For the last few years Kay and I have had the opportunities to travel to places we’ve dreamed about for years but been unable to afford. A relative on Kay’s side of the family has been generous with monetary Christmas gifts, and we have chosen to use that gift to fund travel. We booked two weeks for a France excursion with daytrips into Switzerland and Spain as we moved around the country. When we started booking our B&B’s, we discussed driving north to Brussels from Paris for a couple of days, but opted to go south instead. Then the terrorists struck in Brussels. It never occurred to us that we should cancel our trip. I recently heard a statistic that stated you are seven times more likely to die from being hit by a falling object than by a terrorist.
Mark Twain said, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” With that in mind, I watched the film “Trumbo” about screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the exposing of members of the Communist Party during a period in American history known as “the red scare.” This registered party was as legitimate and legal a political entity as the Republican and Democratic parties. About the same time the Dixiecrats (a splinter from the Democratic Party which gave us the likes of Senator Strom Thurmond) was also formed on the sole platform of segregation and state’s rights; these folks still seemed eager to fight the Civil War that was settled over a hundred years before and had claimed the lives of over 600,000 American citizens before the powers that be stopped the madness. But in 1948, nobody in Congress seemed to think that the members of the Dixiecrats were worthy of Senate Committee hearings.
The Communist infiltrators that were secretly taking over our government in the late 1940’s into the 1950’s were hauled before Congressional tribunals for the main purpose of allowing the likes of Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon to show the country they were earning their paychecks by protecting our vulnerable nation from the communist infestation. The only people during that time who actually went to jail were primarily Hollywood screenwriters who had chosen to exercise their right to free speech and assembly by joining the Communist Party. These people never broke any laws. Then in 1954, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to censure McCarthy for his over-reaching “red scare” tactics, one of the few Senators ever to be disciplined in such a fashion. Three years later he died in disgrace from the effects of alcoholism. And twenty years after these Senate hearings, Nixon gave us Watergate.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of doing a production of Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible” for Nashville Repertory Theatre. Miller wrote the play during the time of the “red-scare” Senate hearings and set the story during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts from 1692 to 1693. Some of the religious leaders of the time were attempting to weed out those people who did not hold to their strict understanding and interpretation of Scripture or the general religious teachings and doctrines of current scholarship at the time. I played Governor Danforth, one of those ordained ministers appointed to purify the flock from the dreaded witches. Danforth and the other judicial powers did more than just hold a few hearings. They executed those people who failed the bona fide tests of being religiously devout. Fear was then and is now a terrible tool to wield in determining an acceptable level of one’s piety.
In an article in Scientific American entitled “Factoring Fear: What Scares Us and Why,” Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University states, “Since our brains are programmed to be similar in structure, we can assume that what I experience when I’m threatened is something similar to what you experience.” Fear even affects different species in similar ways. LeDoux continues with “We come into the world knowing how to be afraid…noting that the brains of rats and humans respond in similar ways to threats, even though the threat itself might be completely different.”
What I assume from this statement is that when faced with an external life-threatening danger the rat and I will mostly likely scurry away to the nearest hiding place. But the difference comes when exposed to hate-speech and fear-mongering. A rat will continue to blithely eat his cheese while listening to the dire and spurious warnings of Joseph McCarthy while some humans will believe that America is being taken over by Communists. I recommend watching Norman Jewison’s film, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for a humorous look at our easy-to-fool human nature.
What else we have in common with our furry friend is the mob-mentality. In the same article, Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. states, “The behavior of people around us may influence our responses to threatening situations. We learn to become fearful through experience with the fear event, or learning from those people around us like our parents, our siblings, our colleagues.” Lewis goes on to say, “Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning, like Pavlov and the salivating dog.”
Since I have broken the socially unacceptable rule of allowing the subjects of politics and religion to creep into this commentary, let me state that I am both political (I vote) and religious (I embrace the Christian faith). Granted that although there are a plethora of knuckleheads in both arenas who love to frighten us, they do not keep me from voting and praying.
In “Henry VI, Part 1,” Joan of Arc says in Act 5, “Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.” I’m not sure exactly what Shakespeare meant with that line, but one possible meaning might be that fear when not elicited by a life-threatening danger invariably leads to dysfunctional choices and destructive consequences. Once Ms. Arc finished leading her own crusade, she ended up burned at the stake after falling out of favor with the political and religious leaders. Poor girl just could not get a break.
The most often spoken admonition in Scripture, or any of its close derivatives, is the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” The words are used hundreds of times. It was obvious then as now that we humans are naturally prone to fear, and it was God’s desire for us not to be afraid. So as songwriter Pete Townshend of The Who suggests in the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” do not be afraid of politicians, religious fanatics, terrorists, (and even the random object falling from the sky), who would use verbal or violent fear stratagems to scare us into hiding places, or worse, force us to live under their power. As for Kay and I, it was full speed ahead to France.