The Fearful vs. the Fearless

Jumping at Shadows, President Trump
Photo credit: The White House and Nation Books

The 2016 election and its aftermath has deepened a culture of fear in the United States. A few years ago it was about Ebola, vaccines, Zika and child predators. Now it’s about fear of the future, the other, the economy and, most of all, fear of change.

Author and freelance journalist Sasha Abramsky talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about how this modern fear is being augmented and boosted by political leaders, media outlets and fringe groups as a way to provoke conflict, raise money and control special interests.

Abramsky explains how odd it is that we don’t fear big things like nuclear threats and climate change, but that instead it’s the small fears that are used, in conjunction with the media, to amplify the “fog of fear.”

Conquering these fears is of key importance, Abramsky argues: “In finding a way to navigate out of that fear, that paralysis, we can move toward a healthier way of living and a calmer and less vengeful idea of community.” Abramsky writes in his book Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (Nation Books, September 5, 2017), and tells Schechtman, that breaking through this fear may be the defining challenge of our time.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
The ability to create fear is the most basic, primal, and exploitive of tools for manipulation. Demagogues from the Garden of Eden to would-be presidents stirring the drumbeat that those that are different are rapists and killers have used it. To try and proactively tamp-down would-be demagogues and exploiters, Roosevelt told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Ed Murrow, in talking about Joe McCarthy, reminded us that McCarthy didn’t create the situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Today, in our siloed, self-referential, anti-factual culture, the fear is stronger than ever: fear of change, fear of the new, fear of the other, fear of the future are all dominant. The ability to exploit it has never been greater.
We’re going to talk about that today with my guest, Sasha Abramsky. He is an author, a freelance journalist, a lecturer, and a senior fellow at Demos. His work has appeared in The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, New York Magazine, and numerous other publications. He is the author of numerous award-winning books, and it is my pleasure to welcome Sasha Abramsky here to Radio WhoWhatWhy to talk about his latest, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Sasha, thanks so much for joining us.
Sasha Abramsky: Jeff, it’s a joy to be on.
Jeff Schechtman: There is so much fear about so many things out there now that one can come away with the sense that we are nearing a kind of collective nervous breakdown.
Sasha Abramsky: Yeah. It’s funny, I was just writing an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee yesterday, and I was thinking of all the over-the-top imagery we’re subjected to at the moment. And that goes for headlines about what was called a “nuclear hurricane” describing Irma to headlines about quote “zombie-like survivors” roaming around the Caribbean after the hurricane, all the way through to headlines about nuclear weapons being targeted at our cities and epidemic diseases being unleashed on our populations. And the thing is, when all of that fear is our daily bread and butter, when it’s what we imbibe with our meals when we wake up in the morning and turn on the TV or the radio, it’s what we breathe in in our social media environments. When fear becomes our social currency, we render ourselves as a community intensely vulnerable, vulnerable to demagogues, vulnerable to hysteria, vulnerable to panic. And as we become more vulnerable, we become less and less nuanced in our approaches to life and we start making decisions based around every worst case scenario that floods our minds. And I think it’s reshaping society in an absolutely fascinating and very, very destructive way at the moment.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess the question is how it’s different. I mean, certainly those of us that grew up during the Cold War remember duck and cover drills, the Cuban Missile Crisis, fear of nuclear annihilation, and certainly those of The Greatest Generation went through an awful lot of fear in the Second World War. How is this, in a contemporary sense, how is this fear different that we’re living with today?
Sasha Abramsky: I think you’re right that fear’s always been a part of our story, both our national story and also our story as a species, as human beings. And you can go all the way back to prehistoric times, and you look at the earliest narratives of the human story. It’s cave paintings, and oftentimes it’s cave paintings of the hunt. And you sort of empathetically put yourselves in the situation of those ancestors a thousand generations back, and you think what their worlds must have been like when they had no way of understanding the weather, and so when lightning struck it was just this terrifying act of God, and no way of protecting themselves adequately from huge, violent animals that viewed them as nothing more than prey. And it must have been a very fearful way to live. So it’s not that we used to be a happy, carefree species and suddenly we’re a fearful species.
I think what’s happened, though, in the recent past is that our technological abilities have outstripped our understanding of our environment. And so social media, for example, is extraordinarily good at amplifying a message. So, if something bad happens 10,000 miles from where I live, well, 30 or 40 years ago, I would not have known about that event, or maybe I would’ve known about it on a news story on page six of the New York Times a week or two later. And now something happens 10,000 miles away and because of social media and the way the Internet works, it feels like it’s in my living room.
So I turn on my computer, and I’m suddenly besieged by very frightening imagery, and because fright sells, because things that scare us tend to make good copy, we see a lot of very scary headlines, and that goes for whether we’re talking about terrorism or whether we’re talking about the latest epidemic disease like Ebola or Zika Virus. We see a lot of very scary headlines, and we don’t necessarily calibrate correctly the risk to us personally. We see them on our cellphones, we see them on our computers, and it’s very tempting to sort of leap to a conclusion that we’re at far great personal risk than in fact we are. And when you sort of look at that across the spectrum and you start seeing how we approach stories about local crime or local acts of random violence or airplane accidents, whatever it might be, the thing that happens is eventually our brains are just continually bombarded with fearsome imagery, and our brain chemistry changes. We start releasing more and more cortisol and other stress chemicals, and our bodies physically and our brains and minds psychologically, we shift gear and we sort of put ourselves down into armored, hunker down fear mode.
And so I think that’s the difference. It’s not that previous generations didn’t have lots of things to fear, it’s that previous generations weren’t saturated with fear imagery minute-in and minute-out to the extent that this generation is. And it has huge impacts for what kind of a community we are and what kind of a community we’re becoming.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, to try to put it in the context, for example, and there’s certainly been a lot of talk about it with the Ken Burns series that premiers this coming weekend, this sense … You know, the Vietnam War came into everybody’s living room every night. There was fear that their sons would be drafted, would be going over there. There was fear, but it certainly was different than what we’re experiencing today.
Sasha Abramsky: Yeah, I think that each generation, whether it’s the Vietnam War, World War II, World War I, whatever it might be, has major things to fear. And the thing that fascinates me and that I was writing about in Jumping at Shadows is that oftentimes at the moment, it’s not the major things that we’re fearing, but it’s the rather insignificant things. So, two examples that I talk about in the book. We have every reason to fear nuclear weapons. They’re the most destructive invention ever created by humanity, and they have the potential to wipe out human civilization, and there are thousands of those nuclear weapons on earth. So we have every reason to put a huge amount of our emotional, our political, our intellectual energies into working out ways to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and to make it all but impossible to ever use nuclear weapons. But actually, when you look at what Americans are scared of, and obviously this opinion poll data came out before all of the latest headlines about North Korea, but after the Cold War, we stopped thinking about nuclear weapons. And so even though they were there, when you’d question Americans “What are your biggest fears?” and Americans would rank their fears, turned out Americans were more scared of spiders than nuclear weapons, and they were more scared of gun control—not guns, but gun control—than of nuclear weapons.
The other thing we have every reason to fear, but in this country in particular we under-fear, is climate change. That’s a massive, massive threat to the way we live our lives. It has the potential to upend one country after another; to flood major cities, whether it’s New York or London or Hong Kong; and to cost an absolute fortune and to happen very, very quickly, but because it’s so big and because it’s so abstract in some ways, we’re very good at sort of putting it to one side. And even with these hurricanes, these hurricanes which there’s at least a chance are being exacerbated by climate change and by global warming, even with these hurricanes, we’re not fundamentally changing the way we’re living our lives. We’re still buying big cars that take a lot of gas. We’re still over-consuming things that release C02 into the atmosphere.
And so, when I was writing my book, that was what was fascinating to me. Why are we ignoring these really, really existential threats but fixating on, for example, the dangers of children walking unattended to school, which for hundreds of generations past, kids have been allowed to roam their neighborhoods unattended, and this generation has battened down the hatches and said, “No, we’re too dangerous. We’re too scared. We’re not going to let our children walk to the end of the street alone.” And it’s that disjunct between what we really should be scared about and aren’t spending energies on and what we probably shouldn’t be so scared about but are expending a lot of energies on. That’s at the core of this book and at the core of the interviews and the reporting that I did for this book.
Jeff Schechtman: The overlay to all of this is also the degree to which political leadership exploits that fear as a kind of distraction either away from those larger problems or for their own political advantage.
Sasha Abramsky: That’s right. And again, there’s nothing new about demagogy. You mentioned Edward R. Murrow’s critique of Senator Joe McCarthy 60 years ago, and … Or more than 60 years ago. And that was a quintessential moment of demogogy, where a lot of Americans were scared of reds under the bed, they were scared of communism, and they were scared of the Cold War, and Joe McCarthy played that fear perfectly, and he mobilized that fear in pursuit of his political agenda and his personal ambition. You can look at other demagogic figures in American history and you’ll find they did very similar things, and we’re at one of those moments today. The difference is that it’s not a senator who’s capturing the limelight through demagoguery, and it’s not a governor or it’s not a radio talk show host, it’s the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, who is using fear time and again, is using fear to mobilize his political base, to mobilize a crowd behind his political ambitions.
And I followed Trump in the election campaign. I was writing a lot about Trump and the emerging Trumpist movement for The Nation magazine, Haaretz in Israel, and various other publications, and I was absolutely horrified by the demagogic leaps that he was taking. So he’d address anti-vaccine crowds, and without thinking of the medical implications he’d glom onto an anti-vaccine conspiracy idea. He’d address anti-climate change crowds. And again, I don’t know whether or not in his heart of hearts Trump knows or cares about climate change, but he saw there was political capital to made out of saying this is a hoax, that you’re being manipulated for all kinds of bad reasons, and thus we’re going to go against the Paris Accord and we’re going to go against the notion of climate change.
We saw it in his responses to terrorism. And I’m not minimizing the seriousness of terrorism. It’s a terrible thing, and it’s caused all kinds of mayhem and all kinds of heartbreak around the world in recent years. But the response to terrorism, if you are a responsible leader, is not to advocate what Trump called “the torture.” It’s not to advocate collective punishment of terrorism suspects. It’s not to advocate mass execution of terrorism suspects. And it’s not to advocate the barring from the country of all Muslim visitors and immigrants as Trump promised during the election campaign and sort of in a half-hearted manner he’s been trying to implement since the election. None of that is responsible. It’s the politics of demogogy.
And again, I think what’s different about our moment is that a man like Trump, who has made a conscious decision that there is political capital to be gained out of employing and deploying fear, a man like Trump now has all of the magnifier instruments available through mass technology, through social media, through Twitter, through Facebook, through cable television, talk radio, and so on. And what that does is it means if you unleash this virus of fear into the political culture, it’s very hard to contain. It’s a sort of Pandora’s Box, and Trump opened that Pandora’s Box, and those sort of fear viri, fear viruses, are now flying through our atmosphere, and they’re corroding our politics. They’re corroding our political discourse. They’re corroding our democratic institutions. As a political journalist, it fascinates me. As a human being, it absolutely horrifies me.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that it does, and this speaks to some of the broader technological advances in the culture, is it feeds the kind of tribalism that makes this fear and the tribalism itself so self-sustaining.
Sasha Abramsky: That’s right. And again, when you go back all the way to sort of human prehistory, we’ve always divided ourselves into tribes or clans based around family, based around community, based around location. There’s nothing new about that. The thing is, we’re no longer primitive, tribal cave people. We’re sophisticated, modern human beings, and we’ve spent thousands of years building up communities that transcend location, building up communities that transcend race and transcend religion. And we do it better sometimes and we do it worse other times, and we’ve clearly come into a moment at the moment where we’re doing it worse, where we’re re-segregating into our tribes, into our clans, where we’re blaming “the other” for our problem. And that “other” can be somebody who has a different color skin, somebody who worships a different god, somebody who speaks a different language, eats a different kind of food, but we’re looking at those other and instead of thinking that they enrich our community we’re thinking that that diversity is now dangerous, or at least some people within our community are thinking that diversity is dangerous.
And so we’re in this ugly, ugly moment where the President, who is supposed to be a sort of above-partisan, unifying figure, is speaking to one part of the population against another part. So when you hear Trump speak about Mexican immigrants being rapists or criminals, he’s speaking to a white, nativist audience. When you hear Trump speaking about young black criminals and how the police should be tougher on suspects and how the police shouldn’t worry too much about physically harming suspects, again he’s very clearly addressing his words to a white, nativist audience. When he speaks about banning Muslims or banning refugees, the same thing holds. He’s not speaking as the President of all Americans. He’s speaking as the representative of one scared, increasingly enclosed, nativist faction of the country.
And what I wrestle with is the really big philosophical question: how does democracy survive demogogy? How does the optimistic spirit that for decades, if not centuries, has defined America in the face of the world, how does that optimistic spirit, what we have sort of called in shorthand the American Dream, how does that American Dream survive a moment of deep fear and of deep pessimism and of deep animosity? And I think that’s the question that we’re living through at the moment, and whether or not we answer it in a way that preserves the American Dream, that’s an open question.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess the other part of it, though, is whether or not that fear and that potential loss of that American dream was there before Trump, and that whether or not he is merely the symptom of something that was embedded in the body politic even before he came along.
Sasha Abramsky: Oh, sure. I mean, it would be crazy to say that everything was healthy, and then Trump comes along and magically gets power and suddenly everything’s unhealthy. That’s not how it works. A man like Trump can only emerge at a moment of deep insecurity and deep anxiety. A man like Trump can only emerge at a moment when the political institutions are already under deep stress. So I’d be the last person on Earth to say that everything was good, Trump comes along, and now everything’s bad. I think it’s far more complicated than that.
But I do think that in addition to being a consequence of a culture of fear, Trump, by virtue of his platform, is also now a cause of that culture of fear, that he exacerbates existing trends and he puts fuel to the flames. He adds, instead of tamping down fear, instead of doing what Roosevelt did when he came into power in 1933, when Roosevelt said, “Look, the only thing to fear is fear itself,” that if you’re optimistic we can overcome all these challenges. That’s not how Trump’s politics work. His politics work by exploiting that fear and by keeping at least a part of the audience as agitated, as fearful, as horrified as possible.
And not just from the right. I mean, part of the awful magic of the sort of Trump moment is that he gets everybody to be afraid. He gets his base to be afraid. He gets the people who dislike him to be afraid. He creates this sort of smorgasbord of fear where no matter what your politics, you end up looking through a lens clouded by fear, clouded by anxiety, clouded by distrust. And I come back to what I said a couple minutes ago: the question is how does democratic culture and politics survive this fog of fear?
Jeff Schechtman: Arguably, there’s a certain point that there’s so much anxiety out there that the reaction becomes sometimes violent, that there’s a certain Rubicon we cross at some point, it seems.
Sasha Abramsky: I think there’s many Rubicons we cross. And, look, I don’t believe in violence in our political system. I think that violence is calamitous when it’s unleashed politically. And when you see what happened in Charlottesville or when you see what’s happened in other towns around the country where there’s been this extraordinary outpouring of political violence, it … To the core of my being it makes me horrified, because I don’t see how civil society functions when people reach for the gun instead of try and debate each other civilly. And I don’t see how a nuanced, diverse political and intellectual culture can flourish when people are so scared or angry at other people that they’re talking past each other rather than listening to each other. And I think what we’re seeing at the moment is the entire country devolving into a sort of Jerry Springer Show where everybody’s throwing things at each other, everybody’s shouting at each other, everybody’s making this sort of endless cacophony of noise, and what they’re not doing is actually listening to each other.
And if my book serves any purpose it’s that I hope people read those stories and look at those stories not just of people consumed by fear but of also people who’ve made a conscious effort to not be consumed by fear. ‘Cause the other part of the book is it’s an exploration of what happens when people make a decision that they are not going to let their lives and they’re not going to let their political and their cultural and their educational and their parenting choices be dictated by fear. And I hope people read those and come to at least some realization that fear is a choice. And I don’t say that in any kind of self help way, but I really mean it politically that we choose whether or not to let ourselves be defined by fear. And I think, I really do from the bottom of my heart, I think we become better people when we refuse to be defined by fear.
Jeff Schechtman: Arguably, though, what that does is it creates yet another divide, socially, politically, economically.
Sasha Abramsky: You mean between those who are defined by fear and those who don’t define themselves?
Jeff Schechtman: And those who aren’t. Exactly right.
Sasha Abramsky: Yeah, and, you know, that in many ways may be the great divide of our time, that it isn’t an ideological divide anymore. We don’t sort of have those great ideologies that defined the 20th Century. We don’t compete ideologically for what kind of a society we want to live in. We do have sets of different values and sets of different philosophical priorities, but those great battles between the ideologies of the first half of the 20th Century, that’s not on the whole part of our daily existence. So you might be right. One of the defining divides of the 21st Century, not just in America but around the world, might be how we approach fear. Because how we approach fear does determine how we approach community, and it does determine whether or not we, for example, welcome immigrants or fear immigrants, whether or not we welcome cultural diversity or fear cultural diversity, whether or not we tolerate and welcome sexual diversity or whether it scares us, that on so many levels fear really does become a litmus test for what kind of a world we’re willing to create and wanting to create.
Jeff Schechtman: Sasha Abramsky. Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Sasha, thanks so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Sasha Abramsky: It’s always a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from shadows (Marco / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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