America is whistling in the dark

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Years ago, when I taught psychological anthropology, I tried to explain the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is when you know there is a wounded mother bear and cub in the woods that you have to walk through to get home. Anxiety is when you don't know if there is a bear is the woods you have to pass through to get home. And so, a person "whistles in the dark," hoping nothing will happen.

My personal feeling is that the American people have a fairly high level of anxiety right now. The disaster in New Orleans and the Southeastern coast has shown that we are not ready for a national catastrophe. We just have to hope that another storm or hurricane does not strike the area this fall. We just have to hope that if there is a terrorist attack, or other devastation, that things will be all right.

Global warming is no longer some academic speculation. We can see it happening, especially here in the north. We just have to "whistle in the dark," and hope that we can survive. China is becoming the major economic power in the world. If you don't believe it, just go to a store and try and find products made in the U.S. China is now in competition with the U.S. for the world's oil supply. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have tied up our military forces, military reserves and National Guard. We just have to hope that nothing more happens. Our borders are porous. Hundreds of illegal immigrants come into this country every day. Welfare systems in the border states and pressed to the limit to provide aid.

We are told that our retirement and health insurance programs are threatened. Our president assures us that Social Security has to be changed, or it will collapse. The price of gasoline surges upward everyday. For the State of Alaska that may be good news, but for the average person who has to buy gas to get to work, and then pay more for goods because of the high cost of transportation, it is disturbing news.

It is no surprise that the anxiety level in the U.S. is rising. It was somewhat the same back in the days of the Depression. There is a lot of debate whether President Roosevelt got us into World War Two simply to improve the economy. But at least he did everything he could to alleviate the fear and anxiety of the American people, and we survived.

I am not a political analyst, but I have a feeling that if the anxiety of the American people is going to be quieted in the near future, we need real leadership. We don't need deceptions or speeches that say "all is well" and just "trust us." We don't need someone saying, "Whoops, we went to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction but found out they didn't exist."

Who that leader will be - Republican, Democrat or Independent - I don't know. I don't know what the plan will be. I don't know how things will be resolved. Fortunately in the past we have survived because the right person came along at the right time. One of my great heroes was President Harry Truman, who simply said, "The buck stops here!" And whether or not we agree with his decisions, we survived.

We can cope with fear. When we know the wounded bear is in the woods, we can be ready. It is hard to cope with anxiety, not knowing if there is a bear in the woods or not. I think we can do better than just "whistle in the dark."

• Wally Olson is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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