Der Spiegel, a prominent German news magazine, ran a deeply insightful op-ed a few months ago that I just came across. It’s written by one of Spiegel Online’s correspondents who recently returned from a two-year stint in the United States, living in a suburb of Washington, DC. In the piece, Veit Medick reflects on the culture of fear that dominates America, which was fully on display in his suburban neighborhood:
Fear, of course, is nothing new in America. It's a country that has always believed that the apocalypse is somehow just around the corner. But the level of fear that has developed in the United States -- both on a smaller and larger scale -- my God! You don't have to look very far to find it. Stores provide anti-bacterial wipes to protect their customers from germs on grocery carts. Parents obsessively coddle their children by driving them to school and picking them up each day. Fences surround playgrounds to prevent anything bad from happening. Alarms to protect classrooms from school shooters are ubiquitous. Hysteria is everywhere on the cable news channels.
A study was released recently about the things Americans fear the most. It includes literally everything. Terrorism and identity theft. Corrupt companies and financial ruin. Tornadoes and adultery.
Now, I typically get a little defensive when I hear people speak ill of my country, especially when they’re Europeans, or people idolizing Europe. My response is usually, “We’re a lot bigger and more diverse than European nations so things like universal healthcare and bike lanes don’t come as easily to us. Cut us a little slack!” Not to mention that Europe has plenty of its own issues.
But Medick’s piece struck a chord with me. It didn’t feel mocking or critical, just pointing out a sad reality. As I look around me at the guns Americans cling to and the cars they refuse to travel without, I do see fear at the root—fear and a desire for independence, gone wrong. Instead of enjoying the freedom that cars can provide for us—to take spur of the moment road trips and help friends move, for instance—we’ve become bound to them as the only “safe” and utterly isolating form of transportation. Instead of being grateful for the immense wealth that our nation has and using our resources thoughtfully, we go more and more into debt to try and stave off a future economic downturn.
There is an explanation for this. America is no longer winning wars. Other countries suddenly also have a lot of power. Everything has become insanely fast. And the fear of external threats can influence the psyche -- there's no question about that.
There's also a domestic dimension to this fear. Many Americans no longer trust their politicians or the elite. They no longer know what to believe in a situation where the macroeconomic indicators are trending positive but the amount of money that lands in their wallets is getting ever smaller. Many believe they have to take their fate in their own hands. And that can be exhausting.
Donald Trump has been masterful in understanding how to take advantage of that fear.
These acknowledgements make me ever more convinced of the need to build strong towns—places where we know our neighbors, where our children can walk safely to school on their own, where our local leaders make decisions based on the real needs of average people and not how much federal money is available for a megaproject…
There's a healthy role for fear; fear helps us prepare for challenges ahead and keep on guard in dangerous situations. But I think America has gone far beyond that.
Read the rest of Medick’s essay if you want a reflective wake-up call about what’s driving so many American decisions, and for a little more Strong Towns-style reflection on the concept of fear, read Chuck Marohn's 2015 essay, "I'm Not Afraid."
(Top photo source: Elly Filho)