A vaccine against the fears that make us weak

Summary: The hysteria about COVID-19 should remind us that no nation can remain great when so governed by fear as America. Perhaps seeing our past episodes of terror about phantoms will inoculate us against these. Or at least shame us into trying to do better.

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”
— By the great Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

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Reading the tsunami of misinformation about COVID-19 reminds me (again) how the path to success in America is in selling fear. Stoking hysteria. Being often wrong is no impediment to continued success. Does this mean that we are cowards, or just gullible, or something else? Whatever the answer, it can’t be good.

Jonathan Swift foresaw this great illness of 21st century America in his great work Gulliver’s Travels. The scientists of Laputa – the floating island – are like us.

“These People are under continual Disquietudes, never enjoying a Minute’s Peace of Mind; and their Disturbances proceed from Causes which very little affect the rest of Mortals. Their Apprehensions arise from several Changes they dread in the Celestial Bodies. …

“They are so perpetually alarmed with the Apprehensions of these and the like impending Dangers, that they can neither sleep quietly in their Beds, nor have any Relish for the common Pleasures or Amusements of Life. …This conversation they are apt to run into with the same Temper that boys discover, in delighting to hear terrible Stories of Sprites and Hobgoblins, which they greedily listen to, and dare not go to Bed for fear.”

Since problem recognition is the first step to a cure, here are some of the fear-mongering hits that I wrote about from 2008 to 2015, far enough in the past so that we can see them more clearly. Each of these was big news at the time. We cannot learn from this stories because we forget them. Read and remember which you believed.

Some scary stories are perennials, like locusts who emerge once a decade. Such as the warnings since the 1980s of electro-magnetic pulse weapons in the hands of criminals and terrorists! Of course, for equally long experts have warned that these claims are largely bogus. Details here.

More terrifying, since 1984 Iran has been two years from building nukes. But why worry about that when natural disasters will destroy us first. Such as a reversal of Earth’s magnetic fieldmega-tsunamis (more common than you think), and massive volcanoes (every burp from Yellowstone produces a crop of fear-mongering articles).

Bad news from Paul Craig Roberts: “The Profile of a Third World Country How Bush Destroyed the Dollar“ in Counterpunch, 26 January 2008. But wrong. Sadly, he is still popular.

Did you survive the 2009 swine flu epidemic in America? Lots of hysteria about it. Do you even remember it?

We were destroyed by hyperinflation in 2010 and 2011, or so we were told by the far-right. Was Obama turning America into something like Zimbabwe? No, because the Fed is not wildly printing money and there was no hyperinflation.

A 2010 editorial in NY Daily News warned that “The threat keeps growing: List of terrorists in our midst gets longer and longer.“

“The clear and present danger of homegrown Islamist terrorism grows weekly. Plots are coming at New York and America from every which way and at increasing speed. …Al Qaeda no longer needs a command center. Its foot soldiers are everywhere. They need only to win once, while the good guys have to win every time. How long can a winning streak go?”

Paul Craig Roberts again described our future in “When Globalism Runs Its Course – The Year America Dissolved“ (Counterpunch, 26 July 2010). Here is a sample of his vision. He was, as usual, wrong.

“It was 2017. Clans were governing America. The first clans organized around local police forces. The conservatives’ war on crime during the late 20th century and the Bush/Obama war on terror during the first decade of the 21st century had resulted in the police becoming militarized and unaccountable. As society broke down, the police became warlords. The state police broke apart, and the officers were subsumed into the local forces of their communities. The newly formed tribes expanded to encompass the relatives and friends of the police. …

“The dollar had collapsed as world reserve currency in 2012 when the worsening economic depression made it clear to Washington’s creditors that the federal budget deficit was too large to be financed except by the printing of money.” {The recession had ended a year before he wrote this.}

Terrifying news “Muslim Brotherhood Infiltrates Obama Administration“ at the blog of Investors Business Daily, 5 December 2013. Debunked here.

The North Pole is now a lake! Aren’t you afraid yet! – 3 August 2013. It just the usual fake news by alarmists. But back then, scientists quickly debunked such stories.

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?“ by Nafeez Ahmed (journalist, director of Institute for Policy Research & Development) in a blog of the Guardian, 14 March 2014 – “Natural and social scientists develop new model of how ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global system.” It got a lot of attention. But it was not really true. Details here.

Why didn’t I see I survived the Super Monster Godzilla El Nino of 2014? Godzilla destroys cities. Despite months of hysterical warnings. this one didn’t. See here and here.

Remember the 2014 hack of the Federal government’s personnel files at OPM? Lots of predictions like this about its effects: “I believe {this} infobomb has done catastrophic damage to US security. How? Big data + bots (made smarter via AI) will be able to turn this data into a decisive instrument of warfare.” See the story here.

My favorite fearmongering campaign of 2014 was about the rising cyber-terrorist power of …North Korea. See this horrific example. Have they become a superpower yet?

What happend to all those ISIS terrorists coming into the US from Mexico in 2015? Even Fox News warned us! See the details here.

The hysteria about the 2015 ebola epidemic in America was a foretaste of today’s about COVID-19, showing our inability to clearly see dangers.

“Maybe it will all work out ok, but if you catch Ebola just remember your nice article calling anyone concerned chicken little as your lungs fill with fluid, and you’re shitting and vomiting blood.”
— Comment by Sam posted at the FM website.

Here is fake news from the days when we worried that terrorists would crash airliners, not Boeing’s accountants: Another fear barrage hits America: thermite is bad for airplanes!

We need a new national motto for the 21st Century

No Fear


Special interest groups manufacture propaganda to fool us. We fool them by enjoying it, furiously debating it amongst ourselves, crying in fear – but not acting upon it. This is a pitiful story. It is the behavior of peons, not citizens. The solution lies in our hands, becoming citizens interested in truth and assuming responsibility for America. Rationally assessing threats and acting on them as boldly and decisively as needed.

“Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.”
— John Adams in “Thoughts on Government” (April 1776).

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see my posts about fear, and especially these posts …

  1. Spreading the news: the end is nigh! – An assortment of peak oil doomster predictions.
  2. Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from failed predictions to have confidence in ourselves & our future.
  3. Threats come & go, leaving us in perpetual fear & forgetful of the past.
  4. Dreams of apocalypses show the brotherhood of America’s Left & Right.
  5. Collapsitarians and their doomster porn.
  6. America suffers from the Crisis Crisis, making us weak. – One of the best articles ever from Playboy.
  7. We have become cowards. We can become brave again.
  8. Why we love scary news stories, just as children like candy.
The United States of Fear
Available at Amazon.

A book for our time

The United States of Fear.

By Tom Engelhardt. See his website!

From the publisher …

“In 2008, when the U.S. National Intelligence Council issued its latest report meant for the administration of newly elected President Barack Obama, it predicted that the planet’s “sole superpower” would suffer a modest decline and a soft landing fifteen years hence.

“In The United States of Fear, Tom Engelhardt makes clear that Americans should don their crash helmets and buckle their seat belts, because the United States is on the path to a major decline at a startling speed. Engelhardt offers a savage anatomy of how successive administrations in Washington took the “Soviet path” – pouring American treasure into the military, war, and national security—and so helped drive their country off the nearest cliff.

This is the startling tale of how fear was profitably shot into the national bloodstream, how the country—gripped by terror fantasies – was locked down, and how a brain-dead Washington elite fiddled (and profited) while America quietly burned.

“Think of it as the story of how the Cold War really ended, with the triumphalist “sole superpower” of 1991 heading slowly for the same exit through which the Soviet Union left the stage twenty years earlier.”


12 thoughts on “A vaccine against the fears that make us weak”

  1. Classic case here


    The reference was from Watts.

    We get a study which has one extreme low probability scenario mentioned, and then this gets amplified in the media into being the most likely and very likely.

    We live not so much the Age of Anxiety as in the Age of Credulity. Or perhaps the Age of Hysteria. The question to ask is how impulsive superstition has become such a huge factor. And the thing to analyze may be how much effect it is having on policy action.

  2. “Reading the tsunami of misinformation about COVID-19 reminds me (again) how the path to success in America is in selling fear. Stoking hysteria. Being often wrong is no impediment to continued success. Does this mean that we are cowards, or just gullible, or something else? Whatever the answer, it can’t be good.”
    I said early on, “Turn off your TV.” Turn off the noise of bias talking heads and commercials…issues on cable news outlets to say the least. No, it’s not good.

    “Walk toward the fire. Don’t worry about what they call you…” AB

    1. Bipartisan endorsement for turning off cable news on this front.

      I think one of the interesting little quirks is that a lot of these things feed in to older habits which developed in a different period. People trusted their broadcast news -> People got into the habit of watching CNN -> People are now watching (your choice of news feed network, they’re all similar on this axis).

      1. SF,

        I go back to a roof antenna and ABC, CBS, and NBC. Evening news for one hour a day.

      2. I’m a shift worker myself and I don’t like watching TV alone, so I usually hit up Reuters and for buttressing/flavor a couple of other sites. I treat Reuters as kind of the “gold standard.”

  3. Kris Hatashita

    I’m almost sixty. Throughout my life I’ve been told I need to fear (deep breath) communists, global cooling, acid rain, litter, Y2K virus, Swine flu, Bird Flu, H1N1, ozone depletion, leaded gas, Muslims, carbon dioxide, road salt, GMOs, LSD, the SLA, Moonies, The PLO, the FLQ, North Koreans, North Vietnamese, hand guns, long guns, pipe bombs, Black Panthers, sun spots, UV, tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke, nuclear holocaust, Ronald Reagan, Yuri Andropov, Margaret Thatcher, SARS, MERS, COVID19, space debris, The 1%, The 10%, big business and Donald Trump.

    And I’m forgetting a bunch.

    I would like to tell society what my father told me when I was afraid that CO2 was going to cause the next ice age and by 1985 we would need to live under domes in order to survive – “People are afraid of the unknown. If you’re ignorant that means everything is unknown. Don’t be ignorant.”

  4. yes, good one Larry. another excellent read is “The Coddling of the American Mind” that argues very much the same thing. thanks.

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for the kind words. The harsh reality is that these posts get 1/4 or 1/3 of average traffic. American’s don’t want to hear that they have any responsibility as either cause of America’s problems – or responsibility to fix them.

      We want simple morality tales of angels (our “team”) and demons (our foes). We want to booo and cheer. As if life were a sports game. That is the core problem, to which neither I nor anyone else has a glimmer as to the cure.

  5. Here in Australia, fear of covid 19 has lead to selling out of toilet paper in all the main shops, and on line retailers.

    One can only assume that a large proportion of people have or are about to shit themselves with fear of the virus.

    Larry, you have said this many times, Government will get more right or left, but both will get more authoritarian.

    With all the debt in the world and if falling share prices result in cuts to employment or price rises, then this may become a self feeding slow down.

    Australia one way or the other will suffer with China our biggest revenue source.

  6. Kris Hatashita

    CNN headline – “Bodies ‘pile up’ in morgue as country feels the strain of coronavirus

    In the article, in the second paragraph, after a description of dozens of bodies in black bags lining the floor of an Iranian morgue we read, “It’s unclear which, if any of the people whose bodies lie in the morgue were infected with the coronavirus gripping the country…”

    How does CNN begin to consider itself a serious news outlet when it distorts information like this? Why stop at Iranian morgues if you’re going to distort information in this manner? How about, “Millions die as the world is gripped by Coronavirus”. The article could read, “Millions of people have died in the past. It’s unclear if any had the coronavirus. “

    America doesn’t have a fighting chance when news outlets give such little regard for maintaining some level of journalistic integrity in their blind pursuit of selling hyped garbage to the consuming public.

    1. Kris,

      They all try to outdue each other with horrifying pics and videos. They do the same thing with the ‘climate crisis’ that doesn’t exist.

      1. Ron,

        It’s tough to make a buck in the news biz. It’s a free market. So they give us the news we like. If we want better news, then that’s what they’d give us.

        No different than the fast food biz. If we decided to hate fat and salt, we wouldn’t get it.

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