By Murray Mandryk
The words were uttered at another U.S. Presidential inauguration 88 years ago and their context was aimed at different issues in what was an even more harrowing time in world history.
Yet Franklin Roosevelt’s words not only resonate in today’s U.S. but most everywhere. We all seem gripped by our fear, insecurity and distrust of government.
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The famous words came on March 4, 1933 at his inauguration as the 32nd U.S. president — the last inauguration before constitutional change moved Inauguration Day to today’s date of Jan. 20.
They came as the world teetered on economic collapse of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt was speaking directly to the paralysis caused by that economic climate — specifically, those panicked into withdrawing money from banks that was causing further economic instability. But the words have since taken on a historical context of Roosevelt moving forward with bold initiatives that included the Social Security Act, part of the New Deal, a massive public project to put people back to work funded by hikes to income tax (implemented in First World War less than two decades earlier as a “temporary measure”) to as much as 75 per cent on the highest incomes.
In no small irony, this might very well have been the true beginning of the fear of government intrusion.
Roosevelt shunned accusations of being a “socialist”, arguing his agenda was based on pragmatic needs. By most any measure, he wasn’t.
In fact, “democratic socialism” was little more than a concept. The Calgary founding convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) had just happened in 1932 and the Regina Manifesto wouldn’t come until later in 1933. It would take more a decade and a second world war before North America’s first social democratic government would be elected in Saskatchewan.
Roosevelt’s inaugural address simply took head on the notion that we shouldn’t fear change change or new ideas. Alas, he surely didn’t defeat the fear that accompanies politics.
Fear has become a tool of manipulation in today’s politics — one politicians wield for their own self-interest of staying in or achieving power. We are told if you don’t vote a certain way, bad things will happen. Or, worse, if you don’t believe thing and act in certain way, you will be shunned from the political tribe.
Maybe others haven’t wielded it quite as lethally as Donald Trump, whose term mercifully comes to an end today. But they all use it and — most frighteningly — it’s frequently come to replace reason.
We fear shutting down the economy for even so much as a month. But we equally fear what might happen if we don’t, which may be no more rational. We wait with bated breath for our daily COVID-19 case counts with little perspective of what they truly mean.
And we wait for the next thing to fear, like the vaccine debate. After the rather miraculous development of vaccines — we fear we aren’t seeing another miracle of everyone vaccinated overnight.
But if it were not for fear of the novel coronavirus, politicians would simply find something else for us to fear. That’s rather evident in the climate change debate, where we are either supposed to fear our very existence if we either don’t wholeheartedly endorse an ineffective carbon tax or fear one particular pipeline not getting built.
Can it possibly be either/or? Or is this just the modern version of fearing fear itself? And is it now so all-encompassing that we fear not only different ideas but the people who express them?
Do we not see by now where it leads? Is seeing 25,000 troops (more than currently in Iraq and Afghanistan combined) for a “peaceful” transition of power not the culmination of such fears?
Irrational political debates based on irrational fears are getting us nowhere. Maybe today is the day that will change.
Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix.