Monday, December 23, 2013

The Fear

     What are you afraid of?
     If you’re male, you’ll probably answer the above with a grunted: “I’m not afraid of anything!” and glance around suspiciously with eyebrows lowered, shoulders hunched and fists clenched. If you’re female, you might answer, “Nothing,” with a nervous, high-pitched laugh and unconsciously clasp your hands together, as if in prayer.
     If you’re a child under the age of ten, let’s say, you might shrug and say neither of the above and mean it, but have patience. You will be, eventually.
      We are all of us, man, woman and child, afraid of something or many things, all of the time, whether we are aware of it, are willing to admit it, or are simply too damn scared to discuss it. Yes, we are and it might do all of us simply a world of good to admit it: we’re scared.
      It doesn’t really matter what we’re scared of or who it is that might frighten us so.  Were I to list the things that have the potential or capacity to frighten any individual or group of people, I’d be here all night and the next day and still be on the A’s. That’s boring, isn’t it; to be reminded of what might scare someone else when it’s your own fear that concerns you? Screw the other guy; let him take care of himself! It’s me and mine I’m concerned with! As well it should: self-interest is the primary motivating factor in the human species. Robert Heinlein commented that it was rather pointless to appeal to someone’s better nature because they may not have one. Instead, it’s more effective (and profitable) to appeal to their self-interest. Let me appeal to your self-interest, then:
     You need not fear.
     But wait! Isn’t it foolish to go through this world without some sort of healthy wariness? To look before you leap? Fools rush in, et cetera? Sure, and you don’t go dancing along the edge of a cliff either, but that’s exactly what we as a species are doing and it’s all in the name of self-interest, self-preservation, common sense and pure, cold-hearted, dollars-and-cents calculation.
     It’s all about the almighty dollar, in other words. The buck, the jack, the green, the scratch and valuta of any description. It’s the bottom line, the P&L and the reason we have this thing called commerce that we’ve elevated to the capital word god of Capitalism.
     We’re scared because it’s profitable to be scared, all the time, if only a little bit.
     Remember the fanfare that accompanied the end of the last century? Does anyone recall how we sweated and worried that civilization as we know it might come to an end because the computers—those wonderful extensions of our minds—might not be able to distinguish 2000 from 1900 because that’s how they were programmed, way back in the Fifties, when programming languages were first developed? You don’t? Well, look it up: type “millennium madness” or something like that into your search engine and read a few of the many thousands of listings that are sure to pop up. Then read a few of those that dealt with the turn of the century before and smile at how silly our recent ancestors seemed with their concerns about comets and the Second Coming and the deterioration of society into utter chaos. How laughable they were, those starched collar, top-hatted and crinoline-skirted folks back then! Why, they actually believed that armed mobs would roam the streets; burning and looting and murdering anyone who happened to cross their path!
     You probably aren’t laughing because, 1) it isn’t funny, and, 2) you’re beginning to see where I’m going with this.
     Here’s a direct comparison: in 1910, Halley’s Comet passed close enough to the Earth for the tail to actually intersect our planet. I quote from Wikipedia, despite academic distaste for that sort of thing:One of the substances discovered in the tail by spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen,[70] which led astronomer Camille Flammarion to claim that, when Earth passed through the tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’[71] His pronouncement led to panicked buying of gas masks and quack ‘anti-comet pills’ and ‘anti-comet umbrellas’ by the public.”
     Compare that with the sales frenzy of survival supplies, guns and, curiously, gold during the millennium madness in 1999-2000. 
     If the world is coming to an end, you can be sure that someone, or a whole bunch of them, is going to find a way to make a buck off it. What they’re going to do with all that money after the world ends leads me to wonder how they expect to survive the end. Fallout shelters? Yeah, they built a few of those, too and nobody uses them, either. Not that any kind of fallout shelter is going to survive a direct hit from a twenty-megaton nuke. The NORAD complex under Cheyenne Mountain, maybe.
     So, we agree then, that disaster is linked directly with profitability, correct? But there is still the cause and effect of fear arising from what is supposed to be caution and common sense. After all, if there are people called terrorists in this world; then shouldn’t we be terrified?
     Congratulations, you guys with the Qu’ran in one hand and an improvised explosive device in the other: you won. We’re terrified. You got us on the run. You have our airports hopelessly snarled with long lines and suspicious security guards who confiscate cupcakes and skin-search toddlers and old ladies in wheelchairs. You forced us into spending many hundreds of millions of dollars to equip every government structure in America with metal detectors. You scared us so much, some of us burn and trash mosques and beat the holy hell out of anyone who looks even remotely Muslim, including Sikhs, dark-skinned foreigners and anybody who can’t speak English very well. You won. Now what the hell do you want?
    The same as the rest of us: a world without fear.
     Quoting Ben Franklin: “Those who would exchange liberty for security deserve neither.”
      Or to put it another way: “There is no such thing as true security in this world and only mice and damn fools think otherwise.” That one’s from Heinlein again, mostly because so much of what he said was quite apropos. Not all of it, though. He also suggested that we walk around armed to the teeth because there are so many psychos among us; it’s safer to be sure than dead. Yeah, thanks, Bob. Smith & Wesson’s stock just rose another few points.
     Turn on the TV. What do you see? Warning after bulletin after safety report after crime story after in-depth expose of the latest string of serial murders and it’s all in the public interest. They’re only trying to be helpful, you understand, and if you get so scared that you arm yourself to the teeth and shoot the first person through your door who turns out to be just the mailman, well, whose fault is it? Certainly not the media. They’re only trying to warn you, to prepare you for any possibility and, not-so-incidentally, make a buck off the advertising on their shows about rape, serial murder, bombings, pedophiles and the cataclysmic collapse of civilization. Dystopian movies like the Road Warrior series show us how savage and horrifying mankind can be, but a movie that shows people cooperating, helping and nurturing each other would never make it past the notes on a napkin stage. It just doesn’t sell! What did Steve Martin call “the money shot”? A guy’s brains exploding all over a windshield.
     It’s tempting to say that we haven’t come very far since our killer ape origins, but the fact is, we have. We’ve come so far, some of us know that we can be returned to that level if we’re manipulated in the right way. When Orson Welles did The War of the Worlds as a radio show on Halloween, a million people out of the six million or so that heard it actually thought the Martians were invading. A few days after Welles apologized to the world for scaring hell out of everybody, someone took a picture of a grizzled old gent guarding the door to a grain warehouse, pipe stuck in his whiskers and a double-barreled shotgun in his paws. When the reporter asked him why he was doing that when it was public knowledge that it had been a joke, he calmly replied that it was “just in case”.
     Go ahead and laugh at that old man. He’s long dead, so it doesn’t matter, any more than laughing at the people who actually bought those ‘comet pills’ or umbrellas to ward off the comet crashing down on their pointed little heads matters. Laugh, you smug, sophisticated denizens of the Twenty-First Century. Laugh and remember this: you have no control over your glands. The media has those locked up tighter than a bull’s ass in fly time.
     Media doesn’t tell us what to think about, it only informs us how to think about it. It’s a process called framing and the science and techniques of how to do that are well-established and thoroughly understood. It’s also called mob psychology. Government agencies, notably the police, have these techniques down to a precise and utterly predictable series of equations and flow charts. You’re all being manipulated and isn’t it grand how much money you can be forced to spend to protect yourself? Isn’t it grand how many trillions of dollars we spent in the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War to ‘protect’ us from terrorism, even if the premise for those wars was so much bullshit?
      Ah, but what about 9/11? Those three little numbers will live in our minds long after the words ‘Pearl Harbor’ have faded into a dusty collection of black and white photographs and a few blood and thunder movies with budgets larger than the GNP of an average Third World nation. The images of jet airliners flying into the World Trade Towers are seared into our memories and the result was that we spent most of the available resources in this country to insure that it would never happen again.
      A word to the wise: those terrorists aren’t going to do the airplane bit again. Instead, they’re going to either nibble at us, car bomb by car bomb, or they’re going to simply stroll down Broadway with a backpack nuke and post some serious numbers next time.
      Someone, somewhere, will profit from that and you’re going to pay every damn dollar you can scrape together to make yourself safe after it happens. It will happen, because we aren’t doing a damn thing about prevention, we’re simply cleaning up after the fact. Weren’t the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars prevention? No, not really, because the reason those boys want to kill us so badly isn’t because they have a religion that enables them, it’s because they’re so incredibly poor and so incredibly dispossessed and so incredibly limited that death seems like an acceptable option. Here’s a soundbite I heard from a member of Hezbollah: “Better to die in the light than live a thousand years in darkness.”
      He’s right. It’s better to die struggling to achieve something better than to simply allow one’s self to be oppressed and imprisoned in a prison that is largely of one’s own making. That Palestinian could spend his days trying to make a better life for himself and his people by teaching or building or bringing together that which is good, but he won’t. He wants results now and the best, fastest method is to blow something up.
     If nothing else, it’s worth a few seconds on the nightly news. Hey, Glenn Beck over at Fox News says you can protect yourself from that guy by buying gold. (Get in on the ground floor, folks!) Can you eat gold? Well, no. Can you burn it for warmth? No, not really. Can you build a shelter with it? Well, only if you can exchange it for the stuff to construct that shelter. If the guy who has that stuff doesn’t want your gold because he can’t eat it or burn it, then I guess you’re going to have to shoot him and take it, aren’t you?
      Guns are so symbolic; it’s kind of redundant to point out just how symbolic they are. Like a sword, they’re a phallic symbol. A gun is a penis. It even ejaculates. Of course, it causes death rather than life, but all that lives, dies eventually, so what difference does it make? None really, at least in the minds of members of the NRA. For the NRA, the gun is a symbol of freedom; the freedom to kill in order that one might live.
     Even if you’re only killing a game animal, it still means that something has to die. As Ted Nugent so eloquently put it: “If you don’t kill it, you can’t grill it.” Yeah, I saw you do that to a two-ton American bison who calmly chewed his cud while you pointed your high-powered ‘sporting rifle’ at him and blew a hole in his heart large enough to put your fist through. Nice shot, Mister Chops. Think you could do that to a human being? Why, sure you could, without a second thought, too. In fact, you could easily kill hundreds, even thousands, if they threaten your right to make burgers out of that buffalo. But you know something, Ted? That rifle isn’t going to do a damn thing against an organism that outnumbers you by a factor of a billion to one and has existed on this planet for about a billion years longer than the human species.
     I’m referring to viruses, of course. I don’t think the best-equipped ‘sportsman’ in the world can do much about those, Teddy-boy. (Hey, save me a bite of that burger? I hope it’s well-done)

I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
 And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
 And when do you think it will all become clear?
 'Cause I'm being taken over by The Fear

     I don’t know what Lilly Allen has to fear. She’s got a million bucks in the bank, a voice I’d commit mayhem to acquire and a gorgeous face. So fear is a relative thing, isn’t it?
     We don’t need it. We don’t want it. We shouldn’t have to pay every last cent we have to avoid it. So how do we get rid of it?
     Start by turning off the TV and the computer. Continue the process by getting to know your neighbors and even people you wouldn’t ordinarily say hello to, like the clerk at the grocery store and the guy pumping gas into your car. (But don’t fear the hydrocarbons. They’re going to be useful someday.)
     Finish the process by remembering that fear is relative and your fear may be someone else’s reason for existence. Take that Palestinian with an IED, for example. (Please!) He wants to live without fear, too. He’s afraid. You’re afraid. I’m afraid and we’re all afraid of the biggest Fear of all: Death.
     Death, they say, is the Great Leveler. Yeah, and just imagine my surprise that others can’t accept that. Here’s one more quote from Heinlein: “There is no conclusive evidence of life after death. But there is no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough, you will know. So why fret about it?” Well, if death is like flipping a switch and there’s nothing after the switch is flipped, you won’t know. You won’t know anything. But that’s a comfort, too. No Hell. No Heaven, but don’t worry: you’ll never miss it. You’ll just be gone and that’s it. Gone. Your consciousness will vanish like a blown-out candle-flame and th-th-th-that’s all, folks!
      This, I think, is what scares the dickens out of most folks. It’s the biggest Fear of all. Won’t it matter? Won’t I matter? Well, so what if you don’t? I know, I know, that’s nihilism in its purest form and I for one despise nihilism. People often mistake nihilism for anarchism, but an anarchist is usually smart enough not to foul his own nest because it might annoy his neighbors. So a true anarchist is actually a pretty good person to have as a neighbor. Just don’t count on him helping to put out the flames if your house is burning down. A nihilist, on the other hand, will probably be the one who sets it on fire in the first place because he doesn’t give a damn and doesn’t see why he should.
      (In a situation like this, it might be good to have Ted Nugent on one side of you and the nihilist on the other, if that’s how the dice fall. Answer: burn down a house and Ted will probably put out your lights; that’s why you should give a damn!)
      So, we’re all agreed that Death is the Big Fear and there’s nothing you can do about it because all that lives, dies. Of course, this can get rather personal when it’s your (or my) turn to expire, but that’s what it means to be an ephemeral creature in a Cosmos governed by the First Law of Thermodynamics.
     Fear: live without it or die with it. The choice is always yours.

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