Fear Factor

June 16, 2011
By

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Remember that golden moldy from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration speech in the midst of a bank panic (run on banks)? This was sage advice from a leader who was talking the country down off the ledge. Rather a contrast from a recent administration that devised a colorful graphic to track the current terrorist threat level in a way that assured we’d be constantly looking over our shoulders.

Fear FactorYellow? Getting nervous here. Orange? Oh geez. Red? God help us all…run for it! In general, there was little difference in our daily lives other than an ominous color graph hanging over our heads. And why? If there were something as serious as orange in the works, wouldn’t you think the government would already be all over it? I mean, they’re the ones who made the graph. They would have a sense that real shit was coming and, if that’s so, what would be the point in our knowing? Would we form a posse? Would we buy ridiculous amounts of duct tape?

The point was to ratchet up civil unease and create a more malleable electorate because fear is a tremendous motivator. It will get you to do shit that defies logic, reason or any other attribute that suggests we are an ever-evolving species. Fear gets people to make unbelievably bad choices and dumbs down the entire thought process.

Just protect me and I’ll do anything.

During the infamous Y2K scare, we were to believe that nearly all the computers in the world were ill-equipped to process the date change from 1999 to the year 2000 and, since so much of our economy and infrastructure was now based on global computers, this break down would send us hurtling back to the stone age. Our savings would be gone, our economy would collapse and I wouldn’t get my license tabs in the mail. It was talked about by so many so-called authorities that this had to be a real fear.

Reputable publications (PC World for one) started putting out Y2K emails every day with ‘need to know’ tips. Anti-virus kingpin, Symantec, began selling a $50 program designed to straighten the whole mess out, at least as far as your home computers were concerned. For the giant computing grids it was already decided too much time had passed and there was little chance of averting a complete societal meltdown.

Y2K fear-mongering was off and running and every retailer was in on it. People were building bunkers in the desert, hoarding water and supplies, hooking up generators and buying enough batteries to run a freight train. Guns and ammo were flying off the shelves because, of course, there would be roaming gangs in search of the food and water you were hoarding so you were going to have to pick them off to protect your stash. We wouldn’t have electricity so crank radios were a big seller.

People made a tremendous amount of money based on fear. In the mail I received an advertising circular with the words “Blood Will Run In The Streets” emblazoned in red on the cover and an offer for a book to protect yourself, and a two year subscription to supplemental tips that, ironically, would have done you no good if the circular’s prediction of a postal service collapse was correct.

Just to demonstrate how effective this fear retailing was, even though I wrote an article for a local magazine that basically debunked the impending doom as nothing more than a reason to sell you things, just a little part of me, the bone-headed ‘but what if’ part, broke down and got a couple of jugs of water and one of those crank radios. Cha-ching.

That New Year’s Eve, as we were all waiting to see if chaos ensued, I flipped on an old computer running the ancient Windows 95 before leaving for the party. If anything was going to fall apart it would be Windows 95 because it was teetering on the edge of disaster on a regular, non-Y2K, basis anyway.

Of course, we all partied like it was 1999, nothing happened at all except many of us now owned crank radios and had so many canned goods that we could supply our own food drives for the poor. And when I got home, the only notable event that occurred with Windows 95 was that it rolled over to the year 2000 and looked at me like I was some sort of loser-ass for doubting it could figure out what comes after 1999.

While the U.S. collective psyche has been headed for the analyst’s couch for quite some time, 911 put it over the top and ushered in a mass neurosis that has to be unparalleled in our history. There are things to be afraid of but not as many worthy ones as you might think. And these days almost everybody’s lugging around some fear of something or someone.

Maybe we’re not hardened or battle-tested enough. European countries that have suffered through horrific wars and plagues seem to have a better grip on daily life than we do. They don’t seem to sweat the small stuff and so issues like gay marriage don’t keep them up at night wondering, “oh my, how can I defend my family’s sensibility from the marauding bands of marriage-happy gays?” Having defended themselves from Nazi V2 rockets, turning whole cities into rubble, they tend to have perspective.

Which brings me to apocalyptic predictions based on organized religious interpretations. These guys don’t have a very good track record. In fact, it’s a big O-fer all of time immemorial. And yet, every once in awhile some self-appointed apostle of doom makes a bold proclamation that the world will end on such and such a date and you should get your house in order because judgment day will settle the issue of heaven and hell and who’s assigned where.

The latest came from California televangelist, Harold Camping, who, after studying all of the biblical dates carefully, decided that May 21st, 2011 would begin the end of mankind. Seemingly, he was so sure of this that he spent money on billboards all over the country stating this ‘fact’ and steering believers back to his website. On the surface of things, this was a generous and compassionate thing to do, all of these dollars poured into billboards just for a kindly heads-up to the human race.

But that’s the view from the surface. Looking a bit further than that, one might logically conclude that this effort was nothing more than investment capital because what Camping received in donation returns greatly outweighed his initial outlay. And what did the faithful get in return for their offering? Another big nothing. Another payday for Camping and another bank withdrawal for the enlightened. People quit their jobs, turned their backs on worldly endeavors and sent their moolah to Camping.

After initially explaining that he was “flabbergasted” that the rapture hadn’t gone down as planned, a few days later Camping explained it away as a ‘silent judgment day’. I had no idea that there was such a thing but this is how fear works. Just toss a bunch of crap against a wall and hope that most of it sticks. Very little research would have revealed that Camping made the very same bold predictions on May 21, 1988, and September 7, 1994, so either Mr. Camping is a lousy mathematician or he’s another PT Barnum.

More troubling is why these believers would think it made sense to give Camping their money since the natural assumption would be that Camping was ascending to heaven and would have no need of earthly monies, right? But that’s not how fear works, for the threat, in this case the fear of God, took hold of reason and shook it like a pit bull with a kitten in its jaws.

Which leads directly to my own fears. Yes, I have several of the neurotic variety but, while they hinder me in certain areas, none of them disable me to the point of inaction or lack of intelligence. There is one societal fear, however, that truly shivers my timbers.

That is stupidity. Mine included.

Sometimes people accept statement as fact just because somebody says so. All of the above scenarios have something in common: somebody said so. People say things everyday that they know to be untrue (or blindly believe are true) in the hopes of getting someone else to believe them. They do it for as many reasons (personal, religious, political, criminal, etc.) as you can imagine, and if individuals lack critical thinking skills (the ability to critique and analyze beyond the surface of things) they are cannon fodder for every manipulation in the book.

In other words, with so many actual fears to pay attention to (getting work in a down economy, putting food on the table, dodging tornadoes, tending to bad health issues) why waste so much time on the absurd and superfluous in life? Let’s decide that we’ll listen to our brains when they warn us that something might not be as it appears.

Last night on CNBC’s “American Greed: Scams” a hedge fund scam artist was promising absurdly high return rates on investments and one of the scammed (a stock analyst himself!) actually said this after losing a boat load of his money: “It seemed a little fishy but the deal was too good to resist.”

Really? I mean, really?

So, with Roosevelt as my inspiration, here’s my bumper-sticker quote to remember the next time stupidity starts creeping in:

“Think more, fear less”

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2 Responses to Fear Factor

  1. Peter A. Paolini on June 17, 2011 at 4:31 am

    be afraid, be very afraid!

  2. Erin Merritt on June 21, 2011 at 8:11 am

    When you have your first batch of bumper stickers hot off the press, let me know, and I’ll send you some cash. Excellent article, my friend, and so true.

    I came down with a case of hives after 9/11 which lasted for several grueling days of itching, lotioning, and even bandaging (which is obviously NOTHING compared to the suffering that came to those actually at ground zero). I can’t help but think that I was lulled into a false sense of security, hence my extreme reaction to trauma. The events that occurred on 9/11 were unlike anything my generation had ever experienced, and I believe that my peers and I were completely unprepared to “deal”.

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