Opinion by David Von Drehle Columnist Washington Post October 5, 2021 at 3:12 p.m. EDT
Sixty years ago, on Oct. 6, 1961, the condition of the world had reached such a point that President John F. Kennedy advised Americans nationwide to prepare fortified shelters, ideally underground, and stock them with everything needed to live for weeks.
The existential menace embodied by fallout shelters has been defanged by time. Now, the little cells are part of a gauzy mid-century nostalgia, much like tail fins on cars and dancing the twist. With a little effort, though, one might imagine the dread that must have permeated a society upon learning that its preeminent leader felt nuclear war could be near.
Kennedy said, in effect: Make it a priority to have a blast-protected hole in the ground, close enough to reach in a matter of minutes, where you can wait out a lethal dose of radiation before surfacing into a hellscape where hundreds of millions of people are dead.
It is fashionable to say that the United States is at its low point, and that the rest of the world is going to blazes, too. We are more divided, more demoralized, more deceived than ever before. Our problems are too large for our leaders, who are too small for their jobs.
There is a lot of truth in that diagnosis. We have allowed ourselves to become deeply divided, living in politically homogeneous enclaves, feeding on information that reinforces our biases, waging culture wars for fun and profit. We magnify small differences even as we deny common purposes. The resulting erosion of trust cripples the nation’s ability to meet both internal and external challenges.
What the diagnosis gets wrong is the historical dimension. Little is happening now that has not happened before, in some shape or form. Today’s climate crisis, for example, only appears more menacing than the potential nuclear holocaust of the Kennedy years because one is in the foreground while the other has receded. Today’s immigration crisis feels more urgent than the immigration crisis of a century ago only because this one is ours. Today’s racial reckoning feels unusually raw because it is happening to us — not because it is somehow more painful than lynchings or chattel slavery.
Charles Dickens was on to something when he wrote of the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Every era and generation contains elements of both: concurrent seasons of light and darkness. To deny this is to reveal a shortage of historical understanding.
What distinguishes the present age is the widespread and lucrative focus on the apocalyptic: the magnification of threats and minimizing of opportunities; the exaggeration of differences; the desire to see things as worse than they are. We invent ever-more-outlandish conspiracies, impute ever-baser motives, foretell ever-bleaker futures.
This is why courage has been revered throughout history as a cardinal human virtue. Courage has many facets, but each reflects an individual’s choice to be the best person possible in even the worst of times. Courage is not the antithesis of fear, for it would not have any meaning in the absence of fear. Rather, courage acknowledges fear but refuses to be mastered by it.
Like all virtues, courage is an individual choice — though tremendous damage can be done by leaders who operate on fear rather than courage. Those with open eyes can see such leaders everywhere they look: leaders in government and industry stoking fear of enemies, fear of conspiracies, fear of calamities, fear of the future.
The moral weakness of these fearmongers demands courage from the rest of us. We must recognize appeals to fear and reject them — even if the fear being invoked feels real and true and justified to us. Indeed, seductive fears are the ones we are especially called to rise above.
A healthy society is not a society without problems, because no society has ever been without problems. A healthy society is one that faces problems without fear because its people have courage — and their courage raises courageous leaders. History records that 1933 was the worst of times, when the global economy was sunk in the Great Depression and tyranny was on the march across Europe and Asia. A turning point was marked by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ringing declaration: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
If you feel, as so many do today, that these are some of America’s worst days, if you fear for the future of this democratic republic, then your duty is to master the fear and refuse to be governed by it. If the voice on TV is trying to scare you, turn it off. If your social media leave you anxious, shut them down. Let the worst of times bring out the best of you, for a light shines brightest in the dark.