Search the Site

Fear Itself

As a creative response to last night’s State of the Union Address, the N.Y. Times OpEd page today prints the lyrics to a recent Randy Newman song, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” If you are thinking of satire along the lines of Newman’s “Short People,” you are mostly wrong. The lyrics are mostly in earnest, with Newman noting that compared to most empires in history, the U.S. is remarkably decent. (He does note, however, that our run as empire is approaching its end.)

The most interesting stanza to me is one that echoes something that we’ve written about again and again — the fact that fear is such a powerful, reliable motivator, and that when presented by politicians, marketers, doctors, or whomever, the emotional response almost inevitably overwhelms the logical response of the average person. Here’s Newman’s take on fear:

A president once said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color coded

Hear hear. Although last night’s State of the Union Address invoked fear less often than in previous years, it was still striking to me how common it has become, especially in politics, to try to scare the crap out of the electorate whether the issue is war, energy, health care, the global economy, gay marriage — and, especially, political elections themselves. (Witness the recent news/rumor/smear that Barack Obama attended a madrasa as a child.)

Wouldn’t it be interesting if fear itself were banished from Washington for a year? What sort of rhetorical — or, better yet, logical — measures might our legislators be forced to employ if they couldn’t rely on fearmongering?