America the Fearful

My dad in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Oregon, c.1937

W.J. Astore

America.  Land of the free, home of the brave.  Right?  Peter Van Buren, who spent a career at the State Department, has a great new article at that highlights the way in which America has changed since the 9/11 attacks.  In sum: too many wars, too much security and surveillance, and far too much fear.  One passage in Van Buren’s article especially resonated with me:

Her [Van Buren’s daughter] adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that’s too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.

Van Buren’s reference to Depression-era kids: Well, that was my dad. Born in 1917, he endured the Great Depression in a fatherless family. He really wasn’t certain where his next meal was coming from. Decades later, he still saved everything: plastic bags, twist ties, newspapers, old vacuums and toasters and other appliances (good for spare parts!), scrap wood, and so on. He wasn’t a hoarder per se; he just couldn’t throw away something that he might need if the times grew grim again.

My Dad would cook and eat broccoli rabe greens, then drink the green juice from the cooking. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he’d say.  When he ate corn on the cob, there was nothing left on the cob when he was through. He stripped it bare like those crows I watched as a kid on Saturday morning cartoons.

He came of age in a time of want and later served in an armored division in World War II. My dad’s generation knew, like FDR knew, that the only thing they truly had to fear was fear itself. He became hardened to it, but the Depression indelibly marked him as well.

How is today’s generation being marked?  Compared to the Great Depression, these are times of plenty.  Few Americans are starving.  The new normal for this generation is living in fear. Being surrounded by security guards and surveillance devices. Being immersed in celebrations of “patriotism” that involve steroidal flags and deadly military weaponry. Hearing about distant wars fought largely by the children of the working classes.

Looking overseas, they see an American foreign policy defined by perpetual war and an economy driven by perpetual weapons sales. Domestically, they see penury for social programs and profligacy for the national security state.

Is it any wonder that so many millennials seem detached or disenchanted or even defeated? They sense that America has changed, that the focus has shifted, that the American dream has darkened, that America the home of the brave has become the land of the fearful.

Fear is the mind-killer, to cite Frank Herbert.  My father’s generation knew this and overcame it.  Yet today our leaders and the media seek to generate and exploit fear. America has turned to the Dark Side, giving in to anger, fear, aggression.  Just look at our two major party candidates for the presidency.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

6 thoughts on “America the Fearful

  1. Yes!. So true how we are shaped by our Times– Mine The Cold War, and Civil Defense Drills. Hiding under our Desks at Grade School during that Shaky week in JFK’s. Missiles of Oct. then the awful Afternoon being sent home as the Sixties dawned in Nov. of 63, but back to our tiny Desks as if they’d shield us from an Atomic blast and its associated radiation. Then the Vietnam War!. On the Nightly News Stream every nite… Then the other Nite My Daughter who had to Move back Home due to our Economy, and the limited Job Options, for Millennials. Even for her as a College Graduate that’s even been to China (on an Internship), and lived on the West Coast as well. But, I digress. We were watching the latest Terrorist Attack over the Weekend, and we both almost Laughed at the Terrorists. I quipped that can’t even shoot straight, placing the bomb so in hindsight thankfully next to a dimpsy dumpster to take most of the blast, and the hapless “Shoebomber” also of not that long ago… The new Normal Indeed!.


    1. Yes, of course. I was riffing on the “All in the Family” song, which has the line, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.”


  2. The late Gore Vidal did have a point when he called Americans “among the most easily frightened people on earth.” Not that some Americans don’t suffer real anxieties, such as homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, police abuse and/or lack of an economic future. Nevertheless, those legitimate fears go unrecognized and unaddressed by America’s corporate-owned political “elites,” largely because of that strange sense of resignation with which Americans accept, almost as a patriotic duty, their own exploitation. Much like my own coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I see an America today not so much fearful of finding a Communist/Terrorist (or a “pinko/liberal” Democrat) hiding under their beds or in their closets, but an America — now as then — only too willing to do as ordered, whether in military uniform or (mostly) otherwise. Not so much America the Fearful (busy watching fantasy TV soap operas and binge-shopping on maxed-out credit cards) but:

    America the Dutiful

    In the Land of the Fleeced and the Home of the Slave
    Where the cowed and the buffaloed moan
    Where seldom we find an inquisitive mind
    And the people pay up with a groan

    While at home on the range when the firing begins
    Not a word of encouragement sounds
    The temp workers leave for their other day jobs
    And the cops and the guards make their rounds

    When the rich ones start wars that the poor have to fight
    And the chickenhawks glare as they cluck
    The recruiters hold raffles and promise the moon
    In the neighborhoods down on their luck

    Where the clouds hang around for the length of the day
    Casting shadows and fear all around
    A lost mother grieves and starts haunting the land
    Having just laid her son in the ground

    As the war against someone somewhere at some time
    Never quite seems to end or conclude
    War itself becomes reason for having this war
    Leaving no room for thought to intrude

    Unreported out west by vacationing scribes
    Seeking rest from Access Mentalpause
    The tombstones in Aspen turn up all at once
    Having roots that connect with their cause

    Now the Fig Leaf Contingent has answered the call
    From a time long ago it’s returned
    Once again to buy time for the guilty to mime
    More excuses for lives that they’ve burned

    So the dead really died so that more dead can die
    Goes the “logic” that once more holds sway
    Understanding, the Fig Leaf Contingent steps up,
    Packs its gear and then marches away

    Late at night out on runway strips hidden and dark
    Where the citizens can’t see what shocks
    The Contingent comes “home” one-by-one, all alone,
    In a wheelchair or flag-covered box

    So the long-promised “victory” ever recedes
    As the Fig Leaf Contingent fights on
    Keeping faith with the faithless who’ve ordered its doom
    Like a poorly schooled chess player’s pawn

    In the dutiful land of the fruitcakes and nuts
    Where the sun shines between the two seas
    The hills in their lavender majesty stand
    Unaffected by men’s howling pleas

    For to go with no reason where no purpose calls
    Leads to nothing but more of the same
    Till the Fig Leaf Contingent’s utility fails
    To deflect any more of the blame

    And since something was lost surely someone has failed
    Only whom could those proud persons be?
    Not the chickenhawks glaring and clucking for war!
    Not the neo-new, know-nothing “we”!

    As the first mate harpooner admonished his crew
    In the mad Captain Ahab’s vast tale
    He would not have along for a ride in his boat
    Any man not afraid of a whale

    For the ocean is great and my ship is so small
    And the winds blow beyond all command
    Only fools and the drowned ever this truth forget
    Which is why they should stay on dry land

    But the day-trippers out for a float on the pond
    Seldom think of the perilous shoals
    So they send off the Fig Leaf Contingent to fight
    Absent only some well-defined goals

    Thus they played on TV what in real life demands
    More than Hobbits, and Wizards, and Elves
    And they taught us our duty much better by far
    Than they put into practice themselves

    So we’ve come back again from our exile abroad
    With our tattered ranks bitter and sore
    Having done what our Maximum Leader would not
    All of that and a hundred times more

    We are here `cause we’re here `cause we’re here `cause we’re here
    And for no other reason on earth
    But for us in the Fig Leaf Contingent, we know
    What our duty and honor are worth

    So we will not abandon to memory’s hole
    Those we loved and who loved us in turn
    Still we go to our graveyards secure in our trust
    That America never will learn

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2005

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