Note: This essay first appeared on Stonekettle Station in April of 2013. Given the current state of affairs, an update seemed in order // Jim
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1st Inaugural Address (March 4th, 1933)
I’ve got a number of pets.
Including several cats.
One of those felines is utterly fearless.
She came to me, that cat, as a castaway. Literally, cast away by some cowardly waste of humanity.
I found her at my back door on a -20F Alaskan winter morning, a tiny ball of fluff damned near frozen to death. Crying piteously, hungry, cold, and terrified.
Now, the very last thing I needed at that point was another damned cat.
I suppose the prudent thing, the safe thing, the conservative thing, to do would have been to shoo this unwanted immigrant away from the house with curses and kicks, send her back out into the Alaskan winter to find her own way in the world. Honestly, what did I owe this needy creature? I had my own problems, my own pets, my own cats already.
I’ve spent my entire life in war zones around the world, one more life – and an animal at that – what difference could it make to me?
As it turns out, I’m not the kind of guy who would leave a kitten to freeze to death – make of that what you will.
I spent some time and effort looking for her people, but it became obvious fairly quickly that she’d been tossed out of a car and abandoned to her own devices in the midst of the Alaskan winter.
And so, because there was no one else, she became my responsibility.
For various reasons involving two large male cats already in residence, the tiny kitten couldn’t be let into the house. So she made a home for herself in my woodshop and eventually grew into the fabulous world-renowned ShopKat, famous from one end of Facebook to the other.
At first she was afraid of nearly everything, as all babies are, and spent much of her time hiding in the many dark nooks and crannies of my large cluttered workshop.
But very quickly she became fearless.
Howling woodworking machinery, the various loud shop vacuum systems, the chainsaws, the ATV’s when I’m winching logs into the woodpile or plowing snow, nothing frightens her. She spends her time perched on top of running equipment, intently watching my various projects. Which isn’t to say that she’s a happy-go-lucky idiot or not sufficiently cautious, or overly dependent on me for protection. Alaska is a dangerous place for small creatures and the ShopKat is more than aware of that fact. You have only to watch her cautiously scanning the sky for bald eagles or carefully checking for bears before venturing outside the shop to see immediately just how aware she is – however, that said, ShopKat has been known to charge full grown bull moose, it’s the damnest thing you’ll likely ever see. And she never, ever, goes near the road.
It’s many years later, and the ShopKat has become my affectionate and cheerful companion. She is the most singularly funny, intelligent, and amazing creature. She brightens my many hours in the shop, and not a day goes by that she doesn’t express just how grateful she is for a home.
And then there is the White Cat.
Stupid, we call him, and the label suits him perfectly. He’s pretty and decorative, but he’s just none too bright. He lives in the house and never, ever, ventures outside. And for a very good and very costly reason.
As I said, Alaska is a dangerous place for small fuzzy creatures.
Stupid is afraid of everything.
The vacuum cleaner nearly gives him a fright-induced stroke. A sneeze can cause him to cower in the basement for hours. Loud noises, and not so loud noises, terrify him. He was once ambushed by a tennis ball. Stupid is afraid of his own tail. He can start violently awake from a sound sleep in the middle of a quiet sunny afternoon, hounded by dangers only he can see, and race madly for shelter behind the wood stove or under the couch, peering suspiciously out at the world with wide terrified yellow eyes.
He cries piteously for attention, but when you reach for him he screams in horror and shies away, deathly afraid of being touched.
If you try to pick him up, he goes completely rigid, legs and tail sticking straight out like an electrified statue of a cartoon cat made from barbed wire. He is at once both the most pathetically needy and the most spastically unaffectionate creature I’ve yet come across.
What is the difference between ShopKat and Stupid?
What makes one creature so utterly fearless and one so utterly fearful?
Is it just the perversity of cats in general?
Is it because one appears fantastically intelligent and the other is as dumb as a catnip mouse?
Is it nature or nurture?
Is it an accident of genetics? Happenstance? Or the natural extremes of a normal curve?
I have no idea. Cats are slaves to their nature and their nature is alien to human perception.
I do know, however, that fear can be learned.
One of the (several) reasons I don’t want ShopKat in the house with Stupid is that I don’t want her to pick up the White Cat’s fear, his everyday terror at mundane things, the nameless shapeless dread that rules Stupid’s very existence.
Because I know fear can be contagious.
I’ve seen it, out there in the world, on the battlefield, in crisis.
I know fear can spread until people, like cats, become frightened by the slightest adversity, the smallest setback, the tiniest upset, until fear becomes habit.
The question is if the habit of fear can be broken, unlearned.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
That’s what Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said.
It’s one of the most famous, and most recognizable, quotes in American history.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Trembling paralyzing bone chilling fear that keeps us from doing what needs to be done, fear that turns advance into retreat, victory into defeat, hope into ashes, cheerful resolute optimism into endless bitter pessimism.
Roosevelt sure got that right, didn’t he?
Eighty years ago there was plenty of fear to go around. The country was afraid, hell, the whole world wallowed in fear – and for good reason. It was the darkest hour of the Great Depression. In America, the economy had collapsed, banks failed one after the other, ruined investors took to stepping off high ledges or swallowing bullets, entire industries vanished overnight, tens of millions were out of work, millions were on the brink of starvation, tens of thousands more were homeless or squatted in Hoovervilles, the Dust Bowl smothered the Midwest under choking clouds, mobsters with gats and tommy-guns fought pitched battles in the streets, crime and violence were everywhere, disenfranchisement, lynchings and cross burnings were rampant (and not just in the South). Across the sea, old governments disintegrated or were overthrown or fell into ineffectual chaos – and fascism took root among the ruins and the dark clouds of war gathered on the horizon.
And in that moment, a sickly bespectacled man, paralyzed from the waist down by the ravages of polio, stood on the East Portico of the United States Capitol Building and raised his right hand before Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and took the Oath of Office.
And after he was sworn in, President Roosevelt turned to the gathered crowd, to the nation via radio, and spoke of fear. He called it out, that fear, as nameless, unreasoning, unjustified. After that first paragraph, FDR addressed the root cause of the nation’s misery and placed blame exactly where it belonged, on the unbridled avarice of Wall Street. Roosevelt went on to speak of unemployment and America’s role on the world stage and the hard work that lay ahead – but it was the line about fear that people remembered, and still remember to this day.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
That statement made an entire nation stop and take stock of itself.
What Roosevelt meant was that while the nation – and the world – faced significant problems, all of them were manageable. All of the problems could be solved, overcome, beaten. The nation, the government, the people, needed to work together, they needed to roll up their sleeves and get busy solving the issues, instead of cowering alone in fear and panic and depression.
There were those who took Roosevelt at his word, they found hope and courage and they put aside their fear and went out and started fixing problems as best they were able. They weren’t always successful, but when they failed, instead mewling in fear and complaining that nothing could be done, they looked at that crippled man in his wheelchair and they remembered his words and then they just kept trying something else until the problem was fixed. Then they went on to the next thing.
These people heard the new President’s words and they faced their fears and they went out and with the help of each other and their government they rebuilt the nation. They built the very things that define America today, from social safety nets to the national parks to the great public projects we take for granted every single day and can’t imagine America without.
Predictably, of course, there were also those who quailed in fear at Roosevelt’s admonishment not to be afraid. They fell to gibbering fearfully about the New Deal and the government and unions and Social Security and the new Securities and Exchange Commission among other things. When they didn’t have something concrete to fear, they made up terrors to be afraid of like children paralyzed by an imaginary bogeyman in the closet – and rather than get up and throw open the closet door and face their imaginary dread, they spent the night cowering under the covers like my stupid white cat peering fearfully out from under the couch.
These people heard the new President’s words and they embraced their fears and then they went out and did everything they could to delay, hamper, and obstruct the government and the recovery at every turn – all the while directly benefitting from the very projects and efforts they decried, projects and programs and efforts that their children and grand children still benefit from eighty years later.
The more things change, right?
The same exact political parties and ideologies who were afraid back then are the same exact people who are afraid of the same exact things today.
Eighty years later, almost to the day, and they’re still paralyzed by the same nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.
And their fears are almost exactly word for word the same as those of their grandparents.
And if they don’t have something to fear, they invent things to be afraid of.
Case in point: in a previous post (Various And Sundry April 2013) I mentioned Georgia GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart, who is afraid that straight people might enter into gay marriage in order to obtain health insurance.
"You may be as straight as an arrow, and you may have a friend that is as straight as an arrow. Say you had a great job with the government where you had this wonderful health plan. I mean, what would prohibit you from saying that you’re gay, and y’all get married and still live as separate, but you get all the benefits? I just see so much abuse in this it’s unreal. I believe a husband and a wife should be a man and a woman, the benefits should be for a man and a woman. There is no way that this is about equality. To me, it’s all about a free ride.”
Like this is a real thing.
Like this actually happens.
Like this is actually something we should be afraid of.
Like straight people actually get gay-married solely in order to obtain healthcare – and like it would actually matter if they did.
Like Georgians actually have this conversation: “Well, dang it all, Sue Bob, you know I love y’all and I’d marry you if’n I could and make an honest woman of you and your four kids by four other different men that you met at the bowling alley, but, see, my best friend Cooter needed that hernia surgery. And he didn’t have no insurance because that Obamer fella done ruint The Best Healthcare System In The World with that socialism stuff. So me and Cooter, we got gay-married so my insurance would pay fer fix’n his balls. Bros before Ho’s, darlin’. Now me an’ Cooter was gonna get us an annulment right after the surgery, but the preacher wants us to try couples counseling first and see if’n we can maybe work it out…”
Yes, let’s all be afraid of that.
Because, yeah, that’s gonna happen.
Meanwhile there’s two married gay conservatives, Log Cabin Republicans I suppose, sitting around in their fabulous living room complaining about how straight people are totally ruining gay marriage: “Fine, fine. I don’t care what they don’t do in the privacy of their own separate and sexless bedrooms. Ok. That’s their right, if they don’t want to go to Hell, fine by me. Fine. But why can’t they just be happy with domestic partnerships? I don’t care what you say, if it’s two straight guys they can’t be gay-married. Gay-marriage is between one gay dude and another gay dude, damnit!”
Because, see, gay conservatives. Get it?
Because with all the problems the world faces at the moment, being afraid that straight people might be getting gay-married for health insurance is right up there with, um, well, you know, being afraid that gay people getting married will somehow queer your straight relationship.
Straight people might get gay-married?
Honestly, what the fuck?
Talk about just making up idiotic nonsense to be afraid of.
You’ve got to reach down a long, long way past a whole lot of actual problems before you get to “Oh Noes! Straight people might get gay-married in order to defraud the taxpayers!”
And Jesus Haploid Christ, if they’re afraid of that, well then what aren’t these people afraid of?
Because, just like my stupid white cat with his little peanut-sized brain, they seem to be afraid of just about everything.
They’re afraid of the government. They’re afraid of the president, they’re afraid of congress, they’re afraid of the judges. They’re afraid of socialism. They’re afraid of Nazis and communists. They’re afraid of liberals and progressives and RINOs and feminists and Prius-driving vegetarians. They’re afraid of their neighbors. They’re afraid of the North and afraid of the South and afraid of people from Chicago, and New York and Washington D.C. and California. They’re afraid of gangs and crime and terrorism. They’re afraid of know-it-all college educated long hairs. They’re afraid of political correctness and affirmative action. They’re afraid of minorities and they’re afraid of immigrants and they’re afraid of uppity blacks and strong-willed women and smart Asians and dirty Latinos and murderous Muslims. They fear their own supposedly loving God and they’re afraid of everybody else’s deity too. They’re afraid of the Rapture and the Anti-Christ and the End Times. They’re afraid of Sharia Law and they’re afraid of the Pope and afraid of the Jews – and yet they’re afraid of atheists too. They’re afraid of immorality and pornography and the internet and cable TV and that Rock&Roll music. They’re afraid of social media, they’re afraid of Twitter and Facebook and the bloggers and the Goddamned lamestream media. They’re afraid the military might just take over and they’re afraid that the military isn’t powerful enough. They’re afraid of death and afraid of taxes. They’re afraid of science, of evolution and climate models and plate tectonics and carbon dating and sex education. They’re afraid of abortion and birth control and the morning after pill, but at the same time they’re also afraid people might be having sex and they’re afraid “those” people might be having a whole bunch of welfare babies that they’re afraid they’ll have to pay for. They’re afraid of North Korea and China and the long defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They’re afraid that somebody might be coming to take all their guns and they’re afraid of all the crazy people with guns and they’re afraid that the government has too many guns. They’re afraid of being poor but they’re afraid of the rich too. They’re afraid of the Bilderbergs and the Illuminati and the New World Order. They’re afraid of the the banksters and yet they’re deathly afraid of any laws that might restrict those self same power brokers. They’re afraid of losing their entitlements and they’re afraid the undeserving want entitlements too and more than anything they’re afraid that somebody somewhere might be getting something for nothing on the taxpayer dime, but they’re afraid of making those same “takers” pay for their own healthcare. They’re afraid of chemicals in their food and genetically engineered crops, but they’re afraid of laws requiring that those same ingredients be fully disclosed by food producers because they’re afraid that might be bad for business. They’re afraid of obesity and heart disease and that our kids are a generation of blubbery little couch potatoes, but they’re afraid of Mayor Bloomberg and Michelle Obama. They’re afraid of Hollywood violence and yet they’re also afraid that Sesame Street might be making their kids into prancing pacifist pisswillies. They’re afraid we’ll run out of oil or that some America hating dictator somewhere will cut the oil off – and yet at the same time they’re afraid of solar panels and wind towers and electric cars.
What it comes down to is this: they’re afraid of the past and they’re afraid of the present and they’re afraid for the future.
I could go on, but frankly this endless parade of depressing dread, this nameless unreasoning unjustified terror, this fear of fear, is getting more than a little tedious.
For these people fear has become habit.
Their fearful grandparents were wrong eighty years ago and they’re still wrong today.
They’ve always been with us, the fearful. They were here right at the beginning of the country, back then they were telling us how nothing could be done, that we’d better not make problems for Ol’ King George, that we should be afraid. And after it was over, after America had won her freedom, they were afraid to admit that they’d be afraid to join up in the first place.
They were here eighty years ago when FDR gave his speech, back then they were telling us to fear our neighbors and our government and the bogeyman in the closet, that the problems couldn’t solved, that the nation was done for.
And they’re here with us today. And it’s the same old fear. America should be taking the lead in climate change, in energy, in transportation technology, in solutions to violence and disenfranchisement and social justice, in health and medicine, in exploration of our world and others. Instead … we refuse to even discuss it. Our leaders will filibuster, gridlock, delay, rather than face the world’s problems.
You can’t fix the problem if you can’t talk about it.
Hell, you can’t even define what the problem is, if you can’t talk about it.
The fact of the matter is this: There is nothing to fear.
None of the problems we face require divine intervention. We don’t need to do a rain dance or beseech God to deliver us or to smite our enemies. We’re fully capable of solving our problems on our own. Asking some deity to solve our problems, to just wave his big magic God stick and make it all better, is a childish cop out. It’s an admission of cowardice and an inability to face the world and roll up your sleeves and take care of business and even the Christian God thinks so or he wouldn’t have told his followers that he only helps those who help themselves.
None of the problems we face requires us to secede or for us to dissolve the Union or declare an end to the grand experiment.
That’s the coward’s way out.
Democracy takes courage and will and effort. Quitting takes none of those things.
None of these problems we face require revolution or taking our guns to Washington or shooting down our neighbors.
Our ancestors rebelled against tyranny, and after they had won their freedom they designed for themselves a system of government that was born of and based on compromise, on flexibility, on courage and intellect and reason. They built us a system that could be changed without revolution, without war and bloodshed and killing our neighbors. That was the whole damned point.
Of the problems we face today, gun violence, North Korea, climate change, energy, the economy, jobs, all are solvable. Every single one. Many of these problems have more than one solution. And if we don’t get it right the first time, we’ll keep at it until we do get it right – providing we face the problem instead of cowering under the couch like my stupid white cat.
Up above, I said that I didn’t bring the ShopKat into my house because I didn’t want her to be afraid, I didn’t want her to learn fear from the other cat. I didn’t want her to pick up the indoor cat’s fear, his everyday terror at mundane things, the nameless shapeless dread that defines his very existence.
In the end, due to circumstance, we have begun to introduce the two cats. How it will ultimately shake out, which will win out – fear or fearlessness – is yet to be determined. It’s entirely possible that Stupid will learn to draw courage from the little fearless ShopKat and stop jumping at his own tail.
I don’t know.
It’s hard to tell with cats. But, see, here’s the thing, we Americans, we are not cats.
Fear, like hatred, is learned. And, again like hatred, fear becomes habit.
Cats may be slaves to their nature, but we are not – at least we don’t have to be.
We can choose.
In the end, you can choose to be afraid.
Or you can choose to be fearless.
It’s entirely up to you.
You can find the entire text of FDR’s inaugural address here, along with an audio recording. I highly recommend that every American read the transcript. If you didn’t know better, the world, the fear, that Roosevelt describes could be right here, right now, today.
As I said, the more things change…