“We have Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself “— FDR
For the price of a cup of coffee I have garnered a table on the ground floor of the Koch Institute for Cancer Research at MIT. I spent part of the morning listening to papers being delivered at Neurotech 2016 which describe the new and fascinating ways that many neuro-labs are probing into brains to help solve neurological mysteries. There are now technologies that have allowed people to seek answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask ten years ago.
There is irony of course, sitting here at this Koch Institute, which is funded by the same family that also funds some of the most conservative political issues in our country. They did not fund Trump, but their money did help spread exaggerated fear about what is happening in America. It is this fear that is pushing back against the adoption of many of the new technological and scientific advances that are being developed right here on this campus, and at other places all around the country and the world. It is the fear of change.
Trump, the Republican right, the Alt-right, the rightwing reactionary parties that are growing all over the world, and even ISIS, have aimed their messages at that fear. They are appealing to people to hold on to the traditional ways that have worked for centuries. In most cases these are the extreme form of the traditional ways. In many cases the arguments are based upon the unprovable and unfounded beliefs that were the guiding principles of the world before the scientific method of thought began to take hold. In other cases the arguments are put forth by those who have run the traditional power structure, as they struggle to stay in power. They have been feeling that their influence is being eroded by forces that they don’t quite understand and they can’t control. Their response is to clamp down more controls. They justify doing this by raising fears about the usual scapegoats; people who are different, ideas that are different, and any redistribution of power.
There is enough truth in this fear of change to attract almost half the world into being willing to give up much of their freedoms to feel safe. I know, from being a therapist for so many years, how difficult and frightening change can be. Even when the change is obviously for the better, most people resist.
I have spent decades working with people who struggle to stop eating at McDonald’s, stop hitting their kids, stop spending more money than they have. They understand that they need to study to pass a test and exercise to stay healthy. It would help if they could tell people what they want instead of being angry all the time. They haven’t learned that if you promised someone you would do something, do it.
When I talk about these things in therapy people agree that those are the things they want to do. They are almost all capable of change, but it takes months and years for it to happen. The biggest obstacle is fear. Feeling bad has become familiar. How does anyone know what the change will fee like?
If we move away from the being lead by old, White men, who will replace them? Will it be better? For whom? What’s the guarantee?
If I have been told all my life that there is one true god, and these people have a different god, or no god at all, how can I trust them? They are blasphemers. They are infidels.
Many wmen realize that they are as smart, capable and creative as any man. They see that they can prove themselves in the world, and be proud of their accomplishments. But many of them wonder if that freedom is worth giving up their male protectors and the financial support that often goes with it. They feel safer being supportive and nurturing. Why take on challenges when dependency is easier?
All these changes are frightening. I feel much safer if I carry a gun. Everyone on TV carries a gun and shoots the bad-guys. I want to be a hero, protect my family, and shoot bad guys too. Good guy Americans have always shot bad guys (and Indians, [and Black people, but we never talk about that]).
Changes are coming from all over. Almost all jobs have changed, or have been lost. Marriage is between anyone. People from so many countries are moving to other countries. Some are running away from being killed by militias or bombs from their own government. Some come here to start a business and make money. Some come here to pick fruit or cut your lawn. How can I tell which ones are terrorists?
There are so many new ways to communicated and get information. How do I know whom to believe? Facebook? The New York Times? Fox News, My friend Leslie? My doctor? The ads on TV? A priest? A neurobiologist?
When the changes get scary people want to hide. They want a big strong Daddy to protect them and make the decisions. They want a father, who knows best, just like in 1959, when nice White families lived in small towns with quirky neighbors and the same newspapers were delivered to everyone’s door. But we now know that comforting Cliff Huxtable turned out to be Bill Cosby, the rapist. We already know that our new leader-to-be is an overly sensitive narcissist, who retaliates against any criticism. But many are willing to give up some freedoms to feel safe, even when the danger is really slight.
As i sit here in this coffee shop, and go across the street to the conference, I see who it is who is making all of these changes. It is people from all over the world working together, sharing knowledge, trying to correct mistakes, trying to solve the mysteries of life. They are men and women who are all different colors, sizes, styles and backgrounds. Most of them are doing it because it is fascinating, helpful and exciting. Money is hardly a consideration. They want knowledge. They want to make the world better. They are amazed that given what we know today, so many people can still get so angry at each other over such irrelevant things.
What are these diverse groups of people doing? Here in this building they are developing new ways to fight cancer. Some of the treatments are already in use. They were not available five years ago. In the building a cross the street, where the conference is being held, a woman named Canan Dagneviren is describing how she is building “a mechanically-adaptive, mirco-fabricated device for chronic treatment of neurological disorders.”
Dr. Dagneviren was born and educated in Turkey, and then she came to do her graduate work in the U.S. She may or may not be a Muslim. I am sure that many people in the U.S. would yell at her to go back to where she came from. I am sure that the in-flow of people like her, who would love to come here to study, explore and create, will be diminished because of the unwelcoming atmosphere that has been created by this election.
The funding for this research comes from a combination of foundation money and a lot of government grants. But the flow of the government money has been cut by a conservative Congress. It will be worse under Trump, a man who doesn’t understand science, doesn’t want change and seems frightened of innovation.
But even he, with all of his Presidential powers can’t stop the changes from coming. They are pouring in over the fibre-optic network. They are moving in next door. They are the electric, self-driving cars that will be on the highway. They are keeping us healthy. They are warming our planet. They are taking away our jobs. They are making some new people very rich.
These new technologies could be saving the lives of many more people. They could be feeding many hungry people all around the world. They could be controlling greenhouse gases. They could be helping us all live longer, healthier, more prosperous and creative lives. But obstacles get thrown in their path because people are afraid of change. Unfortunately, the backlash seems to always be a part of the process. Change, even when it is clearly beneficial, never comes easily. Adaptation and evolution can take a long time, and many species don’t survive.