Vail Daily column: Fight fear-mongering with faith in virtues
Fear is a political manipulator’s favorite weapon. Voicing dire predictions about government’s over-reach, a politician plays on citizens’ fears to raise their ire against Uncle Sam.
Fear-mongering works. An angry political bloc feeling insecure votes the party line. “The Republicans are very good at creating a crisis atmosphere that thrives on partisanship and politicizing every issue,” declared New York Rep. Steve Israel. He cites the GOP’s lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act as a knee-jerk reaction used to exploit pent-up partisan anger.
Using fear to arouse citizens’ anger irked Thomas Jefferson. Political divides destroyed coalitions. Rejecting this ploy in 1797, Vice President Jefferson wrote South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney (1790-1828), who served as American minister to Great Britain and Spain.
“Political dissension is … a great evil,” declared Jefferson, as he pressed to “ … exclude its influence, if possible, from social life.” Fear is toxic, infecting citizens and poisoning the political atmosphere. Republicans trot out the same tired arguments against President Barack Obama that their predecessors used, who feared Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
My parents described this frightful era, when many citizens’ American Dream for freedom had been dashed. Fear gripped the nation and blocked hope for a better future. “Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless,” describes Daniel James Brown, “its (futility) was with you night and day — a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop from under you for good at any moment.
“In March (1933), an oddly appropriate movie had come out and quickly became a smash hit: King Kong. Long lines formed in front of movie theaters around the country, people of all ages shelling out precious quarters and dimes to see the story of a huge, irrational beast that had invaded the civilized world, taken its inhabitants into it clutches, and left them dangling over the abyss” (“The Boys in the Boat,” 2013).
Republicans chided FDR for acting like King Kong when the brute wrecked Manhattan. Roosevelt’s creeping socialism, they alleged, choked the nation. After the president had been in office a year and a half, Republicans verbally harassed him. Political bickering left some citizens feeling desolate, as if they were orphans, having lost the nation they adored.
On July 2, 1934, the GOP’s Chairman Henry Fletcher chastised FDR’s New Deal as “an undemocratic departure from all that is distinctively American.” He predicted big-government spending would send every American to the poor house.
Two days later, Republicans unleashed another pit bull against President Roosevelt. Idaho’s GOP senator William Borah growled that New Deal policies undermined foundations of American democracy. He painted a dour future for free-market liberty. Borah instigated fear among the populous, warning about “creeping paralysis of bureaucracy (that) threatens freedom of the press, placing the yoke of torture, colossal expense and the demoralization of the nation.” GOP fear-mongerers accused Roosevelt of acting like a Stalin.
Compare such sensational indictments with Republicans’ rhetoric today. The effect is the same: Use fear to whip up frenzy against political enemies.
Similar hysteria swept over the nation in my boyhood when Fidel Castro took over Cuba in the late 1950s. Like groundhogs burrowing tunnels, Americans built massive silos to conceal missiles armed with nuclear warheads. They dug shelters in their backyards.
In 1959, a poll tracked rising national panic. Nearly one in seven citizens believed nuclear war was right around the corner. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller showed New Yorkers how to escape nuclear doom. He pressed Albany’s legislators to mandate that citizens construct fallout shelters in every home, school and public building in the state.
In 1960, Rockefeller appeared on the Today show. He sold viewers on the comforts of a home in a shelter. Equipped with bunk beds, it also had a stash of “fallout crackers,” bland snacks to settle upset stomachs when nuclear war raged overhead.
On March 21, 2006, The New York Times reported that maintenance workers inspecting the Brooklyn Bridge had unearthed war rations. During the early 1960s nuclear scare, medical supplies, drugs to treat shock when missiles hit, water drums and an estimated 352,000 Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Crackers had been stockpiled.
GOP’s fear-mongering wins over people who can’t deal with their jitters. Republicans gloss over a biblical caution. When angels appeared in the Bible, their first words were “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 28:5). Faith’s opposite is fear, not unbelief. When voters’ gullibility takes over and sensibility retreats, politicians exploits their fears.
How do we combat fear-mongering? Study history to learn how hysteria works.
Moreover, supplant fear with faith in virtues that make people strong. Thomas Jefferson bolstered citizens who shuttered about the future. “ … Above all things,” Jefferson emphasized, “lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous … ”
Doing our best blocks fear from getting the best of us.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.