Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"We Have Nothing to Fear but..."

F. D. R. spoke to a time rich in parallels to ours.  People committed suicide in the Crash (admittedly on Hoover's watch), died in the Dustbowl and starved in the cities in the 1930s, literally fearing for both their welfare and their lives.  Then came first the prospect and then the reality of war in both Europe and the Pacific.  The Nazis had their sights on Lebensraum and that meant the Czechs, Poles, Russians, and other Eastern and then Western Europeans, as well.  But they focused particularly on the Jews, as do, quite literally, Hezbollah and Hamas.  

When we speak of racial profiling these days, we generally mean the singling out of African-Americans, but we could mean Arabs and Persians, as well.  Honestly, can you distinguish an Iranian from a Syrian on sight?  (Hint:  Arabs tend to have straighter noses, but cosmetic surgery in Iran has eliminated that difference for many Persian women, much to the displeasure of Ayatollah Khamenei, who fears such Western perversions.)  Does that inability to tell a difference worry you?  Would it make you likelier, as a law enforcement officer, to just go ahead and arrest, or at least question, both of them?  And what emotion would impel you to take that action:  fear, perhaps?

Some years ago in a class on how massage therapy makes use of psychological information, the teacher drew a very clear distinction between fear and anger, insisting that they have very different somatic sources and therefore no relation to each other.  We debated that assertion for a few minutes, a process that teacher always tended to oversee with a sort of brittle condescension.  Objections smitten by the force of superior knowledge--this is not quite the caricature it may seem, though it probably is as mean-spirited, for which I ask forgiveness but cannot quite resist including the scene, anyway--he started to move on to the next set of unsubstantiated assertions.  

I leaned to the classmate immediately to my right, an African-American I.C.U. nurse, someone who grew up in a different sub-culture than I did and might not necessarily agree on questions of how to handle emotions.  I would have the same doubts of people from almost any ethnic group other than my own, and even other subsets of Irish-Americans, as frequent readers of this blog will have suspected.  Admittedly, the foregoing debate had led me to suspect firm ground.  I looked at C. and said quietly, "When I'm angry, the first thing I try to do is ask what's frightened me."  She nodded in agreement, as much as to say, "Why is this news?"

These thoughts come to me because of the vortex of fear and anger into which the debate over health care reform has thrust us.  If "[t]ruth is the first casualty of war," it has begun to rot amid the piles of mangled lies produced in this "debate," if we dare dignify the current national screaming-match with such a label.  I have to watch my own fear and anger in this process.  I have no health insurance and a pre-existing condition.  When Sarah Palin--who we all know has plenty to fear--launched her "death panels" ICBM (maybe she borrowed one from her neighbors, the Russians), I had a very visceral response.  She has gone for me from breath of fresh air--June, '07--to "Oh, no, she's a demagogue, and a pretty good one"--the Republican Convention--to "what was McCain thinking (if anything)?"--the Gibson and especially the Couric interviews--to just plain rabble-rouser of late, not quite as good as Goebbels, but nearly as hateful.  If there is a politician I would like to see caught in an ethical net and hoisted on her own pitard, I can't think of a better candidate (and don't believe this stuff about retirement, she is a candidate).

I don't know how many of us can engage in the health-care debate dispassionately.  Members of Congress have good health insurance, but no job security past the end of their present term.  Others with good health insurance have a hard time hearing--for lack of effort?--when the President assures them they will not lose it.  Some have seen this debate as an apt time to raise the issue of the right to bear arms, and if the role of fear has emerged, I can think of  no more frightening way.  But the logic-buster for the ages:  the frightened elderly who don't want government in health care because they depend on their Medicare.  Even Republicans have felt compelled to point out to such misinformed constituents the illogic of such a canard.

I don't remember ever seeing us so frightened as a country since the race riots of 1967 and the aftermath of 9/11 eight years ago.  The inability of people to reason clearly concerns one enough, but this issue matters more than any legislation since the ill-conceived Patriot Act and the equally idiotic No Child Left Behind.  Health care reform now can affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people and give us the means to address the serious failings in our health care delivery system.  The "patriots" who insist we have the best health care should be forced to bring a near-term pregnant relative to a hospital with a significantly higher-than average infant mortality rate.  I used to live in Lynchburg, Virginia, which at the time had an alarmingly high infant mortality rate.  Friends gave birth there successfully, and one saw lots of children, but obviously somebody had reason not to feel good about their pre- and post-natal care.

What bothers me most is how lunatic some of the rhetoric and behavior has become.  It reminds me of an episode from the 2004 presidential campaign.  I worked the phones for a couple of days for the Collier County Democratic Party in East Naples, Florida.  The point was to identify Kerry voters--yes, they existed, poor outnumbered dears--and see if they planned to vote, whether they needed a ride, and whether they had any questions.  I prefer pre-election data entry and election-day canvassing to pre-election phone canvassing.  By election day people know what they intend to do, rationally or no, but campaigns spawn wacky ideas faster than Apple can build i-pods.  I called a woman who seemed to want to vote for Kerry, but felt afraid to do so.  Asked why, she said someone had told her Bush would have him assassinated if he won.  A whopper?  Sure, but Bush and Cheney worked on such fears; Palin, McConnell, Cantor and Co. see no reason not to follow suit.  

If ever we have needed Obama's message of hope, now is that time.

1 comment:

  1. I teach rhetoric. In my previous classes, students had to choose a speech to interpret over the course of the semester. What was amazing, given all of the choices of the twentieth and twenty-first century is how many times people chose a speech by FDR, especially the only thing we have to fear fill in the blank....speech.

    In 2009, people are still riveted by FDR's (and Eleanor's!) ability to calm us down as we get motivated to move forward. It is a gift, a gift earned at the school of hard knocks, FDR's polio and Eleanor's witness to an (or multiple) affairs and her constant longing to live up to her mother's approval.

    I believe that is it not overcoming fear or building up hope but strengthening our inner core through daily practice that matters. I am no example. I yearn for that core strength. In its pursuit, in daily conversation with God, I find that I am not so afraid any more. The fear remains. It always will and it lessens.

    Your post this week meandered in an engaging way and returned with admirable discipline to help me think more deeply about the role of fear in my own life. .