A Louisiana relative of mine recently sent me a link to a set of posters from WWII that, among other things, called for sacrifice and courage by the American people. He asked, “What has happened to us as Americans?”
It’s a good question, one we should answer if we are to avoid the pitfalls that have faced every global leader in history. America cannot deny this reality. When faced with a common threat, a nation will either selflessly come together behind courageous and wise leaders or fall apart. Thank God we had the former during the 1940’s.
The American dream for that generation – to own a home, education for their children, some comforts of life, and a comfortable retirement – became a reality for most. Our nation became successful. The hunger and lack of materialism experienced by many in the 1930’s when they were young was an exception for their children. As more struggled less for the basic necessities, we began to face other problems that had haunted our society since its conception.
What separates us from the Great Generation? For one, we put leisure and entertainment above working towards a greater cause. We also hoard our resources rather than sharing with those in need. And, at least lately, we’re becoming more exclusive.
One result of these social changes is a sense of entitlement and a polarization based on socioeconomic status. It happens both to those who have little and those who have a lot. One group is labeled lazy moochers, the other greedy and selfish. Others, those who are truly in need and struggling to find food and shelter for themselves and their families, lose hope for no one seems to care.
Let’s be clear. The problem with America is not a battle between the “greedy rich” and the “mooching poor.” This over-simplification is a false paradigm that may offer fodder for the 24-hour talk shows and tabloid-style news stories but fails to address our problems. The majority of Americans, no matter their income, are not afraid of hard work or helping others. There are many problems that we must address as a nation, but we are a nation of good people.
The polarization is a sign we’ve become an anxious people. In ancient times, this social anxiety was thought to be a plague caused by some evil in the form of someone or some people who weren’t like the majority. They were seen as scapegoats and were often sacrificed for the ‘greater’ good.
It appears those ancient times are back. Our leaders and those who have their attention have turned from solving problems to looking for scapegoats. Unless we want to experience the self-destructive consequences of a scapegoating sacrificial culture we need to step back from denigrating others simply because of their socio-economic position. The other person is not our problem; it is our individual and collective worry about our socioeconomic futures that is the problem.
When the vast majority is doing well, we worry little as a nation. Such was the case up to 2008. But we were ‘doing great’ on borrowed money leveraged beyond capacity. Our worry-free bubble burst. Since then, many of us are either struggling to make ends meet or questioning whether we can make ends meet in the future. Others are worried what will happen if the gap between the rich and poor reaches a tipping point.
These may be true concerns. But when we let fear creep in, our instincts tell us to look for a threat. Unfortunately, fear prohibits us from evaluating a problem with any degree of depth. Fear primes us to react, not evaluate and respond. Fear tells us to look around us for the threat, never to question if we are part of the problem.
We are a nation facing a major crisis. Unlike WWII, it is not an outside threat that can be clearly defined. It is internal and, for lack of a better word, emotional. It is anxiety, worry about our individual and national socio-economic futures. It is a fear that has created monsters in the dark. It is the fear from FDR’s warning: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
It is fear that can lead those who have access to the resources to hoard them and those who do not have them to seek non-socially acceptable means to obtain them. It is a fear that will intensify as each group uses any news backing their view of the other to enhance their fear and justify their actions. It is a fear that leads to a positive feedback cycle of fear-induced distrust of the other.
What can we do? To start, we must recognize that the problem, fear, originates from within. When we see that we are part of the problem – when we gain a certain level of self-awareness that most of our fears stem from self-centered worrying – we loosen the chains fear has placed upon us and gain the ability to identify and solve problems.
When we lose our fear, we stop looking for monsters. We stop the machine that leads to distrust and alienation. We quit scapegoating and denigrating others, which gives the other nothing to fear. Instead, we create a window of opportunity to work with others to solve the real problems that face us.
What about our political leaders? Until we say no to fear, our leaders will have no reason to change. They will continue to use our fear as a means to gain reelection. When we say no to fear, our political leaders (and any who control them) will start to question the benefit of creating mythical monsters, monsters they want us to believe they alone can slay. When we say no to fear, we might even elect leaders who are truly wise and selfless – leaders like those who got us through the many trials of WWII.