Friday, April 19, 2013

Scary, Scary People Everywhere

On the day of my eighteenth birthday, I received a letter from Lyndon Johnson saying, "The President of the United States of America Sends You Greetings." This had all the resonance of some company's "free gift," presuming recipients know gifts aren't free. The incubated disingenuousness piques your shit detector.

 His thoughtful greeting aside, President Johnson was asking me to die. Now, I'd always known I would die at some point--most people do--but I found it somewhat officious of him to request my death at this particular point in time. Buying the farm is generally not on the agenda of most eighteen-year-olds, especially those who don't live in Florida or Texas.

What got me on this particular roll was an article I found on the falsity of JFK's resolve on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pop culture has obfuscated the context of the times, with the near-canonization of President Kennedy through many books, adoring press accounts and movies such as Thirteen Days. The reality was different.

The reality was that in the Cold War era, the American government went out of its way to keep everyone scared. Yes, my elementary school classes engaged in "duck for cover" drills and practiced evacuations to bomb shelters. I remember my sister telling me, when I was five or six, that when (not if) the Russian Communists took over America, children would be forced to rat on their parents. We all got similar messages from our primary school teachers, one of whom told my class that the Russians would take all children away from their parents, because that's what they did in Russia.

The draft notice that I and most other males received only served to underscore our assumption that we would soon die, if not In Vietnam (where the Communists had to be stopped before they came to California), then from the coming invasion from someone. This conviction was reflected in the movies of the times--Night of the Living Dead and the entire James Bond series, where all the bad guys were Russian commies, come to mind.

The article cited above reminds that Kennedy, in his presidential campaign, attacked Nixon and the Eisenhower administration as soft on Communism  and allowed a significant missile gap to develop between the U.S. and Russia, with Russia having superiority.  In fact, the opposite was true.

And when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, Americans were made to believe their demise was imminent unless the missiles were removed from Cuba. It turns out that Kennedy knew, and his advisors had noted in private memos at the time, the problem for Kennedy wasn't military--it was political. In other words, Kennedy risked a nuclear confrontation for political reasons, not for national security or military purposes.

Sound familiar? Do you hear an echo of the Bush II administration warning Americans (later reiterated by National Security Director Condoleeza Rice) that if we didn't take out Iraq, "the clear evidence of peril--the smoking gun--could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

The only ethic that seems to cross party lines is keeping Americans scared. Add to this the very strong American value, best characterized in literature, of the individual against the society. Think Huckleberry Finn, here, and its virtual remake in, say, all of Hemingway's novels, all of Steinbeck's, all of Kesey's, Patchett's (at least those I've read) and so-on. And then, our films: Westerns, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood flicks; Detective and Sci-fi; and even the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But bring together these two traits of American culture, and it's not surprising that not only do we spend inordinate amounts of money for a huge military, but we also have a society rabid for individual gun ownership. Our elected officials, whether by intent or reflex, try to keep the populace scared. So many huge corporations try to do so as well: Think Big Pharma and their relentless ads for drugs that will keep us alive; think the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saying environmental regulations will harm Americans; or, think of the smaller companies, such as the one peddling Life Alert or home security systems.

As I finish this piece, major television networks are running nonstop coverage of the pursuit of the second bomber suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing. Inevitably, since everyone runs out of stuff to talk about, the chatter has turned to terrorism, sleeper cells, are-we-or-are-we-not safe, and so on. Instead of reporting anything of substance, the guests are former FBI agents, former ATF officers, and various terrorism experts talking about all the horrid things that CAN happen.

It's as though we've become a nation of fearmongers and fearmongees, the former in charge and vastly outnumbers by the latter. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

What to do about it? I don't know, but I refuse to be scared anymore. Ideas or thoughts? Let me know.

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