Wake-Up Call to the Scared Bunnies

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A MarketWatch story this summer let us in on why millennials stash so little cash in 401(k) accounts. Like, given climate change, what’s the point? “The weather systems are already off,” a woman named Lori Rodriguez told a MarketWatch reporter, “and I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to be a little apocalyptic.”

A few days later, a New York Times writer lamented his personal contribution to the apocalypse. A brief family trip to Miami during the winter had—so his “online carbon calculator” revealed—run up an environmental tab totaling “about 90 square feet of Arctic ice, an area about the size of a pickup truck.” The horror, the horror!

These attitudes and their origin are the subjects of Frank Furedi’s book, How Fear Works. Furedi’s work helps to explain what a race of scared little bunny rabbits we’re turning into, our younger folk more than anyone else.

Comparatively little of what Furedi, a sociologist drawn almost morbidly, you might say, to the study of fear, shows concerning our fearful society is likely to stun us: the constant uncertainties of modern life, constantly outlined in the media; the growing demand for “safe spaces,” wherein to hide from reality; pats on the head for the anxious and fretful; safety valued above human liberty. At that, his materials and meditations are such as to chill readers desiring to know what’s behind this fear, and where the trend is going. It’s really…well, scary.

The climate of fear to which the Hungarian-born Furedi, an emeritus professor at the University of Kent, points us is not of great antiquity—maybe 40 years old or so. Nevertheless, its parentage is the then-new psychology of the early 20th century, which began dissevering us from ancient wisdoms, norms, and values. He writes:

Previous rules of feeling, which provided people with religious or philosophical guidelines about how and what to fear, helped endow the experience with meaning. The new psychologically informed rules of fear that emerged in the interwar era treated this emotion as a threat to people’s wellbeing. The imperative of quarantining people from this toxic emotion was soon to become a matter of public health.

Oddly enough, in that ancient courage had been a well-embedded virtue, faithfully propagated by parents who understood that the uncertainties of life were best scaled and overcome by facing them, rather than retreating. The virtue of human responsibility has gone into hiding—trembling all the while, no doubt. We’re not supposed to take action. We’re handicapped by nature or birth. More powerful, influential folk, accordingly, must tuck us in and provide warm milk. “[I]t is assumed,” writes Furedi, “that fearfulness is our normal state.”

That assertion is a large one: not so large, nevertheless, as the reality to which it points. Furedi, if not in so many words, invites us to consider life, if you call it that, in a nation of shrinking violets: people so distracted by reality that they can’t take fun trips any more without shame or guilt. This business of constant anxiety isn’t normal. Abnormal circumstances pose dangers and challenges previously unthought of.

People look at life through a perspective of fear, especially the young, who have come to what we formerly called maturity under today’s new dispensation. They see fear as their normal state. Accordingly they shrink from “risky” behavior. “The theme of human fragility dominates popular culture,” Furedi writes. You can see at once why a society such as this one would probably, 200 years ago, have huddled on the Eastern seaboard under the protection of a British army it would have been loath to dismiss from our affairs, never mind the promptings of John Adams and Ben Franklin.

That’s assuming they would have crossed the Atlantic in the first place. Indians! Cold! Hunger! Some inducements, these, to take a long sea voyage to a land wholly lacking in Holiday Inns and McDonald’s franchises!

Furedi takes as a matter of fact that formerly ordinary, and not world-shakingly venturesome, acts are increasingly out of fashion. Having babies, for instance. Too many babies spoil the planet! That apprehension dates back to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and other deceits of the ‘70s. Abortion, under these circumstances, seems logical and necessary, moral considerations to the side.

However, moral considerations aren’t what they used to be. Safety, Furedi writes, is now the paramount moral value and way of life. This new value system is:

rarely explained through a moral language that pertains to ideals about right and wrong or good and evil. Instead it is communicated in instrumental terms as a series of practical tips.… [T]he real driver of the deification of safety is the aspiration to achieve a harm-free world.

And so, in the end, we throw overboard much of what made America, if not the whole West, a distinct culture: our passion for freedom and the rule of law. Free speech, being risky, inasmuch as speech can hurt tender feelings, has to drop down the scale of essentials. Protection is what counts. Guess what anti-democratic strongmen always offer: protection.

It would not be safe—one may freely borrow such a porous term—to say the game is up. Furedi, for all his capacity to frighten, doesn’t make that claim. He talks, not without hope, of engaging, somehow or the other, people’s idealism and their “aspiration for hope.” Not that he views it as his task to prescribe the means of engagement. Not that anyone could actually do that, to tell the truth, history being vast and constantly in flux.

My own sense of the matter is that Americans need, not so much to get off politics—a necessary endeavor—as to tame their political obsessions until a more propitious time for discussing procedural nuts and bolts. There are matters of objective right and objective wrong that, as Furedi points out, require intense, unabated discussion, the stakes being almost unimaginably large.

In the end, Nancy Pelsoi isn’t half as important as St. Augustine or John Wesley. Or Aristotle. Or T. S. Eliot. We have before us a major educational task: actually, re-educational. It would be nice to turn our attenuated attentions once more to—if this is where we must start—the flat, calm, clear, unapologetic contradiction and refutation of things and ideas wrong in themselves. Our current intellectual leaders, at the rostrum or the pulpit, have invited and, accordingly deserve, intelligent replies to their oft-mistaken premises.

This of course assumes challengers are to be found among the scared little bunnies who populate our world. I suggest they are, and the sooner we roust them out of their silences or distractions—and acquaint them with Frank Furedi’s remarkable job of lifting the covers from the quailing carcasses of the needlessly distressed—I say, the better for everyone. We are not, certainly, all we should be. But we’re more like what we used to be, I fancy, than can be figured out by reading the New York Times.

[How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century by Frank Furedi (London: Bloomsbury Continuum) $28.00]

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