Franklin D. Roosevelt lives: over eighty years since the US president uttered the line, we are still regularly being warned that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. An influx of Syrian refugees? Nope, nothing to be afraid of. ISIS recruitment? Suicide bombers? Homegrown terror cells? Please. More jihadist massacres, like those in Paris and San Bernadino? Fear not.
It’s hard not to feel, however, that the competing charges of what should and should not alarm us have been – as with most public debates about matters which affect everyone regardless of their politics – highly politicized. Whenever some pundit launches into a pious sermon about “the politics of fear,” you know his basic message will come down to: those bad manipulative propagandists are stoking mass anxiety over a minimal threat, in order to further their own cynical agenda – don’t fall for it! The subtext, then, is always that the real problem is not the alleged danger but whoever is alleging the danger in the first place.
That sounds like a nice independent attitude, except we are all pretty selective in distinguishing hyped-up hysterias from legitimate concerns. I’ve noticed, for example, that many of the same people who insist that the peril of Islamic extremism is a non-issue conjured up by conservative demagogues will quickly turn around and assert that catastrophic climate change is an inevitable apocalypse just short decades away. And what’s up with the American NRA lobbyists who downplay the frequency of mass shootings but constantly raise the specter of a totalitarian government taking away law-abiding folks’ Smith & Wessons?
The weirdly counterintuitive reactions are just as predictable. If terrorists slaughter 50 tourists in the name of Allah, there’ll be at least one guaranteed response of “Don’t let this be an excuse for an anti-Muslim backlash,” and if an alienated loner slaughters 50 college students with his private arsenal, we get an inevitable “Don’t let this be Washington’s excuse to outlaw our guns.” So how should we tell a valid fear from mere fearmongering? What are you more afraid of: being randomly shot by a rampaging lunatic, or having your property confiscated by a federal bureaucrat? Being blown up on your next airline flight, or being flooded out of your home in 2066? Take your time; there are no right or wrong answers.
This might or might not also be an opportune moment to point out that a few discredited “scares” of the past were not entirely bogus. Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s was an opportunistic smear campaign conducted by a reckless self-promoter – but it was later learned that Soviet espionage had indeed penetrated some levels of the US government, just as McCarthy insinuated. Fluoridation of municipal water supplies, once thought to be a Commie plot by right-wing psychopaths like Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper, has lately been opposed by some progressive groups, this time for environmental and health reasons. Even the “atrocity” tales of World War I, in which the invading Huns were said to have raped and mutilated Belgian women and children, turned out not to have been wholly fabricated by Allied propaganda; German soldiers did in fact kill unarmed civilians in a number of incidents at the outset of the conflict. The lesson is not that popular panics are always justified, or that they never are, but that truth remains truth, no matter which side seems to gain or lose from reporting it. The last word goes to the humanist philosopher Alfred E. Neuman: “What, me worry?”