Fear of Fear Itself, 83 Years Later

I don’t write often about anniversaries. Nostalgia is the past’s revenge on the present. Changing what happens today is more difficult than misremembering yesterday. Wistful memories will always be there to lure us away from the work we have to do.

But there are times when the past is urgently relevant to the present. Every wedding anniversary qualifies on this count. Remembering a moment of innocent optimism can be applied to the work immediately at hand. “To have and to hold” requires continual renewal.

Our commitment to one another as a nation is no different. A new president of the United States took his oath 83 years ago today. The very first words out of his inaugurated mouth are as relevant today as they were on March 4, 1933:

“This is a day of national consecration. And I am certain that on this day my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency, I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels.

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

We know today what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was asking of the people, but those listening could have felt only comfort and relief. The necessary national resolve — political and moral — was right around the corner. But first came the truth, frankly and boldly.

The New Deal was rolled out over the next 100 days, including rural electrification, thousands of bank closures, stock market regulations, Civilian Conservation Corps, home mortgage reform, the end of the gold standard, Public Works Administration, and the building of national parks — all begun by June 16, 1933.

This was not a campaign speech. It was governance in action. The popular support of the people was integral, shaped by the president’s “fireside chats.” The New Deal was not only promised; it was delivered.

Beneath and before the promise came an identification of the obstacle, frankly and boldly: fear. Banks had failed. Jobs were scarce. Desperation was everywhere — and worsening.

Today we have stagnant wages, a wave of foreclosures, ineffective government — plus terrorism, automation, and world competition. Our list of reasons to be fearful is as long or longer than FDR saw, but the list is the distraction. The enemy then and now is none of these objects of our fear. It is the fear — petrifying, stupefying, terrifying — the fear itself.

We cannot defend ourselves against every force that might do us harm if we believe ourselves defenseless. Hope may be hidden, but it hardly matters — those who feel hopeless have stopped looking.

We cannot eliminate fear. We can only face it. Focusing on anything outside ourselves, without first addressing the fear itself, only deepens the darkness of despair.

National identity is not a partisan issue. Donald Trump promises to deport 11 million. Bernie Sanders will make the 1 percent pay their share. Numbers can be a dehumanizing tool. Both seek to assure us that the problem is with others, not with ourselves. Both men claim they are speaking frankly and boldly. It may even be the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.

American history has a pattern of approaching an abyss, averting disaster, and then slowly forgetting. FDR spoke as the last survivors of the Civil War were dying, just as today there are very few left who remember FDR’s 1933 speech.

Roosevelt that day told Americans not only why they should not be afraid, but how: “These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men. … Confidence thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.”

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. You can listen to FDR’s entire 19-minute speech at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nSgMWW-808