Good news about the fear epidemic: we’re learning!

Summary: Today’s post gives good news (too rarely found here). ! I have long warned about the fear epidemic where our elites use fear as the most effective way to mold public opinion. That explains the near-constant fear barrages. But our ruling elites (and me) might be wrong about us — and the effectiveness of fear as a tool to rule us.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

The brave man is not he who feels no fear,
For that were stupid and irrational;
But he, whose noble soul its fear subdues,
And bravely dares the danger nature shrinks from.

— Joanna Baillie’s Count Basil (1798).

Fearful faces in the dark

America overflows with fear. Both Left and Right rain daily fear barrages on us, warning of a multitude of certain dooms ahead. Countless foes foreign and domestic. Ten percent of us suffer from a hundred or more serious diseases. So many of our foods are poisonous, as are the chemicals we drink, eat, and breathe — from industrial pollution, contact with our consumer goods (soda bottles), or waste (hormones from birth control pills). The very weather threatens to destroy us, as our society disintegrates.

As I have shown in scores of posts, our elites increasingly attempt to influence by appeals to fear — rather than to higher qualities, or even other low traits. I assumed they were correct to do so, but now suspect I am wrong.

A paradigmatic fear barrage was the early 1980’s “nuclear winter” campaign to force unilateral disarmament by the US. It gained wide support in academia, on the Left, and among journalists — but failed to gain traction with the public.  It did not fail because of its shaky scientific foundations, or its somewhat fraudulent marketing (a theory unveiled in Parade magazine rather than peer-reviewed journals) — but because the public didn’t believe.

Fast forward to the fear campaigns of today, such as the Right’s crusade against Obamacare and gays and the Left’s crusade against global warming (rebranded as climate change). These have been conducted with skill and professionalism, supported by lavish funding. All have failed.


The United States Of Fear
Available at Amazon.

What characteristics distinguish effective from ineffective fear campaigns?

Do those giving the warnings believe them?

“Courage is a mean with regard to fear and confidence.”
— Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics.

Many Jews warned about the NAZIs. They believed, shown by either emigrating or actively opposing them (acts of incredible bravery, usually at great cost). Do those who said Bush Jr was like Hitler believe it? Do those who say Obama is like Hitler believe it (some use it as a general purpose epithet, but many make detailed comparisons)?

Western history is littered with predictions of the apocalypse and those who sacrificed much to prepare for it. Such as the followers of William Miller — and the Great Disappointment of 1843 (their remnants evolved into the Seventh Day Adventists). Do today’s doomsters believe that strongly?

Did the Y2K hysterics believe their forecasts? Did they emigrate to rural areas or New Zealand to avoid the crash of civilization, or inexplicably remain in their comfortable homes to suffer with their families after THE Day?

What about the billionaires warning about imminent socialist or communist revolutions in America? Have they divested themselves of their real property (i.e., not movable) to avoid the inevitable expropriations? Or do they secretly smile as they watch American politics slide to the Right as income and wealth concentrates in the 1% (Rand Paul would be considered as a fringe weirdo by the GOP politicians of 1964).

How many of the green doomsters have restructured their lives to prepare for the coming climate change? They’ll want to act now before the evidence become so evident that property values are affected. Most live near the soon-to-be submerged coasts or in the soon-to-be desiccated and baked southern States. Have they begun to emigrate inland and to the north?

Alone In Fear
Alone In Fear. By fre-lanz on DeviantArt.

How do people act when they believe doom is coming?

We have examples in history and fiction (fiction showing how we expect people to act).  People who see war coming devote themselves to preventing it — or preparing for it (e.g., enlistments soar). We see the same in fiction. In When Worlds Collide (a great book, nicely adapted to film) the wealthy Sidney Stanton pours his wealth into a project to save humanity (and himself). So it goes in the hundreds of stories in this genre.

Contract these with an example from history — the world’s closest brush with nuclear war since the Cuban Missile blockade: the Kargil War in summer 1999 between India and Pakistan. Self-serving accounts by US officials describe how close both sides came to exchanging nukes — and their role in preventing that. See The Clinton Tapes and Strobe Talbott’s story. In fact the local people gave no sign of the panic that should occur before a war turns atomic. No surprise, since much of the US intel was (again) wrong. For example, the army Chief of Staff’s memoirs revealed that Pakistan didn’t then have a working delivery system for its weapons.

A Strong Uncle Sam


Here are my speculative conclusions. First, that a large fraction of the apocalyptic scenarios we are told are lies told to influence our behavior. That is, they’re not believed by the experts or activists warning us — but that they believe fear is the easiest and most effective way to influence US public opinion.

Second, I suspect that they’re wrong and that an analysis of the fear barrages of the past decade or two will show a high failure rate. Perhaps we’ve become more discriminating during the past two generations, better able to distinguish truth from fiction. Or perhaps we’ve just become more skeptical, with no better — or even less — ability to distinguish valid from exaggerated warnings.

Given the many perils that face us in the wilds of the 21st century, much depends on the answer. There’s much talk about a resilient and sustainable society, but they seldom mention its cornerstones: a people’s courage and strength of will.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about fear, about the importance that we have clear vision of our world, and especially these posts:

  1. Spreading the news: the end is nigh!
  2. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off!
  3. Propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island — Jared Diamond warns of the End.
  4. Today’s conservative doomster warning (ludicrous but fun) — America will collapse before 2017!
  5. The IPCC rebukes the climate doomsters. Will we listen?
  6. Apocalyptic thinking on the Left about climate change risks burning their credibility.
  7. A warning about the end of the world (doomster scenario #137) — “Industrial civilization headed for ‘irreversible collapse’.”
  8. Will we starve after all the bees die?
  9. Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from failed predictions to have confidence in ourselves & our future.
  10. Threats come & go, leaving us in perpetual fear & forgetful of the past.

Fear Wolf



18 thoughts on “Good news about the fear epidemic: we’re learning!”

  1. Your argument is that since one can observe neither a reaction of type “flee” , nor of type “fight”, this means that the prevalent scares are not acknowledged as credible their target demographics.

    You forget the third kind of response: “freeze”.

    Without fangs or claws, without fins or wings, immobility and hoping the danger passes away without noticing or harming you is the remaining approach. And from this viewpoint, the state of mind of the population is much less clear, as well as more difficult to assess.

    Therefore, while your evaluation appears to be correct in some cases (e.g. a communist takeover of the USA), the analysis is inconclusive in some others (e.g. the impact of climate change).

    1. Guest,

      Please provide some historical examples of a people inactive before a visible threat (I.e., visible to *them*).

      While possible, inaction strikes me as an improbable response for a group (unless there are unusual conditions — such as there are neither possible actions nor sufficient time to react) – although it is interesting as an analogy.

    2. What about here and now?

      A police state spying on everybody (NSA), enforcing constant and meaningless controls (TSA), whose heavily armed policemen kill people in cool blood in front of cameras on something like a weekly basis, disappearing people either in its police precincts (Chicago) or in special camps (Guantanamo) is a clear and present danger — against which the vast majority of the population is simply inactive, neither fighting against it to end the abuse, nor emigrating to escape it. If I understand correctly the behavior of “visible minorities”, their general attitude towards law enforcement is simply striving to remain inconspicuous.

      A similar observation could be made about the obvious reconfiguration of the whole socio-political order towards a plutocracy.

      You have been deploring long enough the passivity of Americans against the blatant destruction of the constitutional order and their rights. Inaction is actually a very common response in hard times — do not fight back, do not run, just try not to draw attention to oneself, blending in the background.

      Now, I did state that this is just a third possibility. Perhaps, as you suggest, people do not perceive any danger with a police state or a plutocratic regime. But technically, you have not proven it against that third possibility.

      1. guest,

        Our current situation is a population that does not see the things you mention as a threat. The data is unequivocal.

        The police are the second most trusted institution (after the army)! I suspect the next Gallup confidence in institutions survey will show little change in the that — those that lose trust from the publicity about shootings will be more or less offset by those that gain. Many Americans see the police as the thin blue line defending us from maunders within. Conservative websites overflow with this.

        Ditto for the NSA surveilance. A large number don’t see themselves as harmed by it, and fear the hordes of terrorists (al qaeda sleeper cells!). That’s the success of the massive fear barrages since 9/11.

        “reconfiguration of the whole socio-political order towards a plutocracy.”

        Watch Fox News, by far the most popular news network. That shifting towards plutocracy is invisible; conservatives are fighting the slide to socialism (led by the illegitimate Kenyan in the White House). Victories of the 1% are our victories, Libertarianism triumphant. The polls I’ve seen show only mild concern about this issue. Which is why the GOP is winning.

        “passivity of Americans against the blatant destruction of the constitutional order and their rights.”

        Because they don’t see this as a threat. You can do the Government 101 field test. Write up the Bill of Rights in simple terms as a petition. Work the streets to get signatures. Good luck. The only amendment with passionate support is the Second.

        “you have not proven it against that third possibility.”

        First, one cannot prove a negative (although I have cited quite a bit of evidence in rebuttal). Second, that’s why I asked for examples from the past. We don’t see the present clearly (we’re too close), and can argue until our children experience the results. We know how such episodes in the past ended, and the passage of time gives clarity.

  2. FM,

    In my direct, freezing is the natural reaction to direct threats. Fear has the innate ability to create “the deer in the headlights” effect.

    In war , some fight, some flee, but many remain frozen in place, stuck, and unable to respond or react.

    1. Mike,

      I agree that freezing is a common response for individual people. But I would like to see some examples of a people — large groups — freezing in the face of a visible threat.

      Over the vast scope of space and time it has certainly happened. But I suspect it is rare.

      More common is the response of Jews in NAZI Germany. Those that saw the threat acted. The majority did not see the threat — understandable since nothing like this had been seen for centuries, and hence considered things from the primitive past — and exterminations like actually happened were extremely rare in our history. When they saw the threat there were no longer good options. Some tried to flee. Some fought. I believe the death rate was similar for both choices.

  3. FM,

    As you probably know better than I do, it depends on how you look at it and qualify the distinction between fight, flight, and freeze. I’ll make an attempt here to separate.

    Conditions for Freezing
    a. Group feels pacified by state and any further resistance or attempts to flee is futile. Example. Native Americans post 1880 once formally in reservations.
    Example: Majority of French during Nazi occupation

    b. “At least it is not my group” response. Group sees threat against others in their community, but do nothing since it does not directly effect their group.
    Example: Non-Partisan Germans during 1930-1945 as Nazi’s attacked “others”
    Example: Shia watching Iraq gov’t attacking displacing Sunni’s post 2003.

    1. Mike,

      I do not understand why you call either of those freezing.

      The occupied French people saw no reasonable options. The NAZI response to the Czech resistance in Spring 1942 probably confirmed this belief. It certainly did for the Czechs, who did little to resist the Germans afterwards. The French resistance came alive as D-day approached, for obvious reasons.

      As for the Iraq Shia watching oppression of Iraq Sunni — and the German’s in WWII — I do not even see the relevance. I am discussing cases where people see a threat to themselves. After years of oppression by the Sunni, probably most of Iraq’s Shia cheered. And the majority of the German people supported the war until quite late.

    1. Mike,

      You are a brilliant guy, but I think you are really reaching here. I don’t see how you can cite either the French in WW2 or the Iraq Shia as examples of freezing. Both pretty obviously acted in what they considered a reasonable way — and I think most observers would agree that their choices were rational (given the values of the people then and there).

      Disagreeing with their choices does mean they “froze”.

      Can you give a stronger example of a people freezing in the face of a threat visible to them (I.e., not taking a reasonable available action).

      Masada is not a relevant example here.

  4. FM,

    I typically look at things differently than others, and that’s okay. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. But, the discussion can facilitate learning. So, let’s continue.

    “Can you give a stronger example of a people freezing in the face of a threat visible to them (I.e., not taking a reasonable available action).”

    Yes, every day I go to the FM website and read about real threats to my nation and my way of life. Yet, my fellow citizens seem to be stuck, frozen, unable or unwilling to mobilize and respond. They are not fighting, and only a very few are fleeing. The natural response is to do nothing and watch Kim Kardashian and American Idol.

    “After years of oppression by the Sunni, probably most of Iraq’s Shia cheered.”

    Most observers are wrong about this. Saddam’s push post-Iran war was for nationalization. Families, tribes, and sects intermixed. Sunni and Shia was minimized in favor for Iraqi and Arab. The sectarianism rose in 2005. Literally, sons did nothing, brothers did nothing, and cousins did nothing as their relatives (inter-married) were beating, robbed, and murdered by the government.

    “Masada is not a relevant example here.”

    I disagree. The larger issue is often, “why do individuals (and groups) act in ways that are self-destructive or irrational?”

    This answer defies distinction between fight, flight, or freeze. Those are reactions not responses. It doesn’t matter which direction they go. The real question is why?

    1. Mike,

      “Yet, my fellow citizens seem to be stuck, frozen, unable or unwilling to mobilize and respond.”

      I disagree. Recognition is the most difficult phase of the problem resolution process. We’re not “frozen” and so unable to act. We just don’t see the threat. My question remains — out of the long annals of history, what are some cases of people seeing threats but not taking reasonable available actions?

      “sons did nothing, brothers did nothing, and cousins did nothing as their relatives (inter-married) were beating, robbed, and murdered by the government.”

      We both know of countless cases in history where people drew the insider/outsider lines in ways with which we disagree. But that is extremely different than people being frozen in the face of what they consider threats.

      “The larger issue is often, ‘why do individuals (and groups) act in ways that are self-destructive or irrational?’”

      I agree. It’s not the question being discussed here, but it’s an important and larger question. And far more mysterious.

    2. Mike ,

      This is imo an important point. How we proceed depends on accurate diagnosis of the problem. An America that does not yet recognize the problem is different than one that sees the problem but is frozen, unable to act.

      The political remedy differs.

      There is also the question — a separate discussion — about the nature of the problem. Is there a key or core problem, or do we face a long list of ills? My guess is that this is conceptually like syphilis, with one underlying I’ll creating a wide range of symptoms.

  5. FM,

    “An America that does not yet recognize the problem is different than one that sees the problem but is frozen, unable to act.”

    Mostly agree. When groups are concerned, I don’t think it’s a dividing line between 1. Recognize the problem and 2. see the problem. Rather, it’s a long spectrum with various engagement points. We might feel like something is wrong, but we are unable to see it clearly. We might decide that something is wrong, but misdiagnose the problem and act towards a half-measure or in the wrong direction.

    My guess, and it’s only a guess, goes back to your initial discussion on fight or flight. And, the outcome of the conflict is dependent on when the group realizes the problem. If it’s too late, then fighting and/or fleeing are irrelevant. They are stuck with the results.

    As a professor of mine once noted about small wars, “most rebellions are unsuccessful and easily suppressed my the state. It is only interesting to study to cases where the rebelling party won.” I used to agree with that statement. Now, I don’t. I find it more fascinating to look at the psychology of failed rebellions in order to try and understand the why. It’s an ugly truth about our ability to cope with fear- why are we unable to clearly see the problem and respond before it’s too late.

    I hope that I didn’t derail your blog post too much. I appreciate the dialogue.

    1. Mike,

      This doesn’t derail the discussion — this is the very essence of the post.

      ” I don’t think it’s a dividing line between 1. Recognize the problem and 2. see the problem”

      I agree. The line (somewhat arbitrary, as usual) is between

      • An America that does not yet see the problem
      • An Americathat sees the problem but is frozen, unable to act.

      “on fight or flight.”

      Exactly. Those are both responses to recognition of the problem.

    1. Breton,

      You can answer the question. What evidence is there that the majority of Americans see the decay of the Republic as a serious problem?

      They don’t vote, and when they do they routinely re-elect. They love the police and military. Etc etc.

      We do whine a lot. But that’s hardly a sign of problem recognition, let alone interest in acting.

  6. Pingback: The First Rule of American War … | Bill Totten's Weblog

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