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Gordon's D-Zone Arcive (2006-2014)

Monday, June 08, 2009

I'm Afraid of Fear!

It was Franklin D Roosevelt who once said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself”. These words were spoken during his inaugural address as US president when America was facing hard economic times during the 1930s Great Depression. While much can be said about the relevance of these words to our own times, with the collapsing markets and global recession, I want to focus more on the impact of economic collapse on society, and more specifically on the destructive power of fear.

Another episode from the 1930s can help us understand how easy it is to create a state of fear in the population. The event happened on a Halloween night of 1938. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had scheduled an adapted version of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. However, the only idea that was retained from the original text was the one relating to Martian invasion. In this sense, the radio script contained references to real places in the United States with the Mars invaders landing in a part of New Jersey.

Orson Welles, who was an actor, producer and performer wanted to change the script in such a way as to make it more realistic sounding and the production now took the form of a music variety programme (which was common at those times) interspersed with news bulletins about the Martian invasion. No big deal, isn’t it? However, for many of those tuning in later and missing the introduction stating that this was simply a radio play; this was the end of the world as they knew it. Shockingly, many did believe that they were doomed and many people in the West and East coast of the US started fleeing their houses, calling the police and trying to save themselves and their families. Despite the disclaimers that were aired once the studio was given an indication of the impact of this broadcast outside, the damage had been done.

Why did people believe that Martians had invaded Earth? Apart from the realism of the production, there are a number of factors that made people panic in such a way. First, there was almost unquestionable faith in what radio says as a means of mass communication. Second, Americans were already at high stress levels with the looming of war in Europe. Finally, Americans were still facing the economic difficulties of the Great Depression.

All these reasons may have played a key role in creating panic and to fool otherwise rational people into believing Martians were planning to take over. However, the over-arching reason that I can think of to account for this irrational behaviour is our fear. Today, as in the 1930s, we are still plagued by the same fears, albeit going by different names. We fear uncertainty. We fear war – this time from North Korea or Al Qaeda. We fear for our future. We are more suspicious of people who come from outside our culture.

The economic downturn forces us to become ever more hostile to immigrants, people who have different beliefs or traditions. Unfortunately, our media does not help to educate us but is often agenda-driven and encourages us to inflate our fears by throwing data, statistics and claims about our impending doom. No wonder the far right is growing again in Europe. We are afraid of so many things. New scary things. Global terrorism, unemployment, material loss and climate change.

In this, the late 1930s has also much to teach us. A man rose in Germany during a time when Germany had lost World War I and was recovering from economic ruin. This man blamed the foreigners for Germany’s collapse, more specifically what he called the ‘polluting Jews’. He wanted all Jews, gipsies, and others to be denied their rights. He then also wanted to annihilate those he deemed a threat to the pure German ‘race’: starting with disabled people and then passing on to the Jewish people, gipsies, homosexuals, communist sympathisers and so on. They were bringing the German economy down and taking up German jobs, he said.

The man, as you can probably tell, was Adolf Hitler and his state was now called the Third Reich. And how did Hitler come to power? How do leaders who feed on hate, racial intolerance and half-truths gain power? Because they feed on our fear. On this natural instinct that can save us but that can ultimately destroy us. Sadly, in a Europe plagued by economic problems, we risk losing our humanity and give in to our tendencies to give in to fear. And believe that not Martians, but foreigners are planning to invade us. And that would be repeating history wouldn’t it? If not ending it…