Fear presides over this presidential campaign, a perpetual fear.
For Democrats, it’s the fear that the real but elusive gains of the Obama Administration will be wiped away the same way much of eight years of imperfect but immense progress under Bill Clinton was sapped in just a few years of George W. Bush.
For Republicans, it’s the fear of a demographic apocalypse in which decades of well nurtured racial resentments and authoritarian instincts are rising to the surface right at the moment when the party most desperately needs to appear inclusive.
For both sides, it’s the fear that the other will wrest control of a rapidly aging Supreme Court, setting the course of our democracy for a generation.
And for all Americans, it’s the fear that the tragedies of 9/11 and the financial crisis, from which we still haven’t properly healed, may inevitably be relived, again and again, as farce.
The fears are real — but fear can be as promiscuous as an unchecked libido.
We know this from the Ebola freakout of last year and from the focus on Islamic terrorism.
The shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs on Friday reminds us that the majority of incidents of domestic terrorism we’ve experienced on these shores since 9/11 has been caused by non-Muslims, mostly white supremacists. That’s a pretty heavy “since,” but it does underscore that while we fixate on fears from abroad, the greatest threats to our individual lives remain among us. That could change rapidly, especially if terrorists figure out how to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into this country. Vigilance against terror in the era of ISIS, with its fanatical and savage barbarism, is absolutely necessary. That’s why the U.S. has launched thousands of strikes against the terror group, aiming to destroy it without replicating the disastrous mistake that made ISIS possible — a western occupation of a Middle Eastern country.
Terror is real, but living in terror is a choice. Doing so enables demagogues who feed on our worst instincts. So here’s a cold, rational examination of the threats you actually face, just so you’ll know that if someone is trying to make you scared of other things more than these, he probably has an agenda that won’t make you any safer.
1. Heart Disease and Cancer
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ll die after you reach your seventies, in a hospital bed, hopefully surrounded by people you love. And chances are you’ll die of heart disease or cancer, as more than 600,000 Americans do each year. The good news is you can avoid this fate or, at least delay it. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 91,757 premature heart disease deaths and 84,443 cancer deaths a year are preventable with an increase of “risk factor prevention and reduction, screening, early intervention, and successful treatment of diseases or injuries.” What are the greatest risk factors of heart disease and cancer? Pretty much exactly what you’d expect. You’ll notice that not properly fearing Muslims is not on the list.
While cable news spent a year looking for a lost plane during the safest year of plane travel ever, more than 41 million Americans kept smoking. “Tobacco use is a major factor in four out of the five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung disease and stroke,” the CDC’s Dr. Tom Frieden wrote. “It causes about a third of heart disease and cancer, and most emphysema.” If terrorists could cause the damage we do to ourselves with tobacco, we’d probably never leave our homes.
3. Motor vehicle accidents and gun deaths, especially for gun owners
While it’s still the CDC’s fifth leading cause of preventable death, we’ve actually made huge advances in preventing automobile-related mortality. With regulations and advances in technology, the percentage of Americans killed while driving in a car continues to drop each year. It’s still a significant threat, however, with two of five workplace fatalities in 2013 having taken place in a motor vehicle. For young males, car accidents and use of firearms are far too likely causes of death — and 2015 may be the first year ever when gun deaths outnumber automobile deaths. We know a great deal about car deaths but way too little about death by bullet, due to an intentional blackout on scientific research, enforced by the gun lobby. But we do know that most gun deaths are suicides. It’s not just a logical conclusion that fewer guns lead to fewer gun suicides, it’s also the result of a Harvard study, which “found that in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower.”
A new study has found that middle aged members of America’s majority group are seeing a sudden spike in deaths. “The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide, the researchers concluded,” The Washington Post reported. The results of three decades of conservative economic policy, emboldened by the deterioration of the labor movement, has been misery for white people who lack college degrees (ironically, the same voters who have largely migrated rightward since the mid-1970s). While encouraging white resentment of affirmative action and welfare recipients, conservatives have helped immiserate the same group of workers who most need support from the government and labor to secure decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. And the result — the loss of pensions, of bargaining power, of an evaporating safety net — is a new set of mortality rates that increasingly resemble what America’s minorities, conservatives’ favorite targets of resentment, have long experienced. What would Republican candidates do about the growing crisis of inequality? They’ve promised to make the problem far worse with trillions more in tax breaks for the rich.
5. Climate change
So you don’t believe the scientists, the generals or even the insurance industry, all of whom understand that climate change isn’t just a vague theoretical threat, but may be our greatest long-term risk? Fine, you know better than any of them. But why not at least be agnostic about climate change, if for no other reason than to keep the starving hordes from feasting on your descendants? The likelihood of the oceans drowning our most populated regions is far greater than ISIS ever wresting control of our shores.
Photo: Barry Shaffer via Flickr