Eighty-seven years ago with the country mired in the depths of the Great Depression and the warning signs of global war already on the horizon, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told his fellow Americans “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
And today, the descendants of those Americans – living in the safest world humans have ever known – find all sorts of things to fear: crime, guns, global warming, health-care costs, pollution, government, grizzly bears, a newly emergent coronavirus and more.
As the world has become safer, it is almost as if we have become more fearful. When FDR addressed the nation, the U.S. homicide rate was 9 per 100,000. It is today 5 per 100,000 and would be significantly lower if not for an epidemic of gun violence among African Americans.
But still people fear. People need fear. We are hardwired to fear.
Tens of thousands of years of evolution selected for the fearful. Fear helped keep us alive through the eons when we were little more than fur-less, thin-skinned, medium-size mammals dependent on primitive to weapons to prevent ourselves from becoming prey.
For most of that time, we lived a daily struggle. We didn’t need to look around to find things to fear. They were everywhere.
As FDR put it in that now famous fear-of-fear speech, “a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.”
The latter words are truer today than they were then. The grim problem of existence has been pushed aside for more Americans.
“After adjusting for cost-of-living differences, a typical American still earns an income that is 10 times the income received by the typical person in the world,” Guatam Nair reported in the Washington Post in 2018.
When Nair asked Americans to estimate the median global income, he found “the average U.S. resident estimated that the global median individual income is about $20,000 a year. In fact, the real answer is about a tenth of that figure: roughly $2,100 per year. Similarly, Americans typically place themselves in the top 37 percent of the world’s income distribution. However, the vast majority of U.S. residents rank comfortably in the top 10 percent.”
Even the U.S. poor – most of whom live tough lives – are better off than most of the people in the world, and strangely enough they might be less fearful despite being regularly in danger.
Fears in the mind
There are some reasons to believe that the more people have to lose, the more they fear.
“Money is the obvious thing you would expect the rich not to worry about,” Rhymer Rigby writes in Financial Times. “But actually they do. A 2017 survey by Illinois-based financial research firm Spectrem Group found 20 per cent of investors worth between $5 million and $25 million are concerned about having enough cash to last their retirement.
More than that, Rigby observes, a lot of rich people employ security they don’t really need given that they tend to live in some of the safest neighborhoods in the country.
And still they fear because that is what humans do.
Chapman University in California has done regular surveys of “America’s Top Fears.” “Wave 5” was completed in 2018. The changes in the list are as interesting as the fears.
Corrupt government officials led the way in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Corruption is no doubt a problem in government, but how many people have actually run into a corrupt official who caused them a problem personally?
Beneath this category, things shift and change.
“Terrorist attack” was number two in 2016, and “terrorism” was number four. A married couple – Syed Riswan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 29, had gone on a shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif., the fall before, leaving 14 dead and 17 wounded.
The shootings vaulted terrorism and terrorists back into the news. Both fears were gone from the list by 2017 as terrorism news faded, and they stayed off the list in 2018.
Pollution began creeping into play in 2017. “Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes” eased into third behind the “American Health Care Act/Trumpecare.” By 2018, open water pollution has moved up to number two, and number three was the pollution of drinking water.
Lead contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply had been in the news for a couple years by then, and there was a national debate raging about why nothing had been done about the problem for so long.
Much discussed global warming slipped onto the top-10 list as number seven in 2017, too, and though it fell to eighth in 2018, it was feared by more of those polled: 53.2 percent compared to 48 percent the year before.
“A striking difference between 2016 and 2017-2018 has to do with the environment,” the university concluded. “Since (Donald) Trump’s election, Americans’ are increasingly fearful of pollution, global warming and other environmental disasters. Not a single environmental concern made the top 10 list in 2016. In 2017, four of the top ten fears were related to the environment (#s 3, 4, 8 and 10). By 2018, five of the top ten fears were environmental in nature (#s 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9).”
Searching for fear
The poll organizers also made another rather startling observation. Despite a booming U.S. economy in 2018, they noted, “the extent to which Americans are afraid, in general, also appears to be on the rise.
“By 2018 all the top ten fears were held by more than half of Americans….Americans are becoming more afraid.”
The media role in all of this is unclear, but as now-suspended ABC correspondent David Wright was caught on camera observing of the coverage of President Donald Trump, “we’re interested in three things: the outrage of the day, the investigation, and the palace intrigue of who’s backstabbing whom. Beyond that, we don’t really cover the guy.”
The outrage of the day applies to a lot more than Trump. Take it from The Guardian, the largest online news site in the United Kingdom, which has blacklisted the term “climate change” in favor of “the preferred terms…’climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’….”
The publication has devoted itself to scaring people into taking action on climate change as if journalists own the crystal ball that can accurately see the future.
Some scientists have trouble with this approach.
“My view…is that one should be just as critical of those that say climate change ‘will’ be catastrophic, as those who say it will be ‘lukewarm’, or indeed say it is all a big hoax. None of these positions is scientifically sound,” Tim Palmer, a Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at the Univeristy of Oxford, told the Science Media Centre.
But outrage has become the currency of the day.
When Trump offered up his nothing-to-fear-but-fear take on the coronavirus, CNN headlined “Trump seeks a ‘miracle’ as virus fears mount,” which wasn’t quite what Trump said:
Admitting things could get worse before they get better, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
That isn’t exactly what has happened to other frightening viruses of recent times – Ebola, SARS and avian flu – but the fear surrounding them did largely disappear. Nobody worries much about SARs these days or, for that matter, avian flu.
Some Alaskans will, however, remember the avian flu panic that had wildlife biologists swabbing bird butts in a search for the virus amid fears the fowl could fly the infection into American cities and wreak havoc.
Half empty, half full
How dangerous these microscopic viruses depends to some extent on how one looks at the issue of mortality. Some medical experts are now saying the biggest danger of the coronavirus might be that is not that dangerous enough.
“The new coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan appears far less fatal, with about 2 percent of the 6,000 confirmed cases dying. For many, the illness is about as serious as a cold or flu.
“That seems like good news, but it’s exactly what worries the scientists and public health experts who study infectious disease ranging from the terrifying to the mundane.”
By the day, the worry of the scientists that a lot of people infected with the virus could roam the world unaware they are infected and thus contaminate many others is looking more valid. The coronavirus has now popped up in California and Oregon with a total of 60 cases reported in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the death rate among the 78,000 patients reported in China has risen to 3.5 percent. Given such a rate, the virus could kill hundred of thousands or even millions if it began spreading like the flu.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates between 9 million and 45 million Americans have been infected with the flu annually since 2010 with “between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths” per year.
If 9 million Americans were to be infected with the coronavirus, the death toll could reach 315,000. For 45 million cases, the number could rise to a staggering 1.6 million. On a population level, it’s frightening.
But if your doctor today diagnosed you with cancer and then told you the variation of the disease from which you are suffering has a survival rate of 96.5 percent, what would you think?
It’s an interesting question to ponder given that fear lives in our minds as do the mechanisms whereby we deal with it. Fear protects us at the same time it threatens us.