Tag Archives: fear

Fear Itself

Scientific American recently published a fascinating article, titled “Why Are White Men Stockpiling Guns?” It began by reciting statistics most of us now know:

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled, while imports have doubled. This doesn’t mean more households have guns than ever before—that percentage has stayed fairly steady for decades. Rather, more guns are being stockpiled by a small number of individuals. Three percent of the population now owns half of the country’s firearms, says a recent, definitive studyfrom the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.

So, who is buying all these guns—and why?

The conventional wisdom was that gun sales to white guys spiked when a black man was elected President. The article provided a more finely-grained description of the specific “white guys” who went on that buying spree, citing several scientific studies that have concluded that “the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile.”

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisisin meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

Researchers also found pervasive anti-government sentiments among these men.

“This is interesting because these men tend to see themselves as devoted patriots, but make a distinction between the federal government and the ‘nation,’ says Froese. “On that point, I expect that many in this group see the ‘nation’ as being white.”

The entire article is fascinating. It also dovetails with the results of research into political attitudes conducted at Yale.That research built on a decade of political psychology studies that found people who feel physically threatened or fearful are more likely to be conservatives.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course).

In the research experiment, when subjects were told to Imagine being completely safe from physical harm, their attitudes changed, and their policy preferences became indistinguishable  from those of the liberals in the experiment.

This result may seem far-fetched, but it correlates with social science research that shows lower incidence of social dysfunction and crime in countries with more robust social safety nets.

FDR was onto something when he said we should fear “fear itself.”

 

 

A Summary of the Situation….

Okay….Yesterday was the last day of the Republican convention. It was without a doubt the weirdest national conclave in my lifetime.

If Trump did not pose such a threat to national security and American values, the spectacle might have been entertaining; as it is, I can’t help worrying that there might be enough anti-Other, angry, civicly-illiterate voters to put this dangerous ignoramus in office.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has one of the better summaries of the spectacle. (Marshall has also memorably defined what he calls Trump’s Razor: “Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.”) The entire article is well worth reading, but here are a few of his most trenchant observations.

The Republican party nominated a man because of his ability to dominate and denigrate opponents and summon up a plethora of demons already rumbling under the seas of Republican revanchism. The man was and is a charlatan and a grifter, the master of a Potemkin Village world rooted in narcissism and aggression which creaks and staggers under even the most measured scrutiny….

Indeed, while this conflagration was erupting in Cleveland another bomb, which Trump himself had lit earlier in the day, was going off on the pages of The New York Times. One can debate whether it is wise or sensible for the United States to guarantee the independence of small states on the periphery of Russia which had for centuries been either within the Russian domain or inside its sphere of influence. But we have. In his comments to the Times, Trump treated the matter like a real estate goon shaking down a distressed landlord to make an easy buck.

Trump’s mix of cocky ambiguity and predation could scarcely be better primed to trigger the kind of great power confrontation that could push the world from smoldering to fire. It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for the relative confidence that Trump will be defeated in November that interview alone could trigger a genuine international crisis….

On his own Trump is simply a bracing case study in abnormal psychology. But he didn’t shoot to within reach of the most powerful office in the world by happenstance. He is the product of a political and cultural breakdown on the American right, a swaggering reductio ad absurdum of every breach and breakdown and violation of extra-statutory norms we’ve seen over the last two or three decades.

Even more chilling–if possible– is the response of the Trump campaign to a supporter’s call to murder Hillary Clinton. It has gone beyond the rabid chants to “lock her up,” as staggering a deviation from democratic norms as that sentiment represents; a Trump advisor who said Clinton should be “shot for treason” is now being investigated by the Secret Service for threatening the former First Lady and Secretary of State’s life.

Any responsible campaign would immediately disavow a person making such a statement. Not this one.

In response to Baldasaro’s attack, Trump Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments.”

Again, Josh Marshall summarizes the import and context of that “wink wink” statement:

Do I think people on the Trump campaign really want to see Clinton injured or killed? No, I do not. But I do think they believe that exciting a climate of agitated grievance, militant anger and aggression helps them galvanize, gain and intensify support. On one and three they’re likely right. Just as importantly, they clearly believe that any clear denunciation of the growing chorus of angry and occasionally violent threats would demoralize and dishearten a key part of their base. Trump’s brand is dominance and submission. Provocation is his calling card. Calling a pause on their more febrile supporters would simply be off brand and would be hard to clearly differentiate in kind from the campaign-endorsed demand for her incarceration.

Just this week, David Duke reaffirmed his strong support for Trump, and once again, there has been no disavowal of that support from the campaign. Meanwhile, the ghostwriter of “Art of the Deal” described Trump as a nine-year-old with ADHD, and predicted disaster should he be elected.

My ulcer has been acting up ever since this Presidential campaign began, and I think I know why.

What Is WRONG With These People?

It’s spring! Finally!

And if a recent jaunt around the Internet is to be believed, America seems to be growing more bigots than tulips this year.

In Virginia, supporters of “religious freedom” have prevented a group of local Muslims from building a mosque, demonstrating once again that “religious freedom” bills should be labeled “Christian privilege” bills, since they sure aren’t about extending religious liberty to anyone else.

Speaking of Muslims, a student at UC Berkeley who was returning from an academic conference had the bad judgment to call his uncle on his cellphone while he was in his seat waiting for the plane to load. His uncle lives in Iraq, so he spoke to him in Arabic. This evidently was all the evidence of terrorism required by Southwest Air, which removed him from the plane and called police to interrogate him.

Then there’s Mississippi.

I’m not sure who these good “Christians” are gunning for, but according to news reports, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has signed into law something called the Church Protection Act. It allows churches to empower designated members of their congregation as part of a security team with a “shoot to kill” authority equivalent to a police officer but with less government oversight. Who Would Jesus Shoot? (What could possibly go wrong…??)

And of course, in Mississippi, North Carolina and elsewhere, there is the (to me, at least) inexplicable paranoia about bathroom use. Evidently, males are more susceptible to this condition–at least, according to a recent article in Slate:

For many men, taking a piss at the office is apparently a “nightmarish” experience. That’s one of the many fascinating things we learn in Julie Beck’s engrossing essay on the psychological minefield that is the public bathroom, published today in the Atlantic. We all know people who do their best to avoid defecating outside the privacy of home, but the fears and fantasies that Beck explores in her piece are almost Sadeian in detail—paranoia about seeing and being seen, elaborate attempts to construct sonic shields, and most of all, a deep sense that the perils of humiliation and social opprobrium waiting on the other side of the restroom door may very well outweigh the relief of relieving oneself.

If there is one thread connecting these depressingly regular eruptions of insanity, it would seem to be fear–fear of “the other”–fear of people who are perceived as different from “normal” (i.e., from “me.”) People who speak a different language, pray to a different god, love differently, pee differently…

For people who see difference as threatening and dangerous, the world must be a really scary (and uninteresting) place. I’d feel sorry for them, but the incredible stupidity of it all makes sympathy awfully hard to summon up.

I’m going to go water my tulips…..

 

The War on Secularism

Can you stand one more meditation about religion and the need for certainty ?

We talk a lot these days about fear–fear of terrorism, fear of change, fear of modernity. But when you come right down to it, the basis of all of these threats to subjective well-being is an overwhelming fear of ambiguity.

We humans evidently have a primal need for bright lines, eternal truths—for non-negotiable and non-relative Truth with a capital T.

The political danger presented by that need for certainty was obvious to the nation’s founders, who intended the Bill of Rights to prevent the “passions of the mob” from extinguishing the rights of those holding nonconforming beliefs.

The deep desire for easy answers in a complicated world explains many of the more troubling aspects of our  political environment. Consider the current “Trump phenomenon.” According to a study referenced in a recent article in the Washington Post,

Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate’s success — and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn’t confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind.

We like people who talk big.

We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t.

And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.

Much of Trump’s appeal–and the appeal of the many demagogues who preceded him–boils down to this need to simplify, to draw bright lines, to chase away the demons of ambiguity.

Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump’s support.

“People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can’t,” Hibbing said. “That’s certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating.

Much the same psychology is on display by the religious conservatives fighting for (their version of) religious rights. (Sometimes, aided and abetted by people who surely know better. Yes, Justice Scalia, I’m looking at you.)

Most of us look at Christian Americans and see people who have been highly privileged by a culture that has long been dominated by Christians. But these religious warriors see themselves under attack, not by a rival theological perspective, but by secularism.

Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn’t Islam. It’s secularism.

However one defines secularism, it represents a diminished influence of religion and religious authority—the blurring of previously “bright” lines.

Secularism terrifies people who need those bright lines, who need concrete authority to obey and whose worldviews are rendered entirely in black and white.

What terrifies me are people who fear ambiguity, who see no shades of gray, and who reject the exercise of moral autonomy.

And those people aren’t all in ISIL.

 

Be Very Afraid…

What does what we fear say about us?

A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Congressional vote to modify the extent of government snooping authorized by the Patriot Act, Timothy Egan wrote a thought-provoking column for the New York Times in which he compared Americans fear of terrorism to the far more numerous, everyday threats we face:

Some time ago, a friend of mine was hit by a bus in New York, one of almost 5,000 pedestrians killed in traffic every year. I also lost a nephew to gun violence — one of more than 11,000 Americans slain by firearms in this country. And I fell out of a tree that I was trying to prune in my backyard. I was O.K. But the guy next to me in the trauma ward was paralyzed from his fall. He was taking down his Christmas lights.

The column went on to list the odds of other misfortunes: it turns out that being struck dead by lightning, choking on a chicken bone or drowning in the bathtub are all more likely than being killed by a terrorist. Ditto deaths from cancer, diabetes, even the flu.

People who text and drive will get you before that suicide bomber does.

Consider the various threats to life. The sun, for starters. The incidence of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has doubled in the last 30 years. More than 9,000 Americans now die every year from this common cancer. I also lost a friend — 30 years old, father of two — to malignant melanoma.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death, just behind heart disease. Together, they kill more than a million people in this country, followed by respiratory diseases, accidents and strokes. Then comes Alzheimer’s, which kills 84,000 Americans a year. And yet, total federal research money on Alzheimer’s through the National Institutes of Health was $562 million last year.

To put that in perspective, we spent almost 20 times that amount — somewhere around $10 billion — on the National Security Agency, the electronic snoops who monitor everyday phone records. For the rough equivalent of funding a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s, the government has not prevented a single terrorist attack, according to a 2014 report on the telephone-gathering colossus at the N.S.A.

What is it about terrorism that so consumes our imaginations? I’d speculate that it is the random nature of terrorist attacks, but getting hit by a texting driver or coming down with a fatal disease is equally random.

Perhaps it’s tied to our persistent fear of the “other” and our tendency to fear the stranger?