America’s Top-Selling Consumer Product

The Summer, 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly tackles the subject of Fear. This literary magazine examines a theme using primary source material. Each edition contains dozens of essays, speeches, quotes, art, photos, statistics and excerpts from contemporary and historical authors. I attest that its Spring, 2012 issue on Communication is among the finest things I have ever read.

On the subject of Fear Lewis H. Lapham’s Preamble is highly compelling, intelligent, and troubling. He cites “the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception.” His point being that the country has lost its capacity to reason critically. What I have noticed in the last two years is America is becoming more tribal and trivial. Ever greater numbers of smaller, more specific self-interest groups take increasing exception with whatever is being said by whoever says it.

The publication and Lapham himself  believe “Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of tweet.” It is important to note that when fear rules populaces crave a strong man. History is replete with such examples and a near corresponding number of disasters.

One could read this piece and conclude that the publication is anti-Trump. That is far too simple a conclusion and naively narrow in perspective. Indeed, in its totality this issue basically concludes people reap what they sow. America is not a Trump America but its fear gave Trump, his supporters and doctrine ground to flourish. American’s now react to a tagline to convince them of deeper thinking and reasoned arguments. “Just say No to Drugs”, “Shock and Awe” and “Make America Great Again” are mind-numbingly inane and absolutely deceptive or self-deceptive.

Lapham continues on this vein of fear as a consumer product…”Popularly priced at conveniently located checkpoints on drugstore and supermarket shelves, at airports and tanning salons. Diligently promoted by the news and fakes news bringing minute-to-minute reports of America the Good and the Great threatened on all front by approaching apocalypse – rising seas and barbarian hordes, maniac loose in the White House, nuclear war on or just near the horizon. Our leading politicians and think-tank operatives shrink from both truth and falsehood, regard mental paralysis as the premium state of securitized being.”

The message being America and its leaders are afraid to think, to explore, to discuss, and to resolve. It is stricken by divisions “sexual and racial, cultural, social, and economic, nuanced and naked, founded and unfounded.” This piece gets extremely interesting when it suggests America has moved from real fear which is “a rational and comprehensible response to the perception of a clear and present danger” to neurotic fear which is a “free-floating, anxious expectation attachable to anything or nothing that catches the eye or ear.”

One only has to watch any flavour of American news to catalogue the litany of grievances, conflicts and fears that are being experienced and sold. It is amazing the country is functioning. What is troubling is that drug use, alcoholism and other vices are all on the rise as are visits to psychologists and psychiatrists. Local, state and federal response to this situation is unified. All suggest people “Buy American” because consumerism will save all.

This never ceasing expectant anxiety “strengthens the powers of church and state. Fear is the foundation of all government, the law, or the commandment that maintains peace on earth, the hold on property. goodwill toward men.” As American Author Ursula K. Le Guin attests, “Great self-destruction follows upon unfounded fear.”

Fear “is the oldest and strongest human emotion. It is “also the most-wonder working of all the world’s marketing tools. Used wisely, innovatively, and well, it sells everything in the store – the word of God and wages of sin, the divorce papers and the marriage certificate, the face cream and assault rifle, the grim head-line news in the morning and the late-night laugh track.”

All elections run on fear and all wars all sold leveraging expectant anxiety. Logically and theoretically we all know this but our emotions have us reacting and behaving illogically and impractically. It is amazing to think that America has been at war for a century. This began with World War One moved to the War on Booze in the 1920’s and then the War on Poverty in the 1930’s. The Second World War immediately transitioned to The Cold War with hot features in Korea and Vietnam. A War on Drugs and War on Terror take us to current day. Each of these wars was branded and marketed.

Without these wars “how then defend, honor, and protect the cash flow of the nation’s military-industrial complex pumping air and iron into the conspicuous consumptions of the American Dream?” In other words war is good business and it keeps Americans going to the mall.

Too often FDR’s famous quote on fear is presented in edited form. We hear just, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” but the following sentence that accompanied it says much more, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed effort to convert retreat into advance.”

Lapham’s Quarterly is always a rich read and I encourage you to read it. I encourage you to read everything you can. It will help contextualize, inform and address your own expectant anxiety. We all want to move forward so no one can outsource their own thinking.

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