We have become cowards. We can become brave again.

Summary: Being both fearful and forgetful makes us an easily ruled people. Easily aroused to panic, yet amnesic once the news shifts to a new threat – so that we never learn from experience. What a pitiful state for a once-great people. But we can regain our courage. It takes only the will to do so. Cowardice is a choice. {From the archives, updated and revised.}

“Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember.”
— An insight from a demon (they know us well), from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1959).

A 21st C American

In the 1960s we worried that overpopulation would destroy the world (not underpopulation will wreck the economy). In the 1970s we worried that pollution would destroy the world (e.g., Los Angeles by 2017). Three decades ago we trembled in fear at accounts of Satanic Ritual Abuse and the millions of missing children in America. Obamacare will create “death panels.” Every few years since 1984 we wet our pants in fear of Iran’s nukes. Every few years from 1984 to 2019 we worry that terrorists with electromagnetic pulse weapons will send America back to the stone age. Hyperinflation often lurks under our beds. In 2014 & 2015 we feared the coming “Super” “Monster” “Godzilla” El Nino. In 2015 we panicked about Ebola (see John B. Judis’ article in The New Republic: “Ebola and ISIS Are Making American Voters Go Crazy. Here’s How Irrational Fears Shape Elections.ISIS is as serious a threat as the Nazis. And we are running out of oil!

In the 1950s we saw Ruskies Ruskies Ruskies everywhere. Sixties years later many worry about Ruskies Ruskies Ruskies everywhere (look at Twitter, with prominent people blaming Putin for a bizarrely large range of things).

Now we have the campus rape epidemic (1 in 5 coeds raped!), mass shootings, ten thousand species going extinct every year! We are five to ten years from disaster (we’ll never make it to 2017). And of course, every day we are terrified of terrorism.

Most of these (not all) are real threats. But our reactions are grossly disproportionate to the danger, and our emotional reactions make a rational response impossible. These publicity campaigns do not just happen. They require the support of powerful special interests, and usually work to their benefit. Why do our elites choose to guide us using our fears? The answer is obvious and disturbing. How do you describe a people who live in fear of so many things – real, exaggerated, or imaginary?

Big red fear button.
ID 83974165 © Alexlmx | Dreamstime.com

We have become cowards. Easily panicked sheep. I first noticed this in a 2009 discussion about terrorism at the end of which Chet Richards gave a typically incisive summary.

“If XXX is correct, and I’m not saying that he’s wrong, then we are doomed. When any attack that inflicts a few hundred casualties can bring our country down, then it’s just a matter of time until somebody does it.”

I took Chet’s conclusion and rephrased it.

“If XXXX is right that Americans are easily panicked cowards, then we are finished.  It’s just a matter of time until we crash, and rightly so.”

In 2010 I wrote about the terrorism hysteria, oddly still continuing nine years after 9/11: Today’s fear-mongering (they think we’re cowards, but I’m sure they’re wrong). On 10 August 2014, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC, member of the Armed Services Committee) spoke on Fox News (transcript here). He convinced me that I was wrong, and that we are cowards.

“When I look at the map that the General Keane described, I think of the United States. I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorist ability to operate in Syria and Iraq.”

In September 2014, Michael Krieger said the plain truth at Liberty Blitzkrieg: “The American Public: A Tough Soldier or a Chicken Hawk Cowering in a Cubicle? Some Thoughts on ISIS Intervention.“

“You gotta love the American public sometimes. For a mass of people so easily terrified by guys in caves …{the} public talks with such armchair bravado when it comes to launching bombs from drones and sending other people’s children to die. Makes you wonder though, which one is it? Is the American public actually the tough guy soldier it pretends to be when cheering overseas military interventions, or is it really a scared, propagandized, coward hiding in one of our nation’s endless cubicle rows?

“Unfortunately, based on recent opinion polls demonstrating approval for military action against ISIS, it appears to be the latter. The former is merely a front put on by that terrified, economically insecure, silently suffering automaton. I really wish this weren’t the case.”

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch.

What has happened to us?

“Nothing is terrible except fear itself.”
— Francis Bacon in De Augmentis Scientiarum, Book II – Fortitudo (1623).

Ever more frequently, America becomes terrified by a threat. Then suddenly the threat is gone, replaced by new ones about which we’re just as irrationally frightened. All peoples have an occasional mania; they take many different forms. But in modern America, their magnitude and frequency make our politics dysfunctional. Best of all from our leaders’ perspective, we forget the previous ones – and their failure to appear – to eagerly believe the new ones.

This happens because our elites see our weakness. While we run screaming in terror at each new phantom, our elites quietly build a New America on the ruins of the old. A new America that is better suited to the desires of our elites. Political conflict has become factions of our elites arguing about the details of the new regime. We have become ideal peons. Pleasant peasants. This evolution from citizens into sheep occurred slowly.

“… the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
— The demon Screwtape describes the easy road to Hell in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

A comment posted at Physics Today describes the absurdity of our situation, as people of the most powerful nation in history are so easily manipulated. Hat tip to Steve Harris.

“When a popular foolishness arises in society one may weep for Reason, or laugh at absurdity. Few take notice of the former, and the proponents of the absurdity are greatly offended by the latter.

“It is clearly embarrassing to be exposed on the wrong side of Reality, and to have your favourite phantom hazard deflated. Consider crop circles. Even after the perpetrators confessed and demonstrated how they created them, true believers refused the explanation and vilified both the sceptics and the self-exposed pranksters.

“Phantom hazards are popular with the fundamentally pusillanimous for the ‘threat’ can be confronted with the (perhaps sub-conscious) realization that there is no physical harm for the believer, but provides a cause of great moral superiority – and not infrequently, a generous income. Politically, phantom hazards are an ideal tool for manipulating a trusting population. The threat is what the proponents construe it to be, it will never physically materialize, and victory can be declared at any time it loses its persuasive ability and attendant revenue.

“The true danger lies in real damage done to society through misapplication of effort and funds, and the theft of personal freedom …”

We have no excuse for these panic attacks. A combination of common sense and consulting the relevant experts would repel these fear barrages. While occasionally wrong, the track record of our experts is excellent. But journalists report their words quietly, with greater emphasis to activists, promoters, and doomsters. But we need not be fooled. We can read and listen carefully, sifting the dross from the valuable metal on which we can build our opinions. It’s not that the experts are always right, but that they are a reliable anchor for our personal opinions.

Missouri: the
What happened to these people? America needs them now.

There are even better solutions, ways to again become strong

“I count him braver who overcomes his fears than him who overcomes his enemies.”
— Attributed to Aristotle.

This might be the core problem in America – since a nation is the expression of its people’s character. I see no hope for America until we develop courage and vision. Ways to do so are prominent in my posts about Reforming America: Steps to a New Politics. The good news is that the first step is the easiest. The rest of the road to political reform looks steeper and rougher, long and dark. But history shows that a change of spirit can occur almost instantaneously in a people. That’s how revolutions erupt (albeit not always wisely). That’s how religious revivals begin (again, not always wisely).

Redemption is a core capability iun each of us. It should come easily for American because we have so many examples from our past. We’re a people united by a desire to become better. We have taken a holiday, and can resume the journey at any time. We need only look in the mirror, decide we don’t like what we see, and resolve to do better.

“Choice. The problem is choice.”
— Neo in The Matrix Reloaded.

No Fear

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the fear epidemic afflicting America. Especially see these about the coming dooms:

  1. Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from failed predictions to have confidence in ourselves & our future.
  2. America suffers from the Crisis Crisis, making us weak.
  3. So many of our hit films show dystopias. This shows how we’ve changed.
  4. We love scary stories. The reason why reveals a secret about America.
  5. America’s New Year’s Resolution: see the future without fear!

We can become greater

The first step is to look in the mirror and see what we are – and what we can become.

Cat sees lion in the mirror


15 thoughts on “We have become cowards. We can become brave again.”

  1. Well stated, FM. Especially the quote from Neo at the end. The problem truly is choice and advertisers (including politicians) have found many ways to influence that choice in their preferred direction. But I still maintain hope!

  2. Spot on! Here in OZ we are subjected to the same events and fears. It is noticeable that our minister for immigration, in concert with the PM [and past PM’s] stokes rear of illegal immigrants. We mete out draconian and unconscionable penalties for boat people. It’s a far cry from the 1970’s when a mass exodus of Vietnamese were allowed to settle here. No harm has come of it, the opposite in fact.

    1. John,

      Your comment is absurd. Australia received aprox 80 thousand immigrants from Vietnam over a decade. Australia is current receiving 190 thousand immigrants per year.

      The ability to assimilate is a function of many factors. Two key ones are the numbers (above some limit, assimilation mechanisms break down) and the cultural distance between the origin and host nations. The Vietnamese refugges were relative few in numbers and easy to assimilate.

      Migration produces over half the population growth in Australia (source).

      Many scientists have said that Australia might not be able to sustain its current population, let alone the much larger one projected for 2050 based on current trends.

      Comparing them to the current flow is daft. Using that to casually dismiss current concerns is hubris.

  3. “While we run screaming in terror at each new phantom, our elites quietly build a New America on the ruins of the old. A new America that is better suited to the desires of our elites.”

    Where do Americans get their ideas of what to fear, of what to think? Isn’t it directly from the institutions that are owned and run by the elites? The government , the corporations, the mass media, the churches, and the educational system. Judging from general state of discourse, and from the comments you get, these institutions have been very effective at producing a population with no discernment, no ability to think. So the key to change, the first order of business, is to understand that the elites don’t care about ordinary Americans at all…AT ALL. This should be in the forefront of any serious discussion of the state of America.

    1. Gloucon,

      “Isn’t it directly from the institutions that are owned and run by the elites?”

      Yes, that’s what this post says.

      “So the key to change, the first order of business, is to understand that the elites don’t care about ordinary Americans at all…AT ALL.”

      I doubt that there are many Americans who disagree with your statement. So I don’t believe that is a first step, or a step at all.

      1. “I doubt that there are many Americans who disagree with your statement.”

        If that’s true than the situation is even worse because you’re saying that ordinary Americans know they are ruled by an uncaring elite and yet they still take no positive action to help themselves.

      2. Gloucon,

        “ordinary Americans know they are ruled by an uncaring elite and yet they still take no positive action to help themselves.”

        Exactly. Our apathy and passivity are the problem. The US was built to be run by citizens, not consumers. If we won’t run American, there is little point in whining about those who do.

        There are scores of posts about this on the FM website. See the For More Info section for links.

      3. “Exactly. Our apathy and passivity are the problem. The US was built to be run by citizens, not consumers. If we won’t run American, there is little point in whining about those who do.”

        Again, well said, Larry. This is the key element of our current Constitutional Crisis. The people who should take control of the government (the citizens at large) have forgotten this fact. The people who HAVE taken control of the government are actively working to keep them from remembering.

        I’ve been working to remind people of the power of their vote for the last 20 years and, although I still have hope, most of my fellow citi- consumers do not.

        They mostly seem to want to be left alone and fail to see how strong they are when they unite on a topic. It does not help that they seem to passively dislike most of the people around them and do not want to talk to them about anything more important than last night’s TV shows.

        As I see it, our only options at this stage are:
        1) Encounter a crisis so big (probably a financial Depression) that the average citizen has to do something or face personal catastrophic failure of some sort
        2) Change the Constitution to reflect the new reality (it solves the Constitutional Crisis, if nothing else)
        3) Keep going with the status quo until it falls completely apart (which will probably take longer than it seems possible right now but will exhaust all possibilities for redemption)
        4) A miracle of some sort occurs…

        I’ve decided to fight to the last on this topic but will be surprised if the country at large chooses anything other than option #3 (which requires the least immediate effort on their part).

        The primary reason I’ve decided to keep fighting is the very large number of little victories I’ve won over the years keeps making option #4 seem possible and that would be glorious.

      4. Pluto,

        “Keep going with the status quo until it falls completely apart”

        I disagree. As I have written so often, the 1% are doing an adequate job of running America – in their own interest, of course (who else would they govern for?). Doomsters are always predicing The End, much as a rooster crows each morning.

        “4) A miracle of some sort occurs…”

        No. A revival of the democratic spirit in America now would be no more a miracle as its appearance in Britain for several centuries, in America in the 18th C, or in so many nations now.

      5. Larry: “As I have written so often, the 1% are doing an adequate job of running America – in their own interest, of course (who else would they govern for?).”

        While I agree with your basic comment and concept, when I put on my theoretical politico-economic hat for a moment (which looks awful fancy but I usually wear it when my predictions are fancy but awful), there is a major problem with the current economic system that cannot continue indefinitely.

        The key concept of the unstated current American economic system is that the wealthy increase their wealth at the expense of the middle class (and the poor as well although they are barely counted these days). They do this by keeping the middle class divided and focused away from issues like:
        1. Trend lines for Middle class net worth year over year
        2. Trend lines for the net worth of the wealthy year over year

        This article is the best recent reference I could find on the above topics: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/06/25/six-facts-about-wealth-in-the-united-states/

        Unfortunately, one of the key measures of a first world nation is that they have a financially strong middle class.

        Barring some major change (which means that one will almost definitely occur), at some point in the next 15 years (perhaps in the next 10 years), the wealthy are either going to have to curb the behavior of their most aggressive members (unlikely, at least at first) or introduce the concept that it is best for for everybody if the US becomes the world’s largest third world country.

        You will doubtless point out that the future is almost completely unpredictable and we cannot know what will happen (and you WILL be correct). You will also likely point out that, the best leaders deal with the “here and now” to set the future up for the best possible results (again, you WILL be correct). I agree with the validity of both statements.

        BUT the size and speed of the current trends are impressive and it will take quite a while to curb and there is a distinct possibility we will go over the edge anyway. I should note that this is NOT an apocalyptic prediction, just a continuation of short-term well-documented trend lines.

        This is a link to the best countries for business (we rank 48th): https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/open-for-business-rankings

        Looking further down the road (if we go there):
        Third-world economies tend to be increasingly inefficient as they fall further and further away from the first-world standards because the amount of capital available is large but cannot generate as much profit for the owners as opportunities in other countries.

        As the willingness to invest locally decreases, the wealthy tend to rely on more and more on unfair laws and rules to maintain the value of their remaining current investments. Which, at some point (hopefully not reach here), becomes self-defeating and all investment capital flees the afflicted area (the US) leading to at least a partial collapse of the local economy.

        I sincerely hope that the wealthy in the US are smart enough and well-organized enough to prevent the last stage described above but I’ve not seen much in the way of restraint on their part yet (except Bill Gates and a very few others). Your successful retirement and mine depends on it.

      6. Pluto,

        “The key concept of the unstated current American economic system is that the wealthy increase their wealth at the expense of the middle class (and the poor as well although they are barely counted these days).”

        That is not correct. Or perhaps not precise. You are confusing relative shares of wealth with absolute levels of wealth. The 1% skim off most – not all – of the productivity gains from the US economy – so they are gaining in absolute and relative share of welath. The middle class is also growing wealthier by most measures. But their appetite is growing faster. Look at median home size and the increased number of cars and appliances per HH.

        “This is a link to the best countries for business”

        So what? We could put the Chamber of Commerce in charge of everything and get a perfect rating. I wouldn’t like that nation. Why not just put Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life in charge, and have everyone treated like peons.

  4. I think one of the interesting ideas in the film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ was the importance of the attitudes of the confident and talented middle class towards the ideal of democracy and towards creating a stable civil society. It was personified by Jimmy Stewart’s character and presented in this statement:

    “[My father] did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? Why…here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? 

    Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle.”

    The idea is that if this talented 20% or so of society decides to side with the thuggish profit-seeking attitudes of the 1%, then civil society is doomed. The same thing played out in the film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ where the John Wayne character Tom Doniphon has the same roll. If he remains on the sidelines, civil society as represented by the Jimmy Stewart character Ransom Stoddard has no chance.

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