction from members of Congress and others in the audience, came when he declared that ISIS may “pose a direct threat to our people” but its members “do not threaten our national existence.”
For me, this highlighted one of the reasons that I really appreciate Obama. This doesn’t mean that I agree with him all the time, I try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, but there’s a rationality to him, a measured thoughtful approach that I think is so important for people in positions to make decisions that affect the rest of the world. Even when I disagree with a policy or a course of action, I’m left trusting that he’s given it the thought it needs, and that he has made a decision based on the information he has. Contrast this with a President who I really didn’t like, George W. Bush. Bush wasn’t all bad, and there were lots of things he did that liberals would have applauded if a liberal president would have done them, and I’m certainly guilty of some of that. But there’s a key example of the kind of thinking that marks such a stark contrast between my image of Obama and my image of Bush. When I think about Obama tackling an issue, formulating a strategy, I imagine a man who craves information. Somebody who wants to see things from many angles before picking a path. I don’t know that this is true, but it seems to be confirmed by many things I’ve read about him and the way he handles his presidency. On the other hand, there is one moment that, maybe unfairly, seems completely emblematic of the man. When interviewed about his decision to invade Iraq, Bush was asked if he talked with his father (probably a great person to talk to, given that he had been the last president to invade Iraq), and his response:
You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.
OK, this is certainly not the kind of answer that would win over somebody like me, but it’s not even the reliance on God that gets me, it’s the dismissal of what seems like an excellent source of information. It’s not as if he said, “I pray for wisdom. I pray for strength. I pray for the ability to see the information that I need to see,” or something like that. I have a very hard time thinking that this is how decisions about whether or not to go to war are made. In reality, I’m sure it wasn’t that easy. I’m sure he did talk with lots of people and get advice from lots of people, but his apparent desire to pretend that he didn’t, if he actually did, is the huge contrast I see between Obama and Bush.
But back to where this started, on Tuesday, Obama gave a State of the Union address that illustrated his rational approach. In so many ways, the address was a way of begging us to stop being afraid.
Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: the United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters. Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.
But in his normal, measured way, he showed that he isn’t an all-or-none thinker. He went on to talk about the anxiety felt by Americans, the way the economy has changed, the way that many people were left out of the recovery. He talks about the good and the bad, because, for him, and for me, there can be both at the same time.
The President told us to stop being afraid of the economy, to stop being afraid of the influx of immigrants, to stop being afraid of diversity, of discovery, of ISIL. Stop being afraid.
I like that message. But being afraid is a natural part of being alive. Fear is an important emotion. What I wonder is what it would look like if our fears were perfectly correlated with risk. I know this isn’t possible, and I know that fear can decrease risk (being afraid of getting hurt can stop us from doing something that might hurt us, etc), so these are moving targets, but what if it were a little closer to a perfect correlation? It might be horrible, because we might be in constant fear of cardiovascular disease (the most common cause of death in the world), and there’s not all that much we can do to alleviate that fear, but it might help us make better decisions. Maybe.