On its surface, the myth of American Innocence sings of a people who were – and remain – divinely inspired, manifestly destined, to spread freedom and opportunity across the world. As such, we have always celebrated ourselves for our optimism, our practical, positive, “can-do” approach, our willingness to take risks and our sunny dispositions as we pursue happiness and model our success for all others.
That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it, because we are increasingly desperate to ignore its shadow side: how we have always defined ourselves in terms of the Other; actually, fear of the Other. This most certainly did not begin after 9-11. As I describe the national emotions in those days in Chapter 8 of my book:
Hadn’t Americans feared Indian attacks for three centuries? Hadn’t they been terrorized for seventy years by red hordes from the east? Hadn’t every President since Truman managed a war economy that perpetuated itself on fear of the Other? Hadn’t politicians played the “race card” for two centuries? Hadn’t gun sales continued to rise even as crime rates had plummeted? Weren’t Americans already armed to the teeth?…Had they forgotten the missile gap, the domino theory, the window of vulnerability and the Evil Empire? Hadn’t AIDS ended the sexual revolution? Hadn’t they been stuffing themselves with anti-depressants, hormone replacements and potency drugs? Hadn’t fear of losing property, status, security, virility, youth, freedom – and innocence – always been at the core of the American experience? Hadn’t we bounced between denial and terror for our entire history?
This is who we are: not simply terrorized, but living, for generations, in constant movement between these two extremes.
Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, makes a surprising claim: “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.” Crime is down, the air is cleaner and the odds of being injured in a terrorist attack are absurdly low. So why, asks Neil Strauss, are so many of us so afraid all the time?
Strauss summarizes the brain research and social science that explains the state of constant anxiety that so many Americans experience on a daily basis. He quotes a social psychologist:
What we’re talking about is anxiety, not fear…Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future…It is a worry about something that hasn’t happened and may never happen.
But there’s a reason why anxiety gets converted into actual fear. Blame the media of course, especially Fox News and its ilk, which constantly reinforces this pattern that trumps our rational thought processes.
…political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism and conservative shift were generally associated with the following: chronically elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, desire for revenge and militarism, cynicism and decreased use of humor…(and) the number-one way in which Americans respond to their anxieties: voting.
When mythologies collapse, identity is threatened. This fear, along with legitimate economic worry, is the source of the rage that drives the Trumpistas. But this rage and the fear behind it are nothing new. To a very great extent, this has always characterized democracy in America: voting against welfare-coddlers, bootstep liberals, east-coast intellectuals, “feminazis,” miscegenators, polluters of racial purity and (let’s get real) “nigger-lovers.” And for hyper-masculine, authoritarian, reactionary, Indian-hating, pseudo-Christian, “put them back in their place,” climate-denying demagogues. Trump is only the latest in a long line stretching back centuries.
But this is why they love him: he says “exactly what he means” – exactly what the entire leadership of the Republican Party has been saying for 40 years, but sugar-coated with euphemisms – and before that, much of the Democratic Party. Be afraid, be very afraid. They are coming for your hard-earned taxes, your safe neighborhoods and your daughters.
And getting together to talk about our worries doesn’t help:
(This) is what social psychologists call the “law of group polarization,” which states that if like-minded people are concerned about an issue, their views will become more extreme after discussing it together.
I recommend Strauss’s article as an excellent explanation of what drives many of Trump’s supporters to ignore his obvious deficiencies in favor of his “strong man” (read: fascist) approach to dealing with the nation’s current Others: Muslims, Mexicans, feminists and Black activists.
But ultimately Strauss lacks the broader perspective that we really need to understand the whole picture. Given, the fast pace of internet-based media and its impact on our emotional lives is something relatively new. But fear of the Other has always driven Americans to circle the wagons. And not just Americans: the origins of World War Two in Germany remind us that propaganda has always rested on creating anxiety about appropriate scapegoats. As Joseph Goebbels said, “If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.”
So far, we are in the realm of universal explanations. But what Strauss misses, and what I’m more interested in, is what makes Americans exceptional in this regard. In other words, what makes us so freaking crazy? If I could engage him in a conversation (which I can’t), I’d tell him that he only has part of the picture. And for the rest, I refer to an earlier blog series of mine, Shock and Awe: Re-invigorating the Myth of American Innocence:
Re-invigorating our myth occurs in three major ways, and Strauss gets two of them. The first is obvious: the constant fear-mongering of the media and the political class – both major parties – that I trace all the way back through American history. In fact, it is so much a part of our history as we learn it that it is nearly indistinguishable from our mythology. It is the primary story we tell ourselves about ourselves: our fear of the Other that is solved only with the violent intercession by some hero figure, so that we can get on with the business of pursuing happiness and making money.
As such, this primary story is quite literally how we define our American identity. We constantly reconstruct that identity by experiencing the fear that the Other will somehow destroy it. And it shouldn’t require a degree in psychology to understand the addictive nature of this experience, which, like any drug, only satisfies us briefly, until we need it again. This is the “shock” side of our “shock and awe” American psyche.
Strauss gets the second factor as well, the pace of modern life and the instant nature of electronic news that reinforces our sense that bad things are happening constantly, regardless of our political leanings. I would add:
…the mania produced by our technologically enhanced environment. In most large, indoor public spaces (stores, shopping malls and sports arenas) we have gotten used to enduring the unrelenting onslaught of loud music, blinking lights and high-definition visual images. This is most certainly not accidental. Take restaurant design for example: open kitchens, hard floors and high walls that reflect and increase sound, forcing patrons to shout just to be heard (thereby increasing the noise)…In many places, especially those catering to adolescents, the atmosphere approaches that of gambling casinos, which are deliberately designed to create “altered states” of consciousness. The object is to heighten anxiety and encourage the sense that it can be reduced through consumerism. However, because the anxiety never fully dissipates, we continually acclimate to greater levels of it. Could we find a better clinical definition of addiction?
But what really makes us exceptional – exceptionally crazy – is a third factor that combines with the first two as it has done with no other people in world history. And I must stress again and again that I’m not talking about Trump supporters only. Indeed, each time liberals identify them or him as loony, they merely reinforce their own sense of innocence. I’m talking about Americans, all of us.