We have nothing to fear but the absence of something to fear

I don’t respond to other people’s blogs often, but a post by Matt Haughey got me thinking. He begins When I was a kid, the future was filled with optimism. The year 2000 was 10-20 years away and it was this magical goal we were working towards.

I have a very different recollection of the 80s. After a decade of an unwanted war, domestic malaise, and the hostage crisis, we had an apocalyptic president, with his finger on the button of a nuclear arsenal that could wipe out human civilization. I didn’t see any way out of Mutually Assured Destruction except through it. The Reagan era gave us punk rock and a depth of nihilism I don’t think American culture had seen before.

The implosion of the Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the hanging of Nicolae CeauÅŸescu marked the end of that era. It was the 90s that was the era of optimism, at least for me. The economy was going like gangbusters, we had an intelligent and competent Democrat in the White House, and most importantly, we were not on the verge of blowing ourselves up. The millennium was near, and I approached it optimistically (many, of course, did not).

That spirit ended on 9/11, of course. And as I’ve lived long enough to have a chance to watch some history happen, I wonder if this country doesn’t have a hunger for bogeymen. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which had served in that role so reliably for so long, it was clear that the country was hunting for a new one. Oh, we had (and still have) the War on Drugs, and Clinton himself became the target for much of the country’s paranoia and loathing (remember Whitewater? Vince Foster? Travelgate?). But these were poor substitutes for the menace of International Communism, and I think everyone knew it and at some level was waiting around for something better to get worked up about. We have found a truly worthy successor in International Terrorism: the threat has been played up and used to justify government malfeasance to an extent not seen since the 50s, if ever. Not because of the gravity of the threat (which cannot seriously be held comparable to MAD, though whether MAD itself was a legitimate doctrine is another question), simply because of our own need for something to fear. Part of this may be genuinely wrapped up in the national mood. Part of this may be cynical business manipulation, after all, Rule of Acquisition #34 states War is good for business. I don’t know how much to attribute to which.

1 thought on “We have nothing to fear but the absence of something to fear”

  1. I concur with your assessment of the two decades, but to be fair, he did say “10-20” years away (including at least 1989 and 1990), and didn’t specifically refer to the 1980s. Maybe he just didn’t check his math?

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