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Fear in America

Fear Dominates Politics, Media and Human Existence in America—And It’s Getting Worse

Today, AlterNet launches a series of articles and investigations on fear, and how to combat it.

Photo Credit: Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Fear is the mind-killer” – Frank Herbert, Dune

People cannot think clearly when they are afraid. As numerous studies have shown, fear is the enemy of reason. It distorts emotions and perceptions, and often leads to poor decisions. For people who have suffered trauma, fear messages can sometimes trigger uncontrollable flight-or-fight responses with dangerous ramifications.

Yet over time, many interlocking aspects of our society have become increasingly sophisticated at communicating messages and information that produce fear responses. Advertising, political ads, news coverage and social media all send the constant message that people should be afraid—very afraid.

In addition, television and film are filled with extreme violence and millions of fictional deaths, far out of proportion to what happens in real life, as researchers have pointed out. And more recently, we have witnessed the massive militarization of local police departments with equipment, gear and attitudes that treat citizens as if they were terrorists, as recently evidenced by events in Ferguson, Missouri. Many militarized police raids have gone wrong and taken the lives of hundreds, while police violence against often unarmed people results in unnecessary deaths and injuries every day. All this, despite statistics indicating that in most parts of the country, the crime rate is actually on the decline.

Fear is so pervasive that experts have made the case we live in a generalized “culture of fear,” also the name of a book by Barry Glassner which underscores the fact that we often fear the wrong things, and incredibly out of proportion to reality. Statistics show you have a much higher chance of being killed by lightning than by a terrorist. 

New Series Commitment by AlterNet

We at AlterNet feel our society is overrun with a destructive and growing social preoccupation with fear. This fear factor breeds more violence, mental illness and trauma, social disintegration, job failure, loss of workers’ rights, and much more. Pervasive fear ultimately paves the way for an accelerating authoritarian society with increased police power, legally codified oppression, invasion of privacy, social controls, social anxiety and PTSD.

Over the next few months we will be looking at most aspects of society through a “fear lens,” examining how fear operates, what motivates the purveyors, and how we can better challenge the fearmongers. At the same time, we will work to figure out and help people better cope with fear issues, hoping that more people can join together and build more supportive communities. 

Visit our new Fear in America coverage area that will have articles added to it over the coming days and weeks ahead. 

We are also hyperaware of how some in society scapegoat others for problems they face, encouraged by conservative media such as Fox News, the New York Post, and increasingly, the Wall Street Journal—all owned by Rupert Murdoch. Immigrants, for example, are blamed for numerous social ills, and certainly the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families live in fear every day. But poor people of all stripes face discrimination, and racism, whether overt or covert, makes life far more dangerous for people of color than for whites.

Massive Vulnerabilities

Financial Insecurity

In the context of pervasive fear, large portions of the population are extremely vulnerable to fear-based messaging in simply coping with their day-to-day lives. There are many examples of the vulnerable among us, and the numbers are huge, though difficult to assess, since there is likely so much overlap. Here are a few examples, beginning with those who are especially vulnerable due to widespread financial insecurity.

Nearly half (43.9 percent) of U.S. households live on the edge of financial collapse with almost no savings to fall back on in the event of a job loss, health crisis or other income-eliminating emergency, according to a report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED).

Things are as bad or worse for those in retirement or on the brink. In December 2014, 42.9 million people received Social Security retirement benefits that averaged $1,328.58 a month, or roughly $15,943 annually before taxes. One third, or 14.3 million people, derive almost all of their income this way. For most of the other two-thirds, Social Security provides over half their income. That means more than 20 million additional people live on less than $32,000 a year. These figures are averages and don’t reflect racial differences. For example, for every $1 white families have in savings, African Americans have just 5 cents and Latinos have 6 cents.

Among those preparing for their non-working old age, more than 38 million households (45 percent) do not own any retirement account assets, according to a detailed analysis of Federal Reserve figures.

In terms of general poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that “45.3 million people lived at or below the poverty line in 2013 ($11,888 for one person) for the third consecutive year.” Looking at this population broken up by race, blacks account for 27 percent; Latinos 23.5 percent; Asians 10.5 percent; and whites and others make up the rest.

Mental Illness and Anxiety

The level of mental illness in America, while controversial depending on how it is assessed, is highly significant. Newsweek estimates that nearly 20 percent of Americans suffer from mental illness in a given year. The number of adults and children on drugs to treat mental issues is more easily verified, and those numbers are extraordinary.

One in five U.S. adults takes drugs to treat some type of mental health condition. There was a 22
 percent increase in the number of American adults taking mental health drugs from 2001 to 2010. There was a 29 percent increase in the number of women using antidepressants in the same time period.

Anxiety, which is the most fear-based of mental problems, is especially pervasive. According to the Anxiety Center, an astonishing 40 million people in the U.S. will be impaired in some way as a direct result of an anxiety-related condition. Of those, just 10 percent will be treated in a way that meets their needs. What’s more, “those who experience anxiety and stress have a very high propensity for drug abuse and addictions.”

Alcoholism also has a devastating impact on millions of Americans. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as of 2012, nearly 17 million people 18 and older in the U.S., or 7.2 percent of adults, suffered from an “alcohol-use disorder.” Broken down by sex, that’s 11.2 million men (9.9 percent of men age 18 and older) and 5.7 million women (4.6 percent of women 18 and older). Of those in need, a mere 8.4 percent received treatment at a specialty addiction care facility.

AlterNet’s ongoing series will uncover numerous other examples of vulnerable populations. These include returning combat veterans and their families, people who suffered abuse while growing up, victims of domestic violence and bullying—now well documented as widespread across America—and anyone involved in the U.S. criminal justice system, which today houses more than 2 million people.

What We Are Up Against

Politically, socially and emotionally, fear is arguably the most powerful potent force in society. Fear is primal, and in some ways, a critical part of our lives that is necessary for survival. But it’s much more present in some lives than in others. 

At any given moment in the U.S., there are a multitude of things we might be afraid of: terrorist attacks, Ebola, gun violence, food poisoning, drug fear campaigns, climate change, and the pervasive fear of the "other"— immigrants, people of color, etc. Yet the consciousness of fear about these and many other topics often has almost no relationship with actual threat levels.

As AlterNet’s drug editor Phillip Smith writes, “[W]e define panics into existence. For a phenomenon to become a social problem, someone…has to define it as a problem and then convince others that it is one.”

In America, with Fox News and conservative rhetoric, there is no end to the people and messages defining things as frightening. Smith adds that, “every social problem needs to have deviant groups or individuals—people who aren’t 'like us'—but who are the problem and should be feared.”

Arguably, fear as a factor has been growing in America since 9/11, which was obviously traumatic for many Americans. Instead of being treated as a criminal act by a small group of suicide killers, it produced a massively forceful reaction, including two wars. Response to 9/11 provoked a wave of fear, repression and doomsday preparation that continues to escalate to this day. The new evil on the horizon is ISIS, the media-savvy beheaders who have garnered unbelievable amounts of news coverage. The result, no doubt, will be the spawning of untold new ways of intruding on American life and individual rights.

The security state’s sole raison de d'être is to instill fear in the populace to control behavior and collect information. The security state mind is by nature suggestible, paranoid and capable of creating fearful situations out of propaganda and mis- and disinformation.

The reality is that Americans are endlessly bombarded with media messages that are fearful and deceitful. Almost daily, we are urged to fear exaggerated or fake threats. This unstinting hysteria affects our politics and policies. And going deeper, this media onslaught literally shapes how our brains work and what people believe.

And so, beginning this week, AlterNet will publish a diverse series of articles and investigations into the harsh reality of fear in America. We will learn about some of the most hysterical moral panics in media history; explore how 9/11 continues to shape our present and our future; and understand why people fear government more than corporations. Perhaps most importantly, we’ll undertake the hardest part: offering prescriptions for how to get and stay healthy and how to resist the addictive qualities of the onslaught of fear.

Visit our new Fear in America coverage area that will have articles added to it over the coming days and weeks ahead. 

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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