'All Fears Are Not Created Equal'

Several days ago I quoted a letter from a former airline official in Minnesota to his senator, Amy Klobuchar, asking her to support a less fear-based overall approach to the ongoing threat of terrorism. It began with a paraphrase of FDR's famous quote from his first inaugural address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." You can hear the words from FDR himself starting at about time 2:45 of this YouTube clip:



The rest of that sentence is less often quoted but well worth noting. FDR said, with emphasis added: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Reader Edward Goldstick of Massachusetts writes to apply the logic of FDR's message, provoked by the Great Depression, to today's circumstances, and especially to the difficulty of separating the varied components that together can create public "fear":

>>All fears are not created equal...

There is the fear of the things that we cannot influence in our lives... and there is a fear of the things we can.

There is the fear of another's intentions... and then there is the fear of our own instincts... and they are not the same.

There is the fear of that which is different... and then there is the fear that we don't live up to our own expectations.

There is the fear of being backed into a corner... and then there is the fear of opportunities lost... and they are not the same.

I could go on and on... but I reread the other three FDR inaugurals [1937, 1941, 1945] and then read Obama's again... and the strangest thing is that our current President was essentially forced by circumstance to express himself against both [or all] types of fear in the same discourse, something that FDR avoided, whether consciously or simply due to the differences in the moments that he and the country faced when he was standing before it on those cold winter days.

Might it simply be that Mr. Obama took the courageous and perhaps foolhardy step of trying to point to the dictums from 1933 and 1941 as the foundation of his program when, in fact, these two perspectives are mutually incompatible?

Maybe I am simply too abstract or philosophical in these matters... but I really do believe that we as a nation and as individuals need to see this distinction clearly when we talk about fear.<<

Comparisons among the FDR speeches truly are instructive. The first was, of course, all about the fear of economic ruin; the third -- pre-Pearl Harbor, but in the midst of full-blown European and Asian war -- was about fear for America and the world of all-out combat. It began:

>>On each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States.

In Washington's day the task of the people was to create and weld together a nation.

In Lincoln's day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation from disruption from within.

In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its institutions from disruption from without.<<

As Goldstick points out, political leaders, starting with Obama, now need to deal with a huge grabbag of fears, including many whose solutions lead in contradictory directions. Fear of another terrorist attack (it could happen at any moment). Fear of personal economic ruin (the pink slip tomorrow, the foreclosure notice next month). Fear of "China," as a proxy for worries about long-term national decline (will we be leaders in the next wave of industries? Will our kids have a fair chance?). Fear of "China" as a specific contender for international influence and values (their navy is weak today, but tomorrow?) Fear of spies, surveillance, and electronic trickery (what does Google know about me? Or Facebook? Or NSA? Or the Chinese spies?). Fear of Fox News -- or of the "liberal media." Fear of what is becoming of American culture (choose your favorite concern). Fear of whichever disease or disability is the subject of our own individual nightmares. 

Every one of those fears, plus others, gets mixed together in the politically all-important measure of whether people think that America is on the "right track" or headed in the wrong direction. Even in the best circumstances, a government can deal with only a few of them. The political exasperation of the moment reflects -- well, as Tom Clancy put it, the sum of all fears. For purely electoral purposes, there's no reason to try to separate them: anything that makes people anxious and unhappy can be used. But for trying to solve the problems -- for making real progress, for effective self-government, for showing how a democratic system can address the major public concerns -- it would help to try to recognize the differences. That's not an answer, but it's a start.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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