“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Age of Anxiety,” lent a catchy label to the mid-twentieth century, the period in which we had emerged from two world wars and the Great Depression victorious and full of optimism. It seems strange that anxiety was endemic during what should have been an upbeat time. I wonder whether people really were more anxious or whether anxiety, a normal part of life, had simply been over-pathologized due to the advent of the first Valium-like anti-anxiety drug, Miltown. It, like others that would come after it, was a drug in search of a market.
Maybe adults were anxious, but aside from the reminders of impending nuclear armageddon that blared every Saturday at noon from air raid sirens, I don’t recall being worried about the state of the world. It was an age of free-range kids without bike helmets or seat belts. Sunburn, red meat, artificial flavors and colors, highly processed convenience foods and sugary cereals, whole milk, butter and cream were good for us. Plastic was a modern miracle that made possible disposable items, a boon the the busy housewife. Nine out of ten doctors smoked Camels. We were either male or female. Gay? What’s that? Trans? Huh? If you were Black you kept to your own side of the tracks. Non-caucasian actors, if they appeared in movies or TV at all, were confined to demeaning, stereotypical roles.
With no internet to push disparate groups in each other’s faces there was the appearance of a uniform national culture and identity reinforced by the middle of the road entertainment machine and mainstream news media. If you weren’t Christian you understood, as my parents said, “it’s a goyeshe velt” (a Christian world.) We strove to assimilate, studying Emily Post and emulating Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving painting. We wished our Christian neighbors “Merry Christmas” and sang Christmas carols in school assemblies that always began with a Bible reading. We made the best of the Sunday “blue laws.” In short, we acknowledged Christianity as the de facto State religion.
In this way we lived in an illusion of peaceful co-existence and societal solidarity.
Like everyone, I had my own share of worries, but they were mostly of the childhood and teenage angst type. My friends and I luxuriated in a golden era of pax Americana. We knew we were the greatest, most virtuous nation in history and destined to be so forever. We knew modern science ensured endless progress and long lives free from disease and arduous labor. We were blithely unaware that our unprecedented standard of living came with the price tag of global warming.
It seems to me the current era seems more suited to the moniker “age of anxiety.” Today we have good reason to be fearful, not just of fear itself but also of a number of real things like disease, famine and pestilence due to climate change. We also have reason to fear the breakdown of behavioral standards that not long ago gave a sense of decorum and decency to our internal conflicts. The deterioration of the social order casts a pall over every aspect of our lives. Our age mirrors previous periods in history that preceded our Civil War and the great wars of the last century.
Despite the fact there are tangible reasons to be afraid, fear itself may well be the major driver of our national crisis.
The culture war, a war of aggression against non-Whites, non-Christians, non-binaries and the liberals who support them, and against truth and scientific progress, is being waged by frightened people who see their position of national dominance eroding. This is nothing new. From the “Know Nothings” in the 1850s to the KKK in the post Civil War era, to the original “America First” movement of the WWI era, to the isolationist fascist sympathizers of the pre-WWII era, to the red scare of the 1950s and to today’s the MAGA movement, there have always been strong elements in our society who demonize whole groups of people and are terrified of the prospect of changes in a status quo of which they are the beneficiaries. The instinctual animal response to fear (human animals included) is flight or fight. At first the fearful ones fled.
In the 1960s, after Civil Rights laws required schools to integrate, Whites here in Virginia decided to shutter the schools rather than comply. They put their kids into private and parochial schools or home schooled them lest their whiteness be stained by kids of different colors and cultures. White Christian kids were indoctrinated thoroughly and their prejudices well preserved.
The internet and increasing social mobility have undermined the ability of White parents to continue to shield their kids and themselves from reality. Cornered, their only option is to wage an active war whose casualties are justice and our democratic form of government. White racists and fundamentalist Christians have formed an incendiary partnership whose flames are fueled by big money interests. The accelerated imposition of Christian “values” into secular law is not really about religion. It is part of a political and economic power grab.
The people who set off our culture war are directly descended from those who fired the opening salvos at Fort Sumpter. As was the case with citizens in the slave holding states, the force that drives them is fear. Conservative White Americans are terrified that they will lose their long held control over government, resources, and wealth and their domination of the nation’s cultural, racial and religious character. Trump’s blessing supercharged their cause. With the MAGA politicians who are infesting Congress and the ultra-right wing Supreme Court at their backs, they are actively engaged in undoing much of the social progress we have made over the past century.
Once again fear is what we have to fear. The fear of these fearful people.