When did Americans become so . . . obedient? That is easy to answer. It became so when they became so reflexively fearful. Of everything. Of anything.
That happened a little more than 20 years ago.
They were told to freeze in place – some may remember this – and they did. And so it came naturally when they were told to stand six feet apart. They just did it.
They were told to spread their legs. Having done that, putting on a “mask” came naturally enough, when they were told to do that, too.
They were told the “threat” was “elevated.”
The cases! The cases!
Panic became the new American drug. Obedience, its hangover. The drug was pushed from the top down by the man who was president – just barely – when (supposedly) a handful of disgruntled Saudis flew commercial jets into American landmarks, one of which pancaked straight down into its own footprint after not being struck by a commercial jet. Americans were told by George W. Bush, squinty-eyed and finger pointing, to be very afraid – of everything. Of everyone. That to not be afraid was a kind of affirmation of “evil-doing.”
“You are either with us or with the terrorists,” he said.
“We are all in this together,” Americans said – a generation later, as they terrorized one another.
One doesn’t hear much about “Islamic terrorism” anymore. Probably because the “enemies of freedom,” as Bush styled them, won. Their squinty-eyed leader now comfortably retired to his ranch in Texas where he occupies his latter days painting luridly, disjointedly – in the John Wayne Gacy style.
It happened so fast and now it’s so long ago it is hard to imagine it ever not being the way it has become – and feels like it always has been. Which is exactly how it has been to those not old enough to remember how it was, once. Who have grown up like this. Never known anything other than this. How does a tadpole know what it is like to breath air – until he becomes a frog?
What if he remains forever a tadpole?
Fear is a potent drug – and obedience keeps people addicted to it. The pushers of fear tell people that obedience will soothe their fears. Just do as we say and all will be well. Comply and this will all pass. Though it is by complying that it never passes. Who ever obeyed their way out of slavery?
“Fear,” wrote Frank Herbert in his Dune series of books, “is the mind killer.” And so it is. It is fear – of falling – that can prevent a toddler from walking. Fear – of crashing – that keeps him from learning to ride his bicycle. Fear – of what’s under the bed – that keeps him under the covers. Fear – of rejection – that keeps him from summoning the gumption to talk to the girl in his class that he likes.
It is not by obeying his fears that the child overcomes them. It is by facing them. He may need help, initially, to stand on his own two legs. To be brave when his father or mother lets go of the bike. But then he realizes – I can walk! I can ride! He is less afraid now of talking to that girl he likes. His confidence swells when she smiles back. His fears subside. His confidence grows. The world isn’t terrifying; it is exciting. There is so much to do! So much to experience.
Driver’s license at 16. Out of the house at 18.
This was once the American progression, familiar to all who grew up in an America not riddled by the disease of fearfulness. They were not – as the saying once had it – ‘fraidy cats.
Probably because their parents weren’t. And because the leaders of the country weren’t, either. The only thing we have to fear is – fear, itself.
Imagine if the man who was president on that September day only a little more than 20 years ago had said something like that rather than what he actually did say. It would have made it harder for the little man whose name we all know today to say the things he said – over and over and over, again – beginning just about three years ago.
A generation of Americans not conditioned to be afraid – and to just obey – might not have obeyed the little man who told them to be afraid.
They might instead have regarded him with one eyebrow raised – and their middle fingers raised.
Perhaps they have learned not to be afraid, again. And have their middle fingers at the ready.
. . .
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