Age of Anxiety: The Quest for Freedom from Fear in America

Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of Americans getting safley tucked in an night while London experienced the Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (1943). This depiction of American kids getting safely tucked in at night while England experienced The Blitz had a clear message: Americans should, above all else, be free from fear.

Be afraid, America, be very afraid. It’s a dangerous world out there, with a never-ending series of threats laying siege to the republic from every possible angle, each of them exposing the quivering globule of disquietude that is modern society.

If Americans have wanted nothing else over the span of their history, they’ve wanted freedom from fear, but they never seem to get it. With each passing era, new fears arise in the form of internal and external threats that shake American society to its foundations. Sometimes these fears have been real and justified; other times they’ve been born of prejudice and paranoia, but the results have always struck terror into the American collective psyche. Indeed, it’s no stretch to say that U.S. history has been one long age of anxiety.

Let’s do a run down of the numerous threats currently invoking fear in American society, shall we? There’s Ebola, of course. Recently, news outlets confirmed the first documented U.S. case of the deadly virus via an unnamed patient now being quarantined in Dallas, Texas. Americans (nearly 40 percent, according to one poll) are pretty terrified of the virus that’s been ravaging West Africa, and their fear isn’t entirely unwarranted. Ebola is awful: it spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes uncontrollable bleeding from multiple orifices, as well as bloody discharges (yeah, those kind of discharges), rashes, and all kinds of corporeal pains.

But Ebola isn’t the only thing Americans fear. There’s also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest nutball incarnation of radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS fighters have been waging guerilla war in the middle-eastern crescent that’s already fertile with chaos, and they’ve taken barbarism to scarily casual new levels by beheading American journalists and making threats via their savvy PR machine.

But, of course, Ebola and ISIS aren’t the only things that Americans fear these days. Depending on their political inclinations and individual composure, Americans are afraid of economic recession; inflation; deflation; domestic mass shootings; gun control; terroristsvoter fraud; voter suppression; illegal immigration; drug gangs; black people; white peoplethe government; money in politics; Democrats; Republicans; environmental destruction; environmentalists; Obama the dictator; Obama the weakling; the Koch Brothers; George Soros; the End Times; war with Iran; war with Russia; war with North Korea; war with China; the Federal Reserve; Wall Street; FEMA internment camps; the New World Order, and, perhaps the most terrifying thing of all: Obamacare.

The fact that Americans are fearful of, well, A LOT of things makes sense given that most of U.S. history is littered with events and happenings that scared the hell out of people at any given historical moment. American identity is, in part, defined by the fear of losing American freedoms.

During the colonial era, for example, white settlers on British America’s frontier regions lived in a constant, paralyzing fear of ambush-style Indian attacks. As historian Peter Silver notes in his excellent book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, “the violence that provincial Americans found themselves first dreading and then experiencing was, in the most literal sense, terroristic. It had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible.”* For white frontier settlers, the fear of violent Indians who killed men, women, and children alike, who struck without warning, and who refused to recognize the rules of “civilized warfare” was the greatest possible threat to (white) American freedom. On the British American frontier, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could literally be taken away by the swipe of a tomahawk.

The threat of Inidan attacks permetaed everyday life for white colonial settlers.

The fear of Indian attacks permeated everyday life for white colonial settlers.

Indian attacks provided the quintessential example of how a determined, violent “other” seemingly threatened American freedom, and so powerful was this example that Americans applied a variation of it to most major events in their history.

Fear of British tyranny fueled the Revolutionary War and its sequel, the War of 1812. The buildup to the Civil War pitted southerners who feared slave-stealing abolitionists against northern factions who feared the excessive influence of the “Slave Power” in the national government. The terrors of Reconstruction came from fears that former slaves would achieve theretofore unheard-of levels of political and social power. The late 19th and early 20th century-reforms of the Populists and the Progressives were inspired by fears of the excessive power of Big Business. The fear of the social and moral detriments of alcohol inspired Prohibition. Fear of communist subversion fueled the Red Scares of the 1950s. And conflicts in Europe, Japan, Latin America, Russia, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all variously fueled by fears that fascists, Nazis, communists, “Japs,” socialists, rogue dictators, and Islamic terrorists all threatened American freedoms.

Fear, and the freedom to be free from fear, have always been a part of the American D.N.A. In his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, political scientist Corey Robin argues that “American Style” political fear is a truly omnipresent beast. He defines “political fear” as “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being — the fear of terrorism, panic over crime, anxiety about moral decay — or the intimidation wielded over men and women by governments or groups.”*

Robin observes that fear has consistently been a major source of unity in a pluralistic, decentralized democratic society where unanimity on anything rarely exists. “We [Americans] savor the experience of being afraid,” he writes. Citing the experience of unity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argues that, “only fear, we believe, can turn us from isolated men and women into a united people.”* As Robin notes, however, fear divides as much as it unites, and it inspires actions both heroic and stupid.

Tragic Prelude, by John Steuart Curry, located in the second floor rotunda of the Kansas State Capital. This painting depicts, among other things, the combustible mixture of fear that led to the Civil War

Tragic Prelude, by John Steuart Curry, located in the second floor rotunda of the Kansas State Capital. This painting depicts, among other things, the combustible mixture of fear that led to the Civil War

The historical influence of fear in American society helps explain why FDR’s famous first inauguration quip that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seems so clear and yet so mysterious. In 1933, Roosevelt urged Americans not to fear the Great Depression, but to instead fear the fear of the Great Depression. It was “fear itself” that would cripple America’s ability to deal with the economic crisis, because whatever the consequences of the Depression, to tackle it based on fear — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” — would only make the problem worse. But if fear was a detriment to combating the Depression, it was also a source of unity: only “fear itself” could rally a nation behind a new leader tasked with alleviating an economic catastrophe the likes of which the U.S. — and the world — had never seen before.

So integral was fear to addressing the events of mid-20th century American history that FDR made “Freedom from Fear” a part of his “Four Freedoms” that every American deserved. In his January 6, 1941 Annual Message to Congress, Roosevelt declared Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear to be integral to the American experience. He invoked these freedoms to combat both foreign and domestic threats. As historian David Kennedy writes in his epic study Freedom from Fear, “at this level of basic principle, there was unmistakable continuity between Roosevelt’s domestic policies during the Great Depression and his foreign policies in the world war.”*

President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans to action during the Depressiona nd World War II.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked fear to both scare and inspire Americans into action during the Depression and World War II.

Roosevelt explicitly invoked his “Four Freedoms” to contrast the U.S. with the growing dictatorships of Europe and Asia, where governments threatened to take away freedoms, not preserve them. Yet even as FDR championed “Freedom from Fear,” he paradoxically invoked fear — the fear that the four freedoms could be taken away from Americans by an increasingly unfree world — as a source of motivation for Americans to fight for, and preserve, those freedoms. A world characterized by Freedom from Fear, FDR stated, “is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

Thus, the determination to be free from fear — and the things that inspired that fear — nonetheless relied on making Americans afraid of what would happen if they failed to defeat the forces of dictatorship. To stop a world from falling to fear, Americans needed to be very afraid of that world. Americans intuitively understood this fact because fear had been a motivating force in U.S. society since the colonial era. The Indians and dictators of the past have become the terrorists and diseases of today. The more things change…

Given the long-standing and important role that fear has played in U.S. society, it’s no surprise that Americans are still afraid of an endless barrage of potential foreign and domestic threats. Some of these threats are very real, others are overblown, and still others are the products of unhinged hysteria. While we might lament the at-times overwhelming presence of fear in U.S. society, it’s at least worth remembering that fear, for better or for worse, is utterly central to the American experience. The age of anxiety has always been with us, and it probably always will be. Hopefully, that fact won’t scare you — too much.

* See Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian Warfare Transformed America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 41.

* See Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-3.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 470.

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  1. Regarding the caption of the Norman Rockwell painting: President Roosevelt’s four freedoms speech specified that they were essential human freedoms, not just American. Specifically, “Freedom From Fear”, was directed at a worldwide reduction in armaments to the point that no nation would be in a position to commit an act of phycial agression – anywhere in the world.

  2. Indeed, that’s certainly true. My point was that FDR, like most U.S. political figures, often framed American freedom as the basis for a universal world ideal.

  3. And it backfired with FDR because voters felt that he led them to believe Poland and Czechoslovakia would be free in the Western sense after the war, not dictatorships with political prisoners and show trials, and that exacerbated the Red Scare, as Kennedy points out in his book.

  4. We could use some “Freedom from Fear” in this day and time. On my way to work this morning I listened to the demagogic rantings of the local GOP Tea-bagger talk-radio host about how Obama is trying to kill all of us with Ebola and Muslims….and even Muslims with Ebola. Gotta scare the hell out of the old people and rubes, because elections are coming up. The bastard seemed almost gleeful to report that another healthcare worker at Dallas Presbyterian had tested positive for Ebola. Oh, never mind that the Tea Bagger prescription for each and every problem is to cut government spending on everything except for weapons. Now we are supposed to believe that they are in favor of fully funding the CDC and public health services despite what they’ve said in the past. Of course, like Rick Perry, they never can seem to remember what federal agencies they were in favor of cutting. Too bad we can’t have radio talk show hosts warning people to get flu shots. That’s something that could prevent thousands of deaths per year, instead of fear-mongering and paranoia.

  5. Wow, sounds like good times as always on talk-radio. It seems pretty clear that fear as a political tactic plays better among conservatives than liberals, though neither group is exempt from its influence, of course. But let’s be honest: there’s nothing quite like the paranoid infrastructure that is right-wing radio. It’s something to behold and, yes, fear.

  6. I just stumbled upon your musings the other day – quite enjoyable really, as I completely understand your sense of humor (having grown up with you) and can relate to your vantage point of disbelief with stereotypical American society’s reactions & misconceptions about how things really work in the world at large.
    It’s not that you’re “left” or “right” or need to study history as some other joker implied – after studying so much history and living abroad, you’re simply cynical to the fervent passion that people act with, which is the result of societal anxiety and hype that has been consistently ebbing and flowing throughout history. It is nearly jaw dropping when you watch it play out through bad reporting and dramatization from professional news agencies and not well informed public reaction to the news. The wrongly suspected and media condemned security guard in the 1996 Olympics comes to mind.
    I believe there is also a relation here to Walter Cronkite’s warning about the 24 hour news network, and the latest addiction psychology research applied to media, marketing, and video games.
    That said, Michael Crichton wrote an excellent book, “The State of Fear,” which capitalizes on fear from a number of angles, including populace control as well as personal profit. As long as society is united in directing their fear and energy towards something, they are not using their energy for revolution, so it goes. He quoted someone’s work on the topic, but alas, I listened to the audio book and cannot thumb through for the quote. The medium he speaks of is the “Red Scare” being replaced by “Climate Change.”
    Certainly, fear is a powerful thing – a driving force behind insurance sales, and the key element in the definition of terrorism.

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