|Tuesday, October 16 2007 -   Hope
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Why Are Americans So Fearful?
Created Oct 16 2007 - 12:32pm
By Dave Eriqat
Warning: this essay is chock full of politically incorrect musings.
Observing our relentless march toward war abroad against Iran and looming dictatorship at home, it’s obvious to me that our “leaders” are getting away with this agenda because Americans are so fearful. But why? What are they afraid of? Answering this question is important because I think this irrational fear is finding an outlet in anger, which is evident in the police brutality we see domestically and wars we launch abroad.
When did our slide into emasculating fear begin? I think it started to become palpable in the early 1980s, following the economically beleaguered 1970s, which closed with the sobering Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan’s “Morning in America” slogan was so successful during the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s because Americans, having experienced their first protracted taste of society-wide fear, longed for a safe haven, even if it was just an empty campaign slogan. Without being judgmental, merely making an observation, fear ratcheted up during the Reagan years (Sting’s song “Russians” is emblematic of the anxiety felt during the 1980s) and both Bush presidencies, but seemed to be suspended during the Clinton years. In fact, people seemed quite optimistic during the Clinton years, although it’s not clear why people were optimistic then, or if their optimism was real or just Prozac-induced. Recalling the widespread and irrational fear surrounding the overblown Y2K computer problem, I think perhaps people were just as fearful then as now, but their fear was tempered by the illusion of prosperity that prevailed during the latter 1990s.
What might be some possible explanations for our national epidemic of fear?
Financial security has declined sharply in the last three decades, thanks to globalization and the shift away from high paying, secure manufacturing jobs to lower paying, tenuous service jobs. In the last three decades we’ve experienced several powerful financial shocks: double digit inflation as we exited the 1970s and entered the 1980s, severe recessions in the early 1980s and early 1990s, and bursting stock market and housing bubbles in the 2000s. These shocks left people feeling vulnerable and bewildered about how to protect their wealth and safeguard their future.
During the 1980s Americans felt economically threatened by the ascendancy of Japan; today they feel the same threat from China’s ascendancy. But why should Americans feel economically threatened by another country’s progress? Because by the 1980s Americans were no longer in control of their career destinies. By the 1980s much of the American labor market was controlled by multinational corporations that had no qualms about shipping formerly American jobs to other countries. In the 1980s the destination for these jobs was Japan; today it’s China. In earlier times, many Americans were self-employed or worked for small, local businesses and had a great deal more control over their destinies.
Perhaps the way to counter fear about financial security is for people to return to the earlier model when they were in control of their lives. Doing this will necessitate a drastic change in most of our lifestyles, in particular, to a much lower cost of living. Yet this is possible if people are willing to move back to depopulated rural areas, take labor intensive jobs in local agriculture and manufacturing, and grow food on their own property. Even if such people lack financial security in terms of dollars and cents, having an inexpensive roof over their heads, home grown food to eat, and a supportive network of family and friends will go a long way toward fostering a sense of real security. I have spent considerable time browsing the Internet looking at rural property for sale. Many houses, including enough land to grow a vegetable garden, can be purchased in rural areas for one or two year’s worth of rent in an urban area. My house is such a house. Reducing one’s cost of living in this manner doesn’t mean a reduction in one’s standard of living. In fact, the opposite is true: our quality of life will improve, and I can say that from personal experience. Of course, people who have been brainwashed by corporate advertising will be incredulous that one’s quality of life can improve by moving to the “sticks” and eschewing materialism.
Deification of Greed
The deification of greed (“Greed is good,” from the 1980s movie “Wall Street”) has made those who are not “successful” feel inadequate. Such people fear becoming social outcasts by “missing out” on the latest investment boom, whether it be in stocks or houses; or because they don’t drive the fanciest, most powerful car; or because they don’t wear the hippest clothes; or because they aren’t festooned with all the trendiest technological gadgets. The fear of looking like a “failure” in a material sense, which is all that seems to matter anymore, drives people to acquire those phony emblems of success using debt, which then causes financial insecurity, which fuels fear.
Although I appear to be talking more about materialism here than greed, materialism is the principal vehicle for satisfying greed. Grotesque displays of greed are not scorned today, but are lauded, aspired to. However, most of us are too poor to participate in ostentatious displays of greed, such as building a 50,000 square foot house or buying a 200 foot yacht, so we are relegated to mimicking the rich by stretching to acquire the materialistic trappings of “success” that we can afford, or pretend we can afford.
People need to relearn to be themselves. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Don’t succumb to peer pressure to acquire the latest and greatest doodad, unless you truly desire it and can afford it. Personal success or failure should be defined by each individual. I’m not rich, but I feel my life has been more or less successful. I know who I am and I like who I am. And I don’t need to use material things to reinforce my self esteem. I’ve never been embarrassed to drive a wreck of a car, and I’ve owned many such cars. I’m not embarrassed to wear shabby clothes or go unshaven if I’m more comfortable that way. If people are too shallow to accept me for who I am rather than what I possess, then I probably don’t want to be acquainted with them anyway.
Government and Media
The government and the media have, with seeming relish, sought to instill fear in Americans. The government does so to compel citizens to relinquish their rights, contrary to the prescient advice of Benjamin Franklin. The media enjoys instilling fear to raise their ratings (“If it bleeds, it leads”).
Of course, in a fascist system such as the United States has become, where the government and the corporate-owned media have developed a symbiotic relationship, it’s no longer surprising that the two speak with one tongue.
Virtually no field has been left un-sown with seeds of fear: terrorism, domestic and foreign; “other” races; unsafe food; diseases; unsafe children’s toys; chemicals; pollutants; drugs; guns; crime; religions; cults; identity theft; sex; and now climate change.
The government stokes these fears using “official” mechanisms, such as feel-good legislation that doesn’t really accomplish anything other than to heighten public awareness of, and anxiety about a potential danger; by parading manufactured villains before the public; or with cute devices such as color coded terrorism threat scales, or maps showing the residence locations of “sex offenders.”
The media feeds fear with TV shows such as “24,” “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted,” and that “news” program, the name of which escapes me, that seeks to entrap sexual predators, stoking fear while turning sick perversion into titillating entertainment.
While there are genuine potential dangers in some of these areas – NEWS FLASH: life is risky – the likelihood of any American being directly affected by one of these threats is grossly overblown by the government and the media. Yet it seems that Americans feel vulnerable to all of these threats, all the time! What a way to live.
I don’t know if the dumbing down of Americans is the result of a sinister conspiracy, of our ever declining educational standards, of apathy and intellectual laziness on the part of Americans, or of Americans simply working harder and harder to stay in place so that they don’t have any time or energy left to become engaged, so they rely on partisan sound bites for their information. Whatever the reason for Americans’ lack of insight about the real threats posed by these fertile fields of fear, it is that lack of insight that makes Americans vulnerable to manipulation by the government and the media.
What is especially sad is that Americans have been brainwashed into always believing their government, and more importantly, that questioning their government is unpatriotic. I don’t believe in patriotism, at least as it’s presented today, as blind allegiance to the government. Blind faith such as that deprives one of the opportunity to use their intellect to weigh the facts and draw their own conclusions. There are times when I will stand behind my government, and times when I will not. In any case, the government is not the nation, so it’s improper to equate allegiance to the government with patriotism, which is what the government has done for self-serving reasons.
Individual Americans should ask themselves what harm they’ve suffered recently and how does the frequency of the harm they’ve actually suffered correlate with the degree of threat hyped by the government and the media. I think people will discover that real life is far less dangerous than the propaganda would have us believe. We should make an extra effort to study the things that we fear. The best antidote to fear is knowledge. Knowing the reality of the dangers we face will inoculate us against manipulation of our fears. We must also study the causes of the threats we face. We must have the intellectual courage to honestly assess whether our behavior is increasing or decreasing particular dangers, such as the threat of terrorism.
We should also take everything the agenda-driven media reports with a big grain of salt. Aside from the obvious profit motives that taint its reporting, the mainstream media has allowed itself to become the propaganda mouthpiece of the government. Instead of passively absorbing the soothing, brainwashing emanations of the TV, we should make the effort to seek out, research, and cross check the news for ourselves. The Internet makes this quite easy, at least for now. The powers that be are clearly trying to reign in the freedom that the Internet offers today. That’s what this whole “net neutrality” debate is about.
Immigration has been a chronic cause of fear in America. According to some people the U.S. is apparently being flooded with Mexican immigrants who are bypassing the orderly legal immigration process – which is tacitly endorsed by the government and corporations, by the way – and supposedly taking jobs away from Americans. Whether Mexicans are actually taking jobs from Americans or not, the mere possibility of an American losing his or her job to an immigrant evokes fear. And of course, we innately xenophobic human beings are initially fearful of any people we perceive as “different.”
It seems that the most recent immigrants to America are always convenient scapegoats for any problems of the day. Today the scapegoat group is Mexican immigrants. In the 1970s and 1980s it was Vietnamese and Cuban immigrants. Before that it was Italian and Irish immigrants. Before that it was Chinese immigrants. This list of persecuted immigrant groups is merely illustrative, but by no means exhaustive.
When America was thriving economically there was plenty of wealth to go around, so after a time Americans grudgingly accepted each new group of immigrants. During the waves of immigration that began in the 1970s, however, it seems though the animosity toward immigrants has grown more intense, probably because our standard of living has been declining at the same time. More people sharing a shrinking pie does not make people happy.
Why should immigrants be a cause of fear? Is it because they are “different” from us? If so, then perhaps the way to quell fear is to get to know these immigrants. I’ve had occasion recently to talk with Mexican immigrants and have had no problem getting along with them or seeing them as little different from me. In fact, I’ve found them to be more open and friendly than many Americans. As always, fear of the unknown can be overcome by knowing.
Are illegal Mexican immigrants today really taking jobs from Americans? If so, then it’s probably occurring mostly in occupations that are controlled by corporations, such as in the service sector and large scale agriculture. Despite official condemnation of illegal immigration, illegal immigrants help keep the economic engine of corporate America humming. They are officially condemned, but unofficially welcomed. One solution is for Americans to create jobs for themselves that cannot be taken away. That is, become self-employed. Of course, even this is not a perfect solution if one’s chosen trade is also popular with illegal immigrants, such as construction or landscaping. Unfortunately, illegal immigrants are often willing to work for less money than Americans, but the main reason they can afford to do so is that they have a lower cost of living. The lesson, then, is that if Americans want to compete directly with illegal immigrants, they have to reduce their cost of living too. The alternative is to select a trade that’s not popular with illegal immigrants, or for which they are not qualified because they lack the necessary education or language skills. Attempting to stop the flow of illegal immigrants is probably futile, unless we repeal corporate-backed treaties such as NAFTA, which has severely harmed Mexico’s economy, or the new SPP, so it would be better to find a way to cope with illegal immigration.
Urbanization has undermined self-efficacy and made people overly dependent on others and too little dependent on themselves. I grew up as an urbanite, and I still love urban life. Yet a few years ago I moved to rural Kentucky, which I also love. One of the first things I discovered is that out here one has to be self-sufficient. One cannot simply open up the phone book and choose from a plethora of services for hire. So I’ve reluctantly become a roofer, electrician, landscaper, tree trimmer, exterminator, house framer, carpenter, floorer, plasterer, blind installer, plumber, painter, appliance installer, household mover, auto mechanic, bicycle mechanic, farmer, and furniture repairer. Many of my neighbors, including some who are pretty old, are equally self-sufficient. When I lived in cities I used to farm out all of these tasks. Now it’s easier to do them myself than try to find someone else to do them. While I don’t particularly enjoy many of these activities, I do appreciate the renewed feeling of self confidence that I’ve acquired as a result. During a phone conversation just the other day, my cousin told me that I sound more confident than I did before I moved to Kentucky.
By contrast, living in an urban environment, one becomes dependent on a good job to pay for the high cost of living; public transit and taxis to get around; police for protection; people available for hire to perform any kind of service; stores and restaurants and entertainment venues (I’ve returned to reading books for entertainment and enlightenment); a saturation of infrastructure, including high speed Internet access outside of one’s house and dependable mobile communications (my mobile phone doesn’t work on my property, so a few weeks ago when my land line went out I had to drive a mile to get close to a mobile phone tower to call the telephone company). I’ve grown accustomed to living without all these things that urbanites take for granted. It took some getting used to, but in the end, it’s really not much of a loss at all.
The high population density associated with urbanization also increases the likelihood of our being afflicted by frightening diseases or victimized by crime or terrorism. It’s one thing to read about the crime rate or a horrific disease in a far off city. It’s downright frightening to read about crimes or diseases in your own city, where perhaps you spend a lot of time in public places.
For the better part of a century there has been a migration from rural America to urban and then suburban locales. I believe a reversal of that trend, a re-population of rural America, would do much to restore our self-confidence and reduce our fearfulness. And where I live, I have no fear whatsoever of crime, disease, or terrorism.
Environmental Desecration and Destruction
Environmental desecration and destruction, real or imagined, has long been a source of fear for Americans. Surprisingly, the vast majority of Americans – perhaps 80% – favor protecting the environment, which probably explains why they seem easily threatened by environmental problems. In the 1970s the grave concern was pollution (recall the anti-littering TV commercials featuring the teary-eyed native American). Today it’s the scarier and more nebulous concept of climate change.
I am an environmentalist at heart. I do everything I can to minimize my impact on the environment, to leave as small a footprint as possible. Nevertheless, I don’t buy into the anthropogenic climate change hysteria, and I have nothing to gain by rejecting this mantra. First of all, the earth’s climate has been changing for 4.5 billion years. It would be astonishing if our climate were not changing today. We know the earth has undergone radical climate changes in the past, without human cause. We also know that the earth regularly cycles between climate episodes, such as ice ages and warm periods, dating back to before humans even existed. It’s amusing to recall that back in the 1970s there was a hysteria about global cooling that was to occur with the onset of an overdue ice age. Today it’s global warming – oops, sorry, climate change. Even if humans are somehow responsible for today’s climate changes, it’s the result of nearly two centuries of industrial activity. It stands to reason that it will take two more centuries to reverse the damage we’ve caused, during which time we will have to cease all industrial activity.
Governments around the world, and most recently the U.S. government, have discovered that people can be terrified by predictions of environmental devastation, and that this terror can be channeled into convincing people to give up their rights in order to avert this coming environmental apocalypse. Countless acts of legislation are being formulated around the world to exploit and fuel this fear of environmental devastation in order to tax and control people.
Why fear something that we cannot control? As I said, even if we are responsible for climate change, we will effect no evident improvement to the climate within our lifetimes. The best we can do is seek to minimize our individual impact on the environment and hope for the best. If we are not responsible for climate change, then there is also little we can do, except what I’ve already advised. So why be afraid? Why not instead recognize that humans are marvelously adaptable and trust that we will find a way to cope with whatever climate changes occur? For instance, where I live I would be quite happy with warmer winters and an extended crop growing season. I’m not making light of climate change. I realize that such changes bring negative consequences as well as positive ones. I’m simply pointing out that if the climate is going to change, we might as well find a way to work with it instead of cowering with irrational fear.
Unwholesome food probably plays a role in elevating Americans’ anxiety. When people lived in rural areas they ate wholesome, farm-fresh foods and drank well water. Now they eat fast food garbage oozing from the unsanitary orifices of food factories and drink water contaminated with chlorine and fluoride and god knows what else. It seems to me that this unhealthful diet has to affect peoples’ mood, behavior, and thinking ability. In addition to any physiological effects unwholesome food might have, thanks to the globalization of agriculture people are more anxious than ever about what’s in their food and where it came from.
Unfortunately, our declining standard of living, combined with misguided government subsidies to corporate agribusinesses have together pushed people away from wholesome foods toward this garbage we call food. Because more people in a household have to work longer hours, they are forced to eat highly processed, chemical-laden, microwaveable food or fast food. And because government subsidies encourage the production of junk food instead of wholesome food, junk food is cheaper.
Were people to move back to rural areas and eat fresh produce from their own yards or nearby farms, drink purer water, and eat home cooked meals, they’d probably be healthier, happier, less stressed, and have one less thing to fear: their food.
Modern medicine in America seems paradoxical to me. On the one hand, treatment of disease is far more profitable than prevention, so the former is emphasized and the latter is shunned. On the other hand, the medical system seems to encourage people to be afraid of so many things, so long as it can sell prophylactic medicines to “prevent” whatever it is that people are supposed to be afraid of. So the medical system simultaneously avoids preventing genuine, serious diseases while selling medicines to prevent dubious diseases, such as “restless leg syndrome.”
Why do people take so many medications today? It seems it’s out of fear of being afflicted by some disease or suffering the slightest discomfort. When I was a kid, hardly anybody took medications, at least chronically. Today it seems like many people, at least older people, are taking two or three medications, and some are taking quite a lot more. Some people are taking so many medications that some of their medications are to counteract the effect of others! Has the human species evolved so much in my lifetime that it can no longer survive without medicines? Are we living better, longer, because of those medicines?
Then there’s the explosion of antibacterial products: dish soaps, hand sanitizers, and household cleaning products. I recently read that there are more bacteria inside the human body than cells! And we’re worried about a little bacteria on our hands? It’s been my observation that the human mind and body thrive when exercised, and I believe that includes the immune system. It’s my hypothesis that mild exposure to pathogens exercises the body’s immune system, making it stronger. So at best, antibacterial products are probably counterproductive, if they even work at all. To me, the thing that stands out is the fear people have of exposure to a little bacteria, a fear promulgated by TV commercials.
Or look at flu vaccines. I recall with amusement the panic that ensued a couple of years ago when there was an insufficient supply of flu vaccine, and how people resorted to unscrupulous tactics to secure for themselves a shot of flu vaccine, as if it were a matter of life and death. It struck me at the time that people seemed more afraid of not getting a shot of flu vaccine than of getting the flu! Is a flu vaccine any more effective than just avoiding situations that might expose one to the flu and washing one’s hands regularly? Is there any need to panic just because one cannot obtain a shot of flu vaccine? Of course, the media loves to hype such shortages and drive people to panic, fearing they won’t get their lifesaving dose of flu vaccine. It’s a wonder that the human species managed to survive all these millennia without all these medications.
Or how about the emotional roller coaster of dietary recommendations from the “experts.” It seems as if every food has at one time or another been demonized and lauded. It seems that virtually everything causes cancer. Instead of allowing ourselves be terrorized by these scare tactics, maybe we should stop listening to these so-called experts and just use our own common sense and eat what we like in sensible proportions.
The human body is remarkably capable of taking care of itself. It can repair injuries and neutralize pathogens. Sometimes it needs a little assistance, but most of the time all the body needs is proper nutrition, exercise, and rest, three things that seem to be in short supply in modern America. If we take good care of ourselves we needn’t be so fearful of disease.
Political correctness has made Americans afraid of expressing an opinion. Not only do they fear social ostracism for thinking “differently” from the herd, but they fear the very real prospect of losing their jobs. It’s not just radio or TV hosts whose jobs are at risk for a politically incorrect slip of the tongue. Even a lowly airline employee who posts revealing photos of herself on the Internet, not involving her employer in any way, can be fired because her company fears her behavior may subject the company to charges of condoning politically incorrect behavior. Even an esteemed ex-President who dares to criticize Israel in the mildest fashion can be subjected to vicious attacks because it’s politically incorrect to criticize Israel.
What’s worse than embracing the notion of political correctness is our zero tolerance approach to dealing with offenders. Nobody is allowed to redress a mistake anymore. One mistake and the public ghoulishly bellows, “Off with his head.” People are prone to making mistakes, and unless they are given a chance to redress their mistakes and learn from them, they will probably just keep making the same mistakes. Instead of giving people a chance to use their mistakes to become better and wiser, punishing them will probably just reinforce their objectionable beliefs or at least make them bitter.
It seems to me everybody should be allowed to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it is. People hearing an objectionable opinion have three choices: they can stop listening, they can challenge the opinion, or they can make a mental note to apply more critical thinking to opinions that person expresses in the future. When people make a habit of expressing offensive or demonstrably wrong opinions, other people will eventually dismiss such people as nuts and their opinions will carry no weight (Ann Coulter comes to mind). There is a fourth choice too: punishing a person for expressing an “incorrect” opinion. That seems to be the option we as a society have zealously embraced.
Why are people so afraid of letting others express a divergent opinion? Surely if a popular belief is sound it can withstand being questioned and debated. If a belief is not sound then it should be debated, refuted, and abandoned. Maybe it’s like homosexuality. People seem to believe that gay and straight are on opposite sides of a sharp dividing line and that a single homosexual act tosses a straight person to the other side of that line. (I wonder, does a single heterosexual act make one straight again?) That’s why insecure straight men get so uptight about homoeroticism. They know that a single “transgression” will brand them “gay.” Similarly, I think people are afraid of having even one of their beliefs shown to be wrong, as if harboring a single demonstrably wrong belief makes all of their beliefs wrong. Maybe people are too insecure to accept that they can be wrong about some things while being right about others. So political correctness becomes a personal defense mechanism. If people just adopt the officially sanctioned beliefs they cannot be criticized and their beliefs cannot be challenged – political correctness sees to that. Since their beliefs cannot be challenged, their beliefs cannot be shown to be wrong, and the person’s mental temple remains unperturbed. It might also be that acknowledging upsetting truths will demand action, and people are basically lazy. For example, if Americans believed – and cared – that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinians, paid for by the U.S., they might feel compelled to act, to demand a change in U.S. policy. Since today’s political correctness forbids criticism of Israel on any grounds, people are free to ignore what’s going on in Israel and console themselves that Israel is simply protecting its right to exist.
Surprisingly, universities, which once seemed to be sanctuaries of free thought are now prisons of thought conformity. Many of our politically correct notions seem to emanate from universities today. Why should that be? Judging from the uniformity of thought evident at many different universities, I think that government and perhaps corporate domination of universities is somehow responsible. Not only are many universities operated by state governments, but most universities, public and private, receive lucrative funding from the federal government. These two facts place the government in a prime position to dictate to the universities what constitutes acceptable thought. Although some politically correct thoughts, such as affirmative action, are openly codified, the government need not explicitly dictate all such thoughts. Politically correct thoughts can be nurtured, and politically incorrect thoughts extinguished through example. A professor seeking research funds for government approved realms of thought will get funding; a professor seeking funds for realms of thought the government disapproves of will not.
Eventually the administrators at the university get the message about what kind of thought is acceptable and what is not, and then they become the enforcers. Political correctness flows down from the administrators, to the professors, and suffuses throughout the student body. Students, interested in finding jobs after graduation, understand that they have to conform in order to get a job – implicitly a corporate or government job – so they suspend their “deviant” views, temporarily. But when people get in the habit of temporarily suspending their own beliefs, eventually it becomes ingrained. Behavior becomes Pavlovian. Witness the reaction of that Florida university student body to the tasering of one of their own – they applauded. Why” Because the student asked politically incorrect questions about the 2004 election, a topic that still demands vigorous investigation.
It’s not just universities that impose political correctness on their students. Elementary schools initiate the inculcation of political correctness and are actually even more oppressive. “Zero tolerance” is the favorite phrase in public schools anymore. I’ve read several stories about children as young as five years old being punished for drawing a gun in art class. Guns, of course, are one of the most politically incorrect symbols today. Is not “zero tolerance” the antithesis of civilization, which should instead promote tolerance? Aren’t Islamic countries, which Americans are so afraid of these days, infamous for their “zero tolerance” policies? It’s politically incorrect to practice zero tolerance toward gays in Iran, but acceptable to practice zero tolerance toward gun-drawing kindergarteners in America.
A specific example of political correctness run amok is California’s new law that imposes a fine of $100 for smoking in a car containing minors. It is not clear who gets fined if a non-driver is smoking. What if the only minor in the car is the one doing the smoking? What if the smoker opens a window to exhaust the smoke? That state is also exploring banning smoking in apartment complexes. It has banned smoking within 25 feet of a playground, and virtually all indoor, and many outdoor public places. What’s next? Banning smoking in one’s allegedly owned house when children are present? I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the next law to be passed. Why not ban smoking in one’s backyard when children are present? I don’t smoke, but this is getting ridiculous. Smokers must feel like they are under assault. You know, if I don’t want to be around smokers I just move away or politely ask them to refrain from smoking. The last time I picked up a hitchhiker I let him smoke in my car. I just had him crack his window and the smoke went right out without bothering me. There used to be a time when people were allowed to employ courtesy. Smokers are not even given the chance anymore to be courteous and smoke when and where they won’t bother anyone. They are simply crushed like a cigarette butt under the tyranny of laws imposed by the “moral” majority. Were I a smoker, I would be fearful of what anti-smoking law the majority was going to pass next. (Isn’t it interesting how the state is persecuting smokers – though not the corporations that manufacture cigarettes – yet it looks the other way concerning the diesel exhaust spewing from trucks. We mustn’t impose an undue burden on the poor corporate trucking industry.)
To many people smoking is a vile habit, so they feel no regret about the plight of smokers. But where does this kind of politically correct thinking stop? Many states require people to wear seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorcycles. New York city has barred people from eating a particular kind of fat. Many counties where I live are “dry,” meaning one cannot buy alcohol there, although consumption of alcohol acquired elsewhere is permitted. In Britain they’re talking about monitoring kids’ health and penalizing the parents if the kids are deemed “unhealthy.” The logical extension of such thinking is to monitor everyone’s health and punish anyone deemed by the government to be “unhealthy.” Do we want such a policy here? Wouldn’t such a policy cause tremendous anxiety in the population? I mean, in addition to all one’s other worries, under such a regimen people would also have to worry about conforming to capricious state guidelines regarding the most personal of matters: one’s health.
And what of McMansions and SUVs? I have neither, but I don’t begrudge others the right to have them. After all, the owners of such hated symbols are paying for them. They are paying higher prices to buy them, higher taxes to the government, and higher fuel costs (and fuel taxes) to run them. But, of course, it’s politically incorrect to defend such symbols.
Of all the causes of fear in America, political correctness is perhaps the most difficult to counter, if only because violating the rules of political correctness carries potentially serious consequences, such as the loss of a job. While it’s relatively easy for an individual to break the shackles that reign in his or her opinions, how does one force everyone else who hears those opinions to consider them thoughtfully and not dismiss them as politically incorrect? We cannot force others to open their minds. The best we can do is open our own minds and try to set an example for others. We spend far too much time worrying about what others are doing, and not enough time examining our own lives to ensure that we live up to the standards we would impose on others.
Sensitive topics can be broached diplomatically. One doesn’t have to bluntly state an opinion as it it’s a fact, closed to discussion. One can instead offer an opinion and invite discussion. I have done this with people where I live, gently challenging some of their views. Instead of being offended, some of these people have described me as a “breath of fresh air.”
Government brutality has long been employed in despotic countries to instill fear in the subject population; today it’s being used for that purpose here. The nationwide unleashing of police brutality and the unjustifiable, reflexive arrest of peaceful protesters almost seems coordinated from on high, as if it’s some kind of massive psychological operation intended to terrorize Americans into submitting to their government. Such a scheme would dovetail with all the recently passed laws and presidential executive orders apparently crafted to impose a police state in America with the throw of a switch.
One might assume that the government would seek to conceal its ugly activities regarding the torture of “enemy combatants,” the rendition of victims to foreign countries to be tortured, and the denial of constitutionally protected rights to American citizens. Yet exposure of these tactics instills fear in the American public. Slowly, Americans are starting to realize, even if only deep within the recesses of their subconscious, that they are not safe from their government. If the government wants to lock up any one of us and throw away the key, it can do so. If that doesn’t inspire fear in us, then we must be comatose. The English had their Tower of London; America has Guantanamo. Both are symbols of government power intended to fill the hearts of citizens with terror.
Observing the participation of the mercenary corps known as Blackwater in both Iraq and New Orleans, I believe that it is being exercised for future deployment here in America. Besides training the members of Blackwater in effective tactics and to be insensitive to the people they oppress, the government is fine tuning its tactics for deploying these mercenaries. When the police state here becomes overt, Blackwater may well become a new instrument for instilling fear in the American public. Currently such fears are only hypothetical and are harbored by a small minority of the population who recognize the potential dangers in utilizing such forces, which are free of any accountability.
A significant percentage of Americans now believe 9/11 was an “inside job.” For the first three years following 9/11 I accepted the official account. But following the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report I started to get suspicious. Not only was the report itself wanting, but one day it suddenly dawned on me how similar the events before, during, and after 9/11 were to those of the Oklahoma City bombing, which I had long ago concluded was perpetrated by the U.S. government for similar motivations, namely, to pass Clinton’s repressive legislation. The more I investigated 9/11, the more fishy the official story smelled. Today I am 99% convinced that the U.S. government was deeply involved in perpetrating 9/11, and I’m not alone. Many ordinary Americans and many highly educated experts in various fields of study harbor similar suspicions. All we mere citizens have to work with in the cases of Oklahoma City and 9/11 is circumstantial evidence because the government, in the name of “national security,” conceals from us all the physical evidence, but in both cases there are mountains of circumstantial evidence of government involvement. Frankly, the London and Madrid subway bombings smell of government involvement too.
There’s also no doubt that the war in Iraq was desired before 9/11. There’s increasing evidence that the Patriot Act was written before 9/11. And now there’s new evidence that warrantless spying on Americans began before 9/11. What the sought for war in Iraq and the Patriot Act needed to become reality was a justification, a “New Pearl Harbor,” which 9/11 conveniently provided.
What effect do such momentous conclusions have on one’s psyche? It should scare the hell out of most people to acknowledge that their own government could commit such horrific acts in order to justify repressive legislation at home and unjustified wars abroad. It has certainly had that effect on me. The significant numbers of Americans who believe the government was involved in 9/11 probably cope with that belief in different ways, including simply avoiding thinking about it. Nevertheless, the fears are still there, gnawing away in the back of one’s mind. People have pointed out that governments sometimes use shock treatment to pummel their subjects into submission. Well, 9/11 was one doozie of a shock. About the only thing that could surpass it in shock value would be a nuclear detonation in an American city ...
Some government brutality is psychological rather than physical. For instance, “airport security” is primarily intended to inculcate Americans to being corralled, herded, and humiliated by the government. How many “terrorists” has tightened airport security intercepted in the last six years? None. How many Americans have been terrorized, humiliated, and inconvenienced by tightened airport security in the last six years? Millions.
The various “watch lists” are tools for terrorizing Americans. I’ve read several comments recently by ordinary Americans who are genuinely fearful of being put on these watch lists. I admit, that I’m afraid of being put on these lists myself, and I fear essays like this one will expedite my inclusion on such lists. I’ve lost track of how many loyal Americans, including active duty military soldiers and officers, who have found themselves on these lists. Clearly, any list of potential terrorists that includes large numbers of loyal Americans, such as the government’s own soldiers, cannot be all that effective. So why do these lists exist? Because they give the government the power to deprive Americans of the freedom to travel. And, shrouded in secrecy, such lists are convenient tools for punishing Americans who criticize the government. These lists are nothing but tools of psychological brutality.
Another kind of psychological brutality is the government’s recruiting of us citizens to tattle on each other. I read an article recently about a child being interrogated by his doctor to inform on his parents’ lifestyle! Driving down the freeway in urban areas one sees signs reading, “Report drunk drivers.” In airports and subways one hears, “Report suspicious activity.” We have volunteer citizen patrols now that wander through our neighborhoods looking for suspicious activity. What qualifies as suspicious rather than simply nonconforming activity? I guess that’s up to the citizens doing the patrolling to decide. If you piss off you neighbor today you might yourself being reported to the “authorities.” Must we now fear our neighbors and our own children? It would seem so. This is so “1984.”
Voter disenfranchisement is another form of psychological brutality. Depriving people of the opportunity to vote increases their sense of helplessness. Some disenfranchisement techniques deliberately instill the fear of arrest in would-be voters should they attempt to exercise their right to vote.
In between physical and psychological brutality is economic brutality. Asset forfeiture, which started out targeting the mafia, has undergone steady mission creep, and now gobbles up the assets of drug dealers, drug users, people who hire prostitutes (and even people who decline the uninvited services of undercover cops posing as prostitutes), drunk drivers, terrorists, and law-abiding citizens carrying any amount of cash the government deems “excessive.” The government has an incentive to confiscate peoples’ assets as well because it gets to keep the cash proceeds from auctioning those assets. The government circumvents the Constitution by absurdly charging one’s assets, rather than the individual, with a crime. Assets are not guaranteed due process by the Constitution, although I still cannot see how asset forfeiture gets around the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. No doubt, the fear of having one’s assets confiscated instills fear in many Americans.
Similar to asset forfeiture are new executive orders “blocking” people’s property, whatever that Orwellian phrase means. In the last five years president Bush has issued fourteen executive orders “blocking” peoples’ property for various reasons. These orders mean that, among other things, one’s bank accounts are frozen. Imagine trying to survive in our modern society without access to your money. Most peoples’ lives in America would be quickly ruined if they could not access their money. In addition, these “blocking” orders extend to associates of “blocked” people, and then to associates of associates, and so on. Assuming the six degrees of separation theory is correct, a mere six iterations of this blocking process could “block” the property of all Americans.
One of the things that’s wrong with our whole system of government and business is that it lauds competition. Competition may be fine for genetic traits or animals, but humans, by virtue of their intellect, should be more sophisticated than that. It seems that the people best equipped to compete against other people are those without the burden of a conscience. In fact, the more of a sociopath one is, the higher they are likely to rise in government or business. That’s because decent people will not engage in the sort of behavior that sociopaths will, which gives the latter the advantage.
Ultimately, it seems that one has to essentially become a criminal to reach the top tiers of government or business. It’s no surprise, then, that a thuggish, criminal mentality trickles down through the ranks to the foot soldiers at the bottom, such as our increasingly brutal police. Making matters worse, the Army is issuing increasing numbers of “moral waivers” in order to admit genuine criminals into its ranks.
Perhaps one way to improve the caliber of people serving in the government is to replace voluntary service with mandatory service. Like we do with jury duty, we could issue people a summons to be a senator, congressman, or policeman for a single term of service. (I deliberately avoided proposing the application of this concept to soldiers – i.e. conscription – because I oppose maintaining a standing army.) Once a person served in a particular position, they could never do so again. Such an approach would recruit a much more representative cross section of society into government, and since they would serve only a single term, there would be a constant flow of fresh and contemporary ideas into government. This, I believe, was the original intent behind the House of Representatives. People might object to such a scheme on the grounds that the people serving would be amateurs. Not only do I view that as a plus, but how much worse a job could amateurs do than the ossified politicians who are entrenched in the government today? At the very least, this new approach would greatly reduce the number of authoritarian sociopaths in government.
The “Injustice System”
The “Injustice System” is, unfortunately, the best term for the legal system we have in America today. Or as I like to say, “Justice goes to the highest bidder.” Both criminal and civil law have become farcical, miscarriages of justice.
It’s routine now for prosecutors in criminal cases to pile on as many questionable charges as possible in order to elicit a guilty plea from a defendant and bypass a trial altogether. For example, if someone robs a bank today they are likely to face at least three charges, each with their own prison time: bank robbery, using a gun during the commission of a crime, and fleeing the scene of a crime. For good measure they might also be charged with possessing an unregistered firearm or carrying a concealed firearm. And if they had a buddy along, then they might also be charged with conspiracy. And if the two conspirators planned their crime via e-mail, they might also be charged with wire fraud or some such thing. As a result of all this charge stacking and plea bargaining, very few criminal cases go to trial anymore. But just because the process results in the incarceration of the criminal, is it a just process? Is it justice for the prosecutor to pile on charges and threaten maximum retribution if the defendant opts for a Constitutionally protected jury trial, just to elicit a guilty plea?
Until recently, the justice system punished people for what they did, not what they thought. Modern hate crime laws punish people for what they think. Is the hurt felt by the victim of a crime dependent on what the perpetrator thinks? And how can the thoughts of the perpetrator be ascertained reliably enough – i.e. “beyond a reasonable doubt” – to qualify as justice? Hate crime laws simply create more reasons for people to be fearful. It’s not enough anymore to fear merely being a victim of crime. No, now we have to fear being singled out to become a crime victim because we are gay, black, foreign, or whatever.
The logical extension of hate crime laws that punish people for what they think is laws that punish people for what they intend to do. Has anybody seen the movie “Minority Report”? That is today’s reality! Many individuals have been arrested in America because they intended to travel overseas to have sex with children. These people are arrested in a completely different country from where the crime is supposed to occur sometime in the future! Senator Larry Craig was arrested because he supposedly intended to arrange for sex in a public restroom. As I understand it, the Senator spoke no words and didn’t touch or even see his would-be partner until he was arrested. He certainly was not engaged in an act of public sex, which is generally illegal. What if the Senator had simply left the restroom? Or what if the would-be child molester changed his mind on the way to Thailand and upon arriving engaged in nothing more criminal than visiting tourist attractions? In these cases, no crimes would have occurred. Yet the would-be perpetrators were preemptively arrested anyway. How can any “justice” system punish people for crimes they have not yet committed?
Then there’s the war on drugs. Half of the more than two million people in prison in America – more prisoners than in any other nation on Earth – are there for drug offenses, in many cases mere possession of drugs for personal use. What is the justification? That these users are harming themselves? If so, then we need to make cigarettes, alcohol, and fast food illegal immediately. And how much harm does the incarceration inflict compared to the drug use? And why should some drugs be banned, when other, more damaging drugs are legal? I’m speaking, of course, of cigarettes and alcohol, which cause more harm and kill more people than all other drugs combined. Could it be that the corporations that manufacture alcohol and cigarettes are politically well connected? Is a system that gives preferential treatment to politically connected corporations really a system of “justice”? Or is it a system of “Justice goes to the highest bidder”?
And what of our wonderful death penalty? Between corrupt cops and prosecutors, incompetent public defenders, and apathetic judges, there’s no question that innocent people have been executed, and in the most cruel and degrading manner. The recent Duke non-rape case is a perfect example of this corruption in action. The depth of malfeasance that the police and the prosecutor were willing to stoop to in that case was simply astounding. Had the defendants been too poor to afford competent attorneys, they almost certainly would have been convicted and the prosecutor would still be in office. Unfortunately, many, many poor defendants have not been so lucky and have been wrongfully convicted and even executed. It’s not uncommon today for the government to resist examining DNA evidence, a tool it championed, if it might exonerate someone who’s already been convicted, even if that person is sitting on death row awaiting execution. This is justice?
The civil “justice” system is equally perverted. Today one can be sued for any reason, no matter how frivolous. In fact, it’s routine now for opportunistic people seeking to exploit a mishap to sue everybody even remotely connected with a case, hoping to get a big settlement from whichever defendant – it doesn’t matter which – has the deepest pockets. Just recently I read about a police officer who is suing the grandparents of a child who nearly drowned in a backyard swimming pool. The reason? The officer, performing her duties by responding to an emergency, slipped on a wet floor and broke her knee. Hello?! Isn’t there an implied risk associated with being a police officer? Doesn’t the city have insurance for on the job injuries? Obviously, this officer is exploiting the justice system to indulge in a little opportunism, at the expense of a family that has already suffered a horrendous loss, as the child is brain damaged as a result of the mishap. Sadly, the officer will probably prevail.
It pained me to ask some local boys not to skateboard off my elevated front porch out of my fear of legal liability. When I was a kid I did stuff like that all the time. Christ, I could have sued the pants off lots of people back then for all the injuries I suffered on their property. If only I had known ...
Lost in the myriad letters of the law is the notion of “justice.” People can try all they want to “do the right thing,” to have good intentions. It doesn’t matter. All it takes is for a clever lawyer to be able to show that they violated some letter of the law and they are screwed. Of course, considering how many laws are on the books, it’s pretty easy to find anyone in violation of some law these days. Purportedly, the IRS used to boast that it could convict anyone of tax evasion, thanks to the complex and contradictory tax code.
And what about the Christian notion of forgiveness? I thought America was a Christian nation, and that Christians are supposed to forgive even people who deliberately commit wrongs. Yet our “justice” system refuses to forgive even people who are merely declared negligent, even if unwittingly. Why does America pick and choose which Christian principles it’s going to abide by?
Then there’s eminent domain. Once reserved as a tool for improving the common good, it has now metastasized into a tool for corporations to acquire valuable real estate on the cheap. Not surprisingly, these corporations just happen to be politically well connected. Once again, “Justice goes to the highest bidder.”
I think all Americans understand, deep in their hearts, that unless one has a lot of money, the justice system is simply not going to serve them, whether as a plaintiff or a defendant. If that’s not proof of the system’s inherent injustice, I don’t know what is.
How can people not feel fear when their “justice” system is so capricious and so corrupted by money?
The ultimate injustice is when the government tells us that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for violating the law. It’s the best excuse! Nobody in the government is familiar with one-tenth of the laws on the books, so how can mere citizens be expected to be aware of all the laws?
I think all laws need to have a sunset clause so that they expire ten years after being enacted. In fact, that would be an excellent constitutional amendment. If a law is worthwhile, it will be easily renewed by the legislature. The effort involved in having to renew laws will ensure that very few laws, other than the most essential ones, will remain on the books. Such a whittling down of the laws, as well as the government power that ensues from enforcing the laws, will make America a much freer place.
We should seek to serve on a jury and judge both the defendant and the law. I admit that I have assiduously avoided jury duty my whole life because I’ve almost always been self employed and jury duty would have severely impacted my income. The last time I opted out of jury duty it was because it was scheduled right in the middle of my previously planned two month trip out of town. But now that I have such a low cost of living and can better afford to take time off work, I think I will serve on a jury if I’m asked again. Although most people, myself included, dread jury duty, it’s about the only place where a mere citizen can have any influence on the “injustice system.”
Religion in America has become increasingly partisan, absolutist, and public. Not only has religion in America crossed the line separating church and state by involving itself in politics, but the government is now attempting to employ religion for its own purposes. Recently it was disclosed that the Department of Homeland Security was quietly working to recruit religious leaders to help the government control citizens in the event martial law is imposed here. And the military is riddled with proselytizers promoting religion within its ranks, as well as influencing America’s agendas in other lands.
Religion, particularly Christianity, has long used fear to control people. In the old days, the church instilled fear in people by telling them they would go to hell. Nowadays people don’t really believe in heaven and hell, so the church has resorted to making people fearful of other religions, particularly Islam. The church also tries to convince its members that their religion is under assault from all sides by people hostile to religion. The irony is that religious freedom has flourished in the United States because of the separation of church and state. Look at countries where there is an official state religion. They don’t have anywhere near the religious freedom we have here. So fears that religion is under assault are simply unsupported by reality. The reason religious people succumb to the fear mongering that their religion is under assault is that the government has largely resisted endorsing their particular religion. It is true that Christians comprise the majority of religious people here. And it is true that the government has mostly resisted adopting Christianity as a governing principle for everyone else. That is hardly persecution. Nevertheless, the fear of persecution persists.
Religion has also been active in promoting fears about homosexuality and abortion, even though these, like religion itself, ought to be personal matters that are nobody else’s business.
In a supposedly free country like the United States, people should be free to practice whatever religion they wish, or none at all. And that includes not having their government impose religious beliefs on them under the guise of public policy. Ironically, some atheists – I’m an atheist – are so zealous in their desire to purge religion from society that they behave like religious fanatics. Atheism becomes, in effect, their religion. I find such people nonconstructive and intolerant.
Religious people need to recognize how much religion has flourished in this country and reject the notion that religion is under assault. It is not. Atheists must grant religious people the right to their own beliefs. We must recognize that other people are really no different from us. Do American Christians wake up each morning with a burning desire to conquer Islamic countries just because they practice a different religion? If not, then why do they believe that Islamic people have a single-minded desire to impose Islam on them? In all likelihood, people in Islamic countries wake up each morning, go to work, come home and have dinner with their families, worry about their children, worry about putting food on the table, and worry about paying the bills, just like their American counterparts.
I’ve cited a lengthy list of explanations for why Americans might be fearful. Some emanate from the government, some from corporations, and some from “society.” But what are governments, corporations, and society? They are us. And the reason they have become sources of fear is that we who serve in governments, corporations, and society are losing our humanity.
We’re forgetting what it means to be human, to have empathy, compassion, to care. We’re elevating money and power above life. We’re neglecting to see and appreciate the beauty of our world and its life forms. We’re no longer seeing each other as human, but as “the other,” a threat. We’re focusing on our differences rather than our more numerous similarities. Human beings living in a society that has lost its humanity cannot possibly feel truly secure.
Attacking another country, such as Iran, which has done us no harm, ought to be unconscionable. Yet it is openly discussed by the leading presidential candidates and is apparently acceptable to a majority of Americans. We cavalierly discuss the unjustified murder of men, women, and children – ordinary people who are just like ourselves. How would we like having a 30,000 pound bomb fall in the middle of our neighborhood while our children are playing outside? This is what we’re talking about visiting upon Iran. Why are so few Americans horrified by this prospect? What kind of people can be so cold hearted as to not be moved by such a prospect?
It’s up to each of us individuals to look for ways to restore our dwindling humanity. Look for opportunities to improve our society. For example, twice in the past week I’ve gone over to my neighbor’s house to help him with his computer. I really don’t enjoy helping people with their computers, but I did so because I like my neighbor and I recognize that helping him will strengthen the social fabric of our little community. Although I did not help him with the expectation of getting anything in return, in fact, I do get something in return: a more pleasant community in which to live.
It’s understandable that Americans, more harried than ever by their day to day struggle to survive, feel overwhelmed by their finances, by immigration, by environmental degradation, by the threat of terrorism. When one is overwhelmed with a particular emotion – depression, sadness, fear – it’s difficult to sit down and analyze why one is feeling that emotion, particularly if one is short on time. However, it’s extremely useful to do just that, to enumerate all the reasons why one feels depressed, sad, or fearful. Often times, this exercise will reveal that just a single factor is mostly responsible for the emotion one is feeling. At the very least, enumerating the causes of one’s emotion allows one to articulate, compartmentalize, examine, and constructively mitigate each cause.
Some of the factors I cited above frighten me, in particular, ever more oppressive government power. Just knowing what, specifically, frightens me is actually soothing, even if there’s little I can do to mitigate that fear. I don’t feel an inarticulable, debilitating fear; I know exactly what frightens me.
I realize that all Americans aren’t afraid of all the things I cited above, but I’ll bet all Americans are afraid of at least one of them. If we fail to analyze our fears and determine what, specifically, we are afraid of, then a generalized fear lurks in the back of our minds, unarticulated, and easily channeled for nefarious purposes. Clearly a significant percentage of Americans fall into this category, enough to lend support to the government’s efforts to exploit that fear. Americans are a thousand times as likely to die in a car crash (that happened just a month ago to someone I knew) as in a terrorist attack. Americans’ misplaced fear is simply irrational, perhaps the result of atrophied critical thinking skills, our dumbed down educational system, or our agenda-driven corporate-government media.
I suggested a number of times above that people would be better off living in rural communities than suburban or urban communities. Aside from improving our mental and physical well being, moving to a rural community has practical advantages, namely, a much lower cost of living. Young people living in expensive urban areas have few prospects for getting ahead. But rural areas are ripe with opportunity for enterprising young people with creative ideas and abundant energy.
There was a time when it made sense for Americans to migrate from rural areas to industrialized urban centers. Today, in light of our deindustrialization and declining standard of living, a reverse migration is appropriate, all the more so since peak oil will eventually render the current urban-suburban model unsustainable.
Copyright 2007 by Dave Eriqat