“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” According to one source, the familiar phrasing of this modern apothegm originated in the 1986 horror film “The Fly.”
However, the general sentiment of the phrase has a long history. Numerous times in the Hebrew and Christian bibles, references to fear and being afraid surface. Shakespeare stirred emotions by cautioning about fear and being afraid.
But one of the most notable literary comments about fear is from the 1949 Broadway musical “South Pacific,” which examines interracial romance. In the story, the song — written by Oscar Hammerstein and controversial for the time period — focuses on racial and ethnic fears. It is introduced by a character who declares that racism “is not born in you. It happens after you’re born.” It continues:
You have to be taught to hate and fear,
You have to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You have to be carefully taught.
And now we have a new generation of fear-mongers teaching us how dangerous it is to live in the United States, how dangerous outsiders are to our American way of life, how dangerous mentally ill people are, how ethnic minorities cannot be trusted as judges.
This dystopian view of America is far removed from the America I learned to love and cherish as a child growing up. I was sitting in my ninth-grade civics class in Littleton, Colorado, on Nov. 22, 1963, when we were informed 30 minutes after he was shot that President Kennedy was dead.
I do not remember exactly what our teacher said, but it was something such as: “This is a time for us to pull together as Americans and do what we do best — that is, be Americans.” It was not religious; there was no prayer. Even so, many heads were bowed. We all knew it was an important moment and we needed each other. There was no blame. No calls for gun control. Our teacher did add: “‘We the people’ will get through this because we are Americans.”
Such days of optimism and perseverance seem long gone. The “South Pacific” song is correct: You have to be carefully taught year to year, day after day, how bad everything is to lower the expectations of what it means to be an American.
Our current leadership is on track with another line from the song, namely, that we have to be taught to hate and fear. So be afraid. Be very afraid.
This is not the America of yesteryear. Our leadership wants to go back to an imaginary time when America was great: We need more guns so everyone will be protected. And quit making such a big deal of poverty and homelessness. People are people. It is what it is. The unemployed with no education just need to be willing to work at a below-minimum-wage job an hour’s drive away with no transportation — and pay for child care. There are plenty of those jobs available. Those people are just lazy.
According to this new vision, America is no longer a great country, though the path forward is clear.
Lock the doors. Close the blinds. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
And so we have a new vision for America forged for us by a billionaire who truly understands poverty and hunger and how difficult living on the margins of society can be: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.
Afraid — not of America but of the vision of hate and fear being carefully taught, year to year, day to day by our leaders.