On Understanding Fear And Change

Leaders know that the difficulty of overcoming resistance to change, the inertia, the political blockages and entrenched interests in the status quo, is all altered by a crisis. Donald Trump understands this and his chilling language reflects this. During his inaugural address, Trump painted a dark dystopian picture of a United States in decline. He declared “This American carnage stops here and stops right now,” appealing to voters emotions rather than their intellect. A crisis alters this calculation. It lowers the cost of change while also making clearer the price of not changing. This fear brings people together to face an external threat, and political differences are temporarily set aside. Inertia is lessened when people understand that the status quo will not stand. The idea stands a better chance. That’s what economist Paul Romer meant when he said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and it would be a pity not to take advantage of it.

Nietzsche insists that there are no rules for human life, no absolute values, no certainties on which to rely. If truth can be achieved at all, it can come only from an individual who purposefully disregards everything that is traditionally taken to be ‘important.’ Nietzsche was obsessed with the idea that the people of his time unquestioningly assumed that pity and altruism are always ‘good,’ when in fact the truth is much more complex – value and truth were always relative to the individual doing the supposing. Nietzsche thought excessive pity could cripple the subject who felt it, and that an altruistic attitude could actually be quite destructive, if one had the hubris to assume that one actually knew what was best for another person. He went as far as to question the value of truth seeking as an activity – man manages to live only because of immense self-deception.

Nietzsche claims there are no moral facts, and there is nothing in nature that has value in itself. Rather, to speak of good or evil is to speak of human illusions, of lies according to which we find it necessary to live. He tells us “man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation.” Knobe and Leiter take the unusual step of seeing to what degree recent experimental findings in psychology support either Nietzsche or Kant. They have little difficulty in showing that Nietzsche is largely vindicated. For the most part we are not rational doers: the view that we choose our actions from a standpoint of deliberative detachment seems to be a Kantian myth. There appears to be no general accordance between our attitudes and beliefs, and our actions – in effect, we say one thing, but do another. Rather than acting for reasons, we tend to act, and invent reasons afterwards.1

In 1988, Rupert Wilkinson, who has taught at universities in America and the UK, published a fascinating book, The Pursuit of American Character. This book is a succinct explanation of the underlying forces that drive American political behavior. Like all cultures, the unique history of the US has ‘set Americans up’ in how they approach critical issues no matter what the time period in their history or the particular problems they are facing. Wilkinson identified four fears that not only have been present from the very founding of the Republic, but are so basic that they are virtually synonymous with it: (1) The Fear of Being Owned, (2) The Fear of Falling Away, (3) The Fear of Winding Down, (4) The Fear of Falling Apart. Each one of these characteristics has been in play this past election cycle in the US.2

The Fear of Being Owned historically relates to the escape from the centuries old tyranny of “evil European Kings and despots” and explains why the attacks on Obamacare is so prolonged and vicious. The government is the perceived problem rather than the big insurance companies manipulating the markets. The Fear of Falling Away is not just a vision – its America’s raison d’etre. It is the fear of losing the original holy vision of a “City on a Hill” that the Founding Fathers gave Americans. It is the vision of an America that can do no wrong because She is the font of all that is good and right with the world. The Republicans fear that in looking to the future, President Obama, and subsequently Hillary Clinton, wanted to take our communities away from America’s glorious past.

The Fear of Winding Down – is the fear that Americans will lose the unbridled and unbounded energy and optimism that made America great. This fear is also so basic that it’s wrapped up with all kinds of ideologies, e.g., capitalism. Thus, if President Obama would have only relaxed the constraints on American business, then we “could get this high-energy economy going once again.” The Fear of Falling Apart is the fear that we are tearing ourselves apart because of all our internal conflict, such as, black versus white, etc. Therefore, in contrast to the ‘weak leadership of Obama or Clinton, we need a strong leader who understands what America is really all about.’

As Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who fiercely opposed the French Revolution wrote, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Today we are vulnerable to the politics of fear. The politics of fear is when leaders (or candidates for leadership) use fear as a driving or motivating factor for the people, to get them to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. It’s banking on the fact that presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and prevent a critical assessment of these policies. As author Mark Vernon has noted “… the politics of fear plays on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with [risk]. Politics then becomes a question of who can better deliver an illusion of control.

While Republicans perpetually talk about getting tough on crime, they actually need it to get and stay in power. Pitting the lower middle class and poor against the really poor, who are simultaneously seen as responsible for and the victims of crime, is the way the economic elite divert attention away from the fact that under Republicans, there is less support for unemployment, income and social inequality – all of which lead to crime. Trump was for the little guy during the election, but once in office he surrounded himself with an economic elite who preach neoliberal doctrines which they know to be untrue in order to preserve their own social status. It’s not enough for progressives to guarantee that they won’t screw up and lose today’s hearts and minds, they must realize that we don’t learn with our concious minds alone.

We will not resolve communication challenges through appeals to so-called rational policies and thinking alone. When Clinton said Trump is dangerous, all people heard was the world is dangerous, regrettably it played into the message of chaos. Trump cultivates our sense of vulnerability. While his overall policies appear to lack a formulated objective, the cumulative impact of the politics of fear is to reinforce society’s consciousness of vulnerability. The more powerless we feel the more we are likely to be paralyzed by fear. Personhood is the way people understand and relate to each other that contributes towards possessing certain capacities, and how one relates to others. The precondition for effectively countering the politics of fear is to challenge the personhood with the state of vulnerability. The human imagination possesses a formidable capacity to engage and learn from the crisis it faces. In this process an alternate choice is defined by our capacity to be resilient, and to reject our perceived vulnerability.

Let us look at Wilkinson’s four fears through this new lens of resilience: The Fear of Being Owned – the vulnerability of democratic growth in the US thus comes not primarily from external threats or from internal subversion from the left or right, but rather from oligarchs and their proxies who substantially impact US elections. The Fear of Falling Away is the fact the ‘City on the Hill’ is no longer that beacon that everyone one the world could look to for what is right. The Fear of Winding Down deals with the increasing economic inequality between the rich and the rest of society that reduces the opportunity for everyone to reach their full potential. The Fear of Falling Apart – neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as justice is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost. It is necessary to address state violence in all its manifestations – healthcare, the education system, in addition to police – to ensure racial equality.

The Trump administration presently goes from one crisis of its own creation to another that his administration handles disastrously. Eventually he will run into a crisis that is not of his own making and based on evidence presently in front of us it is extremely difficult to be confident he will be able to handle it effectively. The potential for this creates a great deal of fear in the community. We already know the financial elite has a plan to blame Trump for the next financial crisis. Progressives must seize the opportunity and take advantage of this crisis to influence change. Now is the time to organize workers to participate in the next election. It would be a pity not to take advantage of it.

1 Rodger Cadwall. (Feb/Mar 2017) Nietzsche and Morality https://philosophynow.org/issues/70/Nietzsche_and_Morality

2 The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears (6 April 2012) https://mitroff.net/2012/04/06/the-republicans-masterful-and-insidious-prey-on-americas-founding-fears/

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