Freedom to Fear

Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, from 1995, was the first PG-13 movie I ever saw.  I employ the word “saw” loosely, because it took all of ten minutes for me to run screaming from the theater and into an adjacent one showing Pocahontas instead.

It says quite a bit about the state of American culture that, upon the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic iteration of the Batman saga—universally regarded as the darkest treatment of any superhero franchise to date—the Schumacher and Tim Burton-directed series from the 1990s is now looked upon as camp.

It was only one generation prior, after all, that the likes of Batman Forever and Batman Returns were, themselves, considered too dark and scary for their own good and the Adam West production from 1966 was the gold standard for harmless, family-friendly rompery.  Are we but a decade away from a time when Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy will be insufficiently moody for the audience of the day?

It would appear, in short, that the goalposts for what constitutes fearsomeness in American life have steadily moved down the field.  Folks don’t scare as easily or as often as they used to—younger folks in particular, who are said to be “desensitized” to practically everything.  In the frightening, dangerous world we inhabit, this is a welcome development, right?

Poppycock.

If I may channel my inner Michael Douglas:  Fear is good.  Fear is right.  Fear works.

In this presidential election year, fear is indispensable.

From the beginning, politicians have had a close, complicated and often fruitful relationship with fear—that is, in conjuring it in the mind of the public, often for selfish, cynical and shameful ends.  Particularly since the advent of television, the most successful candidates for office have been the ones most adept at scaring the bejesus out of large chunks of citizens, harnessing anxieties already percolating through the populace and milking them through arresting, memorable images.

In 1964, with the Cold War simmering, President Lyndon Johnson capitalized on his opponent Barry Goldwater’s rather strident attitude toward nuclear exchange with a TV spot, known as “Daisy,” in which a little girl’s innocent frolicking is interrupted by a mushroom cloud, followed by Johnson’s voice intoning, “These are the stakes.”  That Lyndon, always the master of subtlety.

Similarly, the Bush-Cheney team in 2004 made good on the American people’s heebie-jeebies about terrorism by implying that only President Bush, and not John Kerry, possessed the wherewithal to keep the country safe from evildoers.  Their own TV advertisements evoked wolves out in the wilderness, biding their time, preparing to strike.

By no means was terrorism not a real concern in 2004, just as the threat of thermonuclear war has never fully vanished from the earth, even as the Soviet Union has.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was wrong when he proclaimed there is nothing to fear except fear:  The prospect of losing one’s job, home or life savings—the great menace of FDR’s time and ours today—is enough to spook even the most stoic of creatures.  Why shouldn’t it?

The responsibility of the public—you and me and everyone we know—is to discriminate the real terrors from the nonsense.  To understand that objects of fear, unlike men, are not created equal.  To recognize when you are being played by politicians who hope you are not savvy enough to do so.

That’s why I say that fear is a useful thing to have:  You need to know it when you see it.  My worry about desensitization is that it hampers that very ability to distinguish the false from the genuine.  To fear nothing is to fear everything, and the threat of a rapidly-depreciating dollar suddenly carries no more (or less) weight than the threat of death panels or imposition of Sharia law.

Degree matters.  The fact that some claims about global warming have proved incorrect, for instance, does not axiomatically make the entire global warming phenomenon a gigantic hoax, much as certain pols insist to the contrary.  Convenient as it might be to reside in a world of black and white, we are instead cursed with the nuances of color, and must think and act accordingly.

It might feel like the 2012 election has been going on forever, but it will be in a month or so, once the conventions have come and gone, when the real fun begins—when the truly off-the-wall accusations will fly from all corners and we will all be walking around with clothespins on our noses to protect us from the stench of All-American horse poo.

Prepare thyselves now.  Be afraid of being made to be afraid, but do not fear fear.  It may well prove a crucial ally in the search for truth amidst the carnage of lies, and an excellent motivating force in eradicating the true ills of the world.

“Keep calm and carry on,” goes the famous British command.  Just bear in mind that, when the Caped Crusader proves a touch too hot to handle, there is no shame in keeping company with a Disney princess and her magical talking tree.

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