The Case Against Fear

FDR Speaking
Getty Image

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

So said F.D.R. during his first inaugural address in 1933. The Great Depression had devastated the country and his attack of the word “fear” was a precise and calculated choice. People know this part of the quote. They cite it and repeat it. But fewer people know the end of the sentence, in which F.D.R. unpacks exactly what sort of fear he’s talking about:

“…nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

It’s a shame that part gets left off, because the 32nd president wasn’t talking about productive pragmatism, or calculated risk assessment — he was talking about lizard-brain thinking, the deprivation mindset, and blind panic. He was talking about irrational fear. It’s a strain you might recognize because it’s the same brand of fear that currently has our country in a vice grip.

How so? Let’s look at a few trending news items that have a hold on the collective consciousness:

Donald Trump.

It doesn’t matter if you love the guy or hate him, it’s pretty clear that Trump’s word choices, public persona, and campaign tactics are driven by inciting and fostering fear. Even his slogan — Make America Great Again — is anxiety-inducing. It’s implied message is that America, well, kinda sucks. We’re like our own overly attached girlfriend meme, insanely jealous of Trump’s vanished utopia: “Are we not great? When did we stop being great? How do we go back to being great? I want us to be great!”

Trump’s response to those questions is more fear. Xenophobia, islamophobia, white nationalism, and the sort of bizarre, rage-filled verbal diarrhea of someone desperately trying to disguise their own deep-seated worries with bluster. Just think of the “border wall,” the very idea of which is specifically meant to prey on anyone who’s willing to give in to fear without doing the research to realize that the Tijuana-San Ysidro border already features a 20-foot wall. There are, at the very least, vehicle barriers across most of the U.S./Mexico border, and the sections that don’t have solid barriers would require immigrants to trek through the Sonoran Desert or cross the Rio Grande (which does happen, but is patrolled).

This isn’t the point though, because the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country is level around at 11.3 million people (where it’s been for five years), down from 12.2 million in 2007. Which also doesn’t matter because the real point is that illegal immigration is a complicated political issue that deserves real thinkers and real diplomats, not someone calling Mexican immigrants rapists — a ploy which does a superb job of sparking panic but has no foothold in reality.

Even if you think Trump “tells it like it is” you’d be hard-pressed not to admit that the man’s particular version of “like it is” is steeped in fear mongering.

The Mexico-U.S. border at Tijuana/San Ysidro
Getty Image

The Mexico-U.S. border at Tijuana/San Ysidro

Islamic State Terrorism. 

Consider this little bit of non-fear-based oratory about Muslims in America:

We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God’s call on Abraham. We share your belief in God’s justice, and your insistence on man’s moral responsibility. We thank the many Muslim nations who stand with us against terror. Nations that are often victims of terror, themselves.

Tonight’s Iftaar also sends a message to all Americans: our nation is waging a war on a radical network of terrorists, not on a religion and not on a civilization. If we wage this war to defend our principles, we must live up to those principles, ourselves. And one of the deepest commitments of America is tolerance. No one should be treated unkindly because of the color of their skin or the content of their creed. No one should be unfairly judged by appearance or ethnic background, or religious faith. We must uphold these values of progress and pluralism and tolerance.

George Washington said that America gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. This was our policy at our nation’s founding; this is our policy today. America rejects all forms of religious intolerance. America grieves with all the victims of religious bigotry. And America opposes all who commit evil in God’s name.

And what peacenik hippie said that? What leftist weakling handled the second largest religion on the planet with such kid gloves?

It was President George W. Bush — who was speaking at the Iftaar Dinner a little more than a year after the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the history of our nation. Juxtapose that with Ted Cruz’s plan to use “carpet bombing” (is there anything more fearful than indiscriminate retribution?) or police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods. Why is Cruz’s campaign tactic to take the culture’s worst fight or flight gut reactions and try to attach policy to them? It seems, being the calm voice of reason doesn’t matter anymore. It certainly doesn’t matter to Frank Gaffney, Cruz’s advisor who trades in paranoid conspiracy theories with people like the openly racist Jared Taylor of American Renaissance (a website which Gaffney called “wonderful”).

Here again, we have a real issue worth paying enormous amounts of attention to. ISIS is our enemy, there’s no doubt about it, but to surrender to fear without logic is to lose the battle. FACT: Our panic fuels ISIS’s propaganda machine. If we allow fear to dictate our lives the bad guys get what they want. That may seem painfully cliché, but it’s also absolutely true. As the Washington Post details, we are at war with terror and fear is the weapon of mass destruction.

People bring flowers to Belgian Embassy in Moscow to pay tribute to Brussels attacks victims
Getty Image

LGBT Rights. 

Current battles over LGBT rights in Georgia and North Carolina are similarly based in the irrational — a fact which Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal called out when vetoing HB757:

I can find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia.

What an honest, clear way to get at the point. Deal, a Christian, says quite directly: You’re scared of something you don’t quite understand, I see that, but I’m here to tell you that there is no evidence to support the sort of specific changes you’re worried about. Later, he seems to attack what F.D.R. would call “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”:

The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will make sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion. That is what I intend to do.

In contrast, North Carolina went the other direction. The state fell prey to this “inflamed emotion” when Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law. The law states that transgender people must use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Is it any wonder that fearful people (the only sort who are discomfited by the sexuality of others) are so eager to make rules about toilets? It’s where we are the most vulnerable, after all, and therefore most fear-prone. Which is why the bathroom has always been a favorite battleground for bigots.

Rally On Steps Of California State Capitol Protests Passage Of Prop 8 SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 22: Supporters of gay marriage rally on the steps of the State Capitol November 22, 2008 in Sacramento, California. People across the country continue to protest the passing of California State Proposition 8 which makes gay marriage in California illegal. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)
Getty Image


Now, you could easily write the previous 1,000 words off as leftist drivel; liberal propaganda posing as progressivism (though liberal propagandists rarely block quote George W. Bush or Georgia’s Republican governor). The “written by another leftist liberal” conclusion is tricky though — because if the opposite of fear is bravery then why have social and political conservatives (in these three cases) allowed the far left to own the bravery narrative and only fired back at it with more fear? Why cede bravery to your enemy during a presidential race (and an idealogical war)? The truth is, progressivism is anti-fear and it ought not come with a political affiliation. And of course, leftist liberals aren’t without their own unjustified terrors — the idea that, once elected, Donald Trump would be allowed by Congress and the Supreme Court to turn the country into his own personal totalitarian state comes readily to mind. Liberals aren’t above using fear to nab votes, either — Social Security panic is pretty easy to recognize as a jaded political tactic.

None of this is to say that fear never serves a purpose. We do need some fear. When moderated, it helps us make sound decisions. Thierry Steimer put it nicely in the journal “Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience” (2002), citing the utility of rational fear as a “signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses.” But this brand of fear, which is a “fundamental part of making good decisions” isn’t what we’re talking about. We’re after F.D.R.’s “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” which has this nation in a stranglehold, is dominating our headlines, and “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Retreat or advance? The fearful positions outlined here are all about retreat (just look at the nostalgia Trump drums up for when he says America was great). But our job, as a people, regardless of political affiliation, is to advance. We must do so thoughtfully; as F.D.R. said in the same address, “Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” But we must think clearly, bravely, and progressively. We have to push our blind fears and panic aside.

The fight against irrational fear is archetypical. It’s there in Star Wars, The Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, Game of Thrones, and endless stories throughout time, across cultures. It’s a worthy battle, one which we are waging internally and externally at once; individually and collectively. And it’s a battle that none of us should ever accept losing.