I am always amused when Staters describe our citizenry as “people of faith” — in part because faith, per the Good Book, is supposed to overcome fear. Judging Staters on their responses to fearful situations or on acts indicative of their faith in themselves and the American Way to overcome doesn’t always suggest a people of confidence — more a community of doubt.
Looking back at our history, we can see that we have often been motivated by fear and that this has shaped the choices we’ve made — even as we see ourselves as a proud, powerful nation. Ours is a superpower that acts repeatedly in panic and alarm. One could argue that we are the perfect foil for terrorism; it’s almost Pavlovian the way our country behaves in the face of the pettiest of threats at times (much less when the situation warrants true concern). We don’t even seem to recognize the disconnect between the ways we act and the words we use to describe ourselves either. We may swear that these colors don’t run, but they don’t hesitate to pass discriminatory laws or voluntarily surrender our rights in a panic just the same.
The Ebola epidemic, which has dominated headlines in the US for months and for which Congress recently appropriated $5.4 billion to fight after it claimed the life of one citizen, is the most recent example (and don’t kid yourself that Staters were eager to drop that kind of coin out of pure humanitarianism) — but it’s probably not the most egregious act. Certainly, we’ve spent far more of our tax money on and expanded governmental powers to combat other threats before. Robert Wiebe brilliantly described how the Progressives, driven by fear of immigrants, the poor, and those of other races (in combination with social and economic upheavals), created new mechanisms of control in the early 20th century in response to their anxieties about the disorder around them. I think it wrong to see this exclusively as a Progressive trait or a temporary abnormality in outlook. I think it American — though I’m not sure we are exceptional in this.
As a writing project for this year, I’m going to dedicate my blog posts to recounting some of the stories of how we have responded to and acted out of fear in the past. Each month, I’m going to cover another example from our history that illustrates the effects of our fright and the things dread has prodded us to do. Hopefully, these stories will be illustrative as much as embarrassing and entertaining. Truthfully, there has been a boldness to our fearful acts at times, and we hardly seem to fear what our fears make us. In that, perhaps a sense of consciousness is the least we fear and the most interesting thing about American anxiety.