The quote of the day in the August 18 edition of the New York Times came courtesy of Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s new Campaign Chief, who said, “Fear is a good thing. Fear is going to lead you to take action”. As a humanist and a proud member of the Secular Humanist Society of New York (SHSNY), I couldn’t help thinking how contrary such a statement is to humanist values. SHSNY’s own brochure states “If you believe in democracy and the use of reason in all aspects of life…if you are a concerned citizen, contribute to society, and take responsibility for your own moral obligations… if you reject superstition and dogma…if you oppose those who oppose freedom and democracy…then you probably are a secular humanist”. Notice that there’s nothing in there about being afraid because fear is antithetical to humanist principles. You don’t make rational decisions when you’re scared. You shun democracy when you’re scared. You recoil from innovation when you’re scared. You denounce pluralism when you’re scared. And as for “taking action”, there’s a reason for the phrase “paralyzed by fear”. Fear prevents you from taking action, at least in any meaningful way. Any action taken out of fear is likely to be of the “chicken with its head cut off” variety; running about wild-eyed with no rational direction just so you can take comfort that you’re doing something, even if that something is disastrously counterproductive.
In his first inaugural address in 1933, which was delivered as the worst effects of the Great Depression were being felt and terror was beginning to grip Europe, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously counseled the country that “The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”. This statement was meant to calm the country during perilous times, but it was also a warning against surrendering to “fear itself”. FDR knew that fear will close your mind and lead you to make bad decisions. Ironically, even FDR himself was not immune to having fear poison his decision-making process, as with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which turned out to be a blot on the great man’s legacy and is an enduring shame to all decent Americans.
So no Mr. Bannon, fear is not a good thing. But I am pleased that you made this statement on your first day of taking the reins of the Trump campaign and I am grateful to the New York Times for highlighting your words. Because if the American people had any doubts before regarding the true nature of the coming election, they should now be laid to rest: this contest gives us a clear choice between surrendering to our fears or using our votes to aspire to humanist values such as democracy, equal rights, and the use of reason in our personal and national decision-making processes. We will choose fear at our own peril, for Trump can only be elected if people allow their fears to short-circuit their ability to utilize rational thought.