Please Step Away From the Fear

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the San Francisco Chronicle

Please Step Away From the Fear

Recently did my fine and ever-loving and yet slightly overworried parents, still married and flirty and sort of amazing after something like 147 years together -- and no, I have no idea how the hell they did it, so don't even ask -- forward on a terrifying hunk of email to me, full of sound and fury and unchecked socioeconomic gloom, signifying nothing.

It was an email, I quickly surmised, that had bounced around their group of retired, largely Republican friends and then commented on and fretted over a bit too much, all about what the hell is happening to the world, how dramatically things have changed, what can or cannot be done about it and, more than anything else, how they feel fearful for their kids -- which, for the purposes of this column, we'll call, me.

It was an email, simply put, about the end of the world. More specifically, the end of the American empire, of the United States as global economic superpower, primarily due to various and sundry "horrific" factors having to do with the threadbare American workforce, the staggering loss of manufacturing and factory jobs in this country, the spiraling debt, the shocking erosion of our industrial base, and so on.

"Facts About The De-industrialization Of America That Will Blow Your Mind" screamed the email's headline, instantly indicating its mad desire to be not the slightest bit tactful or reasonable. The piece then went on to list all manner of "horrifying" data about America's post-industrial implosion, from the mundane (a single Ford factory closing due to "globalization") to spurious forecasts about China, "rotting war zones" like Detroit, and how America's number one export is now, quite literally, garbage.

On it went, item after item, all context-free and gleefully myopic in its abject fearmongering and its intent to scare the unsuspecting reader out of his stock portfolio and into investing in gold bars. Unfortunately, I haven't the space here to list the most garish examples -- there are just so many -- but if you're so inclined, remove your pants, pray to Shiva, and click.

A quick Google side trip revealed the column's origins: a frighteningly Christian lad named Michael Snyder, shameless slinger of endless "shocking" doomsday scenarios via a site called "The Economic Collapse Blog," packed like a Jesus-clad fallout bunker with screeching headlines like "20 signs a horrific global food crisis is coming," "65 ways everything you now own is systematically being taken away from you" and "Armageddon for homeowners." So, you know, fun times at Michael's house.

Nothing new here, really. After all, Christian panic mongers like Snyder (and Glenn Beck, and the Tea Party, and the Tories, and nervous cavemen) have been trafficking in similar flagellation for eons. But thanks to the Net, the spiteful imp at the center of his list -- which is to say, fear -Ð now has far more fluid access to the brainstems of the unwary and the retired.

Now, right about here is where I would normally spin off and casually defy Snyder's Rapture-ready silliness, maybe something about how it goes without saying that for every overblown gloomsday factoid he spits forth, there is always, always a counterforce, an irrefutable sign of positive amazement, something to make you gasp and feel just a twinge, a glimmer of newfound hope for our perpetually doomed species.

But then, serendipity happened. Just after I sent my parents my "beware of viral email fundamentalist Christian fatalism spittle" speech, I stumbled across yet another new study that essentially reaffirms something you already suspected.

The study said: The brains of liberals and conservatives are wired differently. We respond to stimuli differently, process information differently, view the world through lenses unique to our political viewpoint. I know, shocking.

But then, the upshot: "Liberals have more gray matter in a part of the brain associated with understanding complexity, while the conservative brain is bigger in the section related to processing fear."

And then, "It's conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC [anterior cingulate cortex] have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views."

I realize you are not the slightest bit surprised by this. I realize, furthermore, it's a slightly specious generalization. After all, I know plenty of liberals who are quite terrified of the slightest bump in the karmic night. And I know a few conservatives -- not many, but some -- who have tremendous joie de vivre and see the world as a big mud puddle to be splashed around and loved well. They still don't want to fund the arts, help the poor or support universal single payer health care, however. Silly people.

But the fundamental truth remains. Fear equals conservatism (and vice-versa), which naturally leads to isolationism, protectionism, paranoia, religious dogma, surveillance cameras and wiretapping and Dick Cheney and guys like Snyder who write junk like "The Economic Collapse Blog" and aren't instantly stuck by lightning for being loudmouth heretics who traffic in the basest energy known to man, without shame.

And here are my otherwise fantastic and usually savvy parents, lured in by this overamped Christian, feeling increasingly powerless against the onslaught of his unfiltered "facts," the imp of fear driving them headlong into excess worry and despair. My father explained the emotional toll that such context-free information has on his group of friends, thusly:

"None of us work any longer, so there is no chance to rebuild -- we feel frustrated and helpless because there is nothing we can do (itals mine). Age does make you more conservative. I can well remember when our own world kept us so busy we did not have time to worry so much. Now we have time -- all of us, meaning our friends, are concerned about our kids and how you will survive."

This struck me as heart wrenching as it was revelatory. "Of course, there are a thousand things you can do," I thought. "Of course, while some anxiety is to be expected, most is just, well, poisonous." But then I recognized the conservative brain aswim in its element, overworking the fear synapse, seeing only frustration and the lack of power to return to some perceived previous glory, instead of engaging the more liberal mindset: seeking ways to invent a wildly new future.

This is what I told my fine folks: It's never too late. There are a million things you can do, are doing, right now, to improve the world. The products you buy, the foods you eat, the stores you patronize, the news sources you value, the politicos you vote for, the love you make, the information you choose to share, the stories you believe in -- every single choice, from coffee cup to charity donation, joke retold to tender human touch -- these are what make all the difference.

These are, cumulatively and collectively, what really make a great society. The jobs, the factories, the economics? These do not exist in a vacuum, independent of the daily churn. You don't have to be part of the active workforce to make an enormous difference.

But the very best and most important thing we can do to change the world? The single finest way to make your mind, your body, your nation healthier and stronger across the board? Do not buy into the fear. Defy the imp. And ignore flaming scrunchballs like Michael Snyder. I'm quite sure it's what Jesus would have wanted.

Mark Morford

Mark Morford's new book, 'The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism,' is now available at daringspectacle.com, Amazon, BN.com, and beyond. Join Mark on Facebook and Twitter, or email him. His website is markmorford.com. Mark's column appears every Wednesday on SFGate.

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