Trumbo to Trump, When Did America Become So Afraid?

Teenager with hands on face
Teenager with hands on face

Here's the scene setter. My living room, a glass of wine (or two), early evening, and---- I'm watching the recent film 'Trumbo' with Academy Award Nominee Brian Cranston in the lead role and about halfway through I jump up and yell, 'I can't believe it, it's just like today! They're talking about today!!!' I keep going on about it for nearly ten minutes, my wife alternately pausing and playing the film in between outbursts so she doesn't miss any dialog. 'What do you mean it's like today?' she wants to know. 'It's like today because those guys played on the public's fear of 'communism', wanted to deport 'unAmericans', black listed a bunch, wow, just like today!' 'Uh Huh', she says. She has seen me do this before. Back to the movie.

But even after the credits rolled and sleep intervened the thought just wouldn't go away. When did we, America and it's citizens, become so afraid? The current political climate is oft explained by my colleagues in the media and those running for office as a reflection of America's 'anger'. We're pissed off at Congress, the President, the government in general, Wall Street, big 'pharma', you name it 'we' don't like it very much. However, anger is often simply a mask to cover up something else. We're afraid.

We're afraid that immigrants will take 'our' jobs. We're afraid that refugees will hide in their midst gangs of terrorists that will kill us in our beds or worse yet our malls. We're afraid the Russians are becoming too aggressive, we're afraid ISIS will take over the Middle East, we're afraid our economy will be sucked into a black hole, and frankly, we're afraid that a lot of this won't make any difference because the oceans are rising so fast that Kansas will soon be beach front. (Note to self, buy something in Topeka). Where did all this fear come from?

I've asked around and the answers are numerous. 9/11 is a leader in our unscientific poll (we used the same guy that Donald Trump wants fired from the WSJ) but it's not the only answer we received. Various other terrorist attacks, school shootings, the financial crisis, Monica Lewinsky, Watergate, Vietnam (only because we lost) all made the list. So did Julian Assange, the JFK assassination, and some guy in the locker room at the gym claims it got 'weird' in the U.S. when Richard Nixon had a CIA woman killed because she 'knew too much'. Actually I think the real answer is very close to what that guy in the too small towel just said. But it's not because 'she knew to much' it's because Americans in general know too little. Ignorance is the scariest thing of all. And who is to blame for this general American brand of ignorance? High School football coaches.

Okay, probably unfair to limit it just to football, but I will say that high school coaches in general are to blame. Why? Because they're the ones that, at least in my limited high school experience, were supposed to teach civics. Sure, some of them taught advanced Algebra (my defensive line coach for example) and others less strenuous disciplines like hygiene, but a lot of them seem to be tasked, or use to be, with teaching civics. You remember civics, '...the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, its rights and duties...'. In other words how the government works, how we can participate, how things get done. And in this day and age, how that government works in relationship to other governments in the world. Too many of us skipped civics.

But a lack of civic knowledge isn't the only culprit here, nor are coaches the only enablers. A lack of knowledge of how countries around the world interrelate both politically and economically is also at the heart of much of our collective 'fear'. The fragility of the American psyche can be in large measure laid at the feet of another fearful group--journalists. We simply do not get all the information we, the citizens, need to make intelligent choices and decisions, assuming that's what we want to do. We don't get it for a number of reasons, chief among them, the journalists themselves took, or skipped, the same civics class you did, or it is simply deemed 'uninteresting'. And if you write or broadcast something that is 'uninteresting' you fear losing your job. What is a Sunni, what is a Shia? How do 'super delegates' really work? If more people vote for one person over another in America, don't they win? Ask President Gore.

The point of all this (yes there is one) is that we, you and I, all of us, bear the responsibility of knowing and understanding what is going on--in our communities, our states, our nation and the world. If Joe McCarthy chairs something called the House Un-American Activities Committee we need to find out what that means and we need to figure out if we really need to 'fear' communists and communism. Democracy IS a better concept than communism, let's duke it out in the ring of ideas, not in the black lists of unidentified accusers. Yes illegal immigration is a problem, but let's discuss it as Americans do with an eye towards solutions not towards demonizing individuals and groups. Of course the economy could do better, yes, there is inequality in the system, no doubt racism still exists, and as sure as I'm sitting here in my canoe the climate is in trouble. But rather than turn to fear can we not turn to positive action? Rather than accept the pablum that is handed out by every politician can we not expect more from those that are asking the questions? Push them till you get an answer and if you get only ONE real answer then it will be better than what we're getting now. And then push the politicians.

Do all this from a position of strength, a positive, unafraid, place, as citizens. Be engaged, be smart, indulge yourself in critical thinking. Take nothing at face value and care enough to get the answers. Maybe not the answer you 'want' but THE answer none the less. Don't fear the truth embrace it. Remember don't elect someone based on what they say, but on what they mean. And based on whether or not they can actually do it. It is an awesome responsibility this democracy thing, one that should be fulfilled and taken on with all the effort and enthusiasm that you can muster. The only thing to fear is that we won't do it.