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The Culture of Fear

The drawback of modern life.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 15, 2004

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If there is one trend that we can see over the last five hundred years, from the Age of Exploration to the colonizing of the New World to the Industrial Revolution to our Information Age, it is that the increase of wealth and comfort to more and more people has been accompanied by an increase in fear, neurosis, and unhappiness. As we've experienced more and more freedom, the less and less of it we want. Deference to authority always seems safer.

When we go back through previous generations and centuries, we will find that life was very often hard, dangerous, and short. People did not have the technology, or the knowledge behind the technology, to conquer nature to the degree we have, and thus were more vulnerable to it. As late as 1900, life expectancy was at 30 years old. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a wealthy aristocrat, was stricken by polio in the 1920's. Just forty years later, the disease was eradicated even among the poorer classes in the United States. That's just one example of the rapid growth of the progress of technology and medicine. In terms of material comfort and physical well-being, things are just getting better and better, and the main challenge is to find the best way in which their benefits can be spread to more and more people.

When life had been, as Thomas Hobbes called it, "nasty, brutish, and short," death was a more recognized and accepted part of society. High infant mortality, infectious diseases, and industrial accidents were far more common. Life, even in Western society, wasn't nearly as comfortable and easy even forty years ago as it is now, let alone seventy years ago, at the height of the Great Depression and the rise of German Nazism. Sending draftees to their deaths in Vietnam was accepted by the people, at least initially, as just something that government did. People's sense of life, patriotism, and duty included the possibility of killing and being killed. Mobilizing the entire economy and law for war in both World Wars, was seen as acceptable and valid. The Spanish-American War saw the immediate enlistment of two hundred thousand for a war that had absolutely nothing to do with American security. The American Conflict of 1861-65 saw hundreds of thousands of Northerners fight and die for justifications which were ambiguous at best. But dying in war was seen as socially acceptable, and perhaps the most honorable way to die.

Our comfortable lifestyles today allow us to see the horror that war really is. Even in our unjustified and entirely pointless invasion of Iraq, care has been taken to minimize civilian casualties, whereas two generations ago bombing civilians by the tens of thousands was acceptable. Compared to Vietnam, or to our bloody repression of the Philippines one hundred years ago, our war in Iraq seems downright tame. Unfortunately, since the United States hasn't experienced war on its mainland for some 140 years (please, don't insult our European readers by writing letters suggesting that Pearl Harbor and 9-11 was "experiencing war" - those were one-day attacks), we still have no qualms about waging war on other people's soil. This is a tragedy. But at least when we do so now, we have far greater respect for the rights of the potential "collateral damage" than we used to.

I think this has been a happy development in the United States and the world. We see in our own wealthy lives that we don't want to experience the horrors of war. We don't want to be seen as butchers in the eyes of the world. We have a sense of how pleasurable and comfortable life can be, and have a hope that the rest of the world can one day share in what we already enjoy. While atrocities continue to be committed in many places all over the world, advanced civilization has progressed to the point of condemning state mass murder and ethnic genocide.

Yet, this change in mores, induced by our own improved living conditions which makes death a horrifying possibility, has its downside as well. Our culture, so comfortable in its security, has gone beyond embracing a comfortable life. What we do instead is fear our own death, and not only death, but also any personal inconvenience or sense of accountability. Seeking survival without struggle, liberty without responsibility, pleasure without cost, adulthood without discipline, honor without courage, and promotion without achievement, we have lost the notion of sacrifice and are horrified by the reality of risks.

So we see, in our modern age, strong hostility to religion in academia and the media, and the more conservative the religious person is, the more he is scorned. The stated reason is always that religion causes wars; the reality is that secularist ideologies and ethnic nationalism have been many times worse, particularly since the French Revolution. The real cause for hostility is that religion makes demands on people, insisting on discipline and sacrifice. And then, without religion, all that's left seems to be romance and acquisition as a means to find happiness - or, worse, commitment to a bloody ideology or political party.

We also see it in the soft socialism that has captured both the Democratic and Republican parties. The logic for anything they do - shell out more money for prescription drugs for old people, fund public schools, pay for arts, provide manned missions to Mars, pay farmers to not grow food - suggests that people seeking to improve their lot in life are too stupid, too criminal, or otherwise too irresponsible to provide for themselves. There is no intellectual barrier, save the lessons of communism, to prevent the government from rationing food, clothing, shelter, and health care. But you can't have it both ways. If government ought to be in charge of health care, why not of food or housing?

And we also see it in the soft fascism that has captured, well, those very same parties. Wars on Drugs, Big Tobacco, and Obesity. Firearms control. Little children on tricycles wearing helmets (why not have helmets on babies when they're being held by adults?) Censoring independent criticism of incumbents during election season. The Janet Jackson/Howard Stern censorship hysteria, operating under the ridiculous lie that airwaves are "public property" and that decent family entertainment is somehow a human right government ought to protect. Banning smoking in local pubs and restaurants. Suspending children from school for bringing cough medicine, or for drawing, in pencil, a gun on a piece of paper.

It is the culture of fear, the fear of financial setbacks, the fear of danger and health hazards, that has made modern politics completely ridiculous. John Kerry and George W. Bush represent the worst of this world: a fascist-leaning socialist vs. a socialist-leaning fascist.

The ethic of fear is the ethic of the adolescent: wanting "independence" when there is pleasure to be found, but running back to his parents whenever danger or impoverishment threatens. In our culture, adults want the State to provide the freedom and assume the responsibility, or take away the freedom if it "guarantees" safety.

A fully-integrated ethic of life, however, is identical to an ethic of liberty. To be pro-life is to be pro-liberty, to allow the individual to become what he will become. Think of the Marine Corps basic training. How come so many who went through that experience became good soldiers and then applied that sense of discipline to civilian life and prospered, while others went through it, became good soldiers, and became irresponsible, drug-addicted, or criminal upon entering civilian life? One size does not fit all. People will be who they will be: genetics and environment will certainly tell some, or even a lot of the story, but not all of it. Individuals will become who they will become.

There will always be an element in our population with a deformed conscience that will seek pleasure through violence. And there will always be lazy people, and people seeking the soothing feeling of some sort of drug. No law will stop them, and no teaching will improve their behavior in the long run.

This shouldn't be any more controversial a statement than that there will always be homosexuals, or mentally retarded people, or mentally ill people, or physically handicapped people. People will be who they will be. Let them be so. The drunk in the gutter would not have become a great scientist "if only...". The gay man who dies of AIDS early in life would not have been made straight "if only...". The Next Great Actress didn't become a porn star "only because" of some mishap in her past. Let's stop with the nonsensical idea that human wisdom, human institutions, and human coercion can control and shape people. If that is so, we should all be communists. The virtuous and the genius rise above the worst circumstances, and the laziest and conscience-free sink despite the best upbringing. Deep down, we all know this.

Our obligation instead, is to not destroy the virtuous elite and the geniuses on account of this or that "zero tolerance" policy or business regulation or "subversive" creativity, but to let them assume their position of carrying civilization forward on their shoulders. Teenagers will be teenagers, and college students will be college students. Just because a young adult does something spontaneous and foolish doesn't mean he or she deserves to go to jail on a victimless crime like marijuana possession or obscenity. You can smoke pot, or fornicate, or get drunk, yet still become a great person whose achievements will enrich all of our lives.

While our improved living conditions have had some positive effect on our mores, we have lost the sense of freedom and responsibility vital to a thriving civilization.  That's because we have given credit to government, not the free market, for our health and comfort.  Then our fears - of poverty, of second-hand smoke, of weapons of mass destruction - are exploited by the government to increase its own powers.

That's why our political parties are so close together ideologically.  Unlike far-left parties that seek more democracy, and far-right parties that seek greater liberty and Constitutional government, our two major parties continue to gather power by fear-mongering, demonizing the rich, the foreign tyrant, or the drug dealer to suit their purposes.

I don't think reform of either party is possible by "working within the system."  Exploiting our fears, instead of embracing individual life and individual freedom, is too entrenched in the Democratic and Republican parties.  The longer they stay in power, the fewer freedoms we will have, the more debased the American character will become, and the sooner our civilization will collapse.

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