It’s time to put ‘Fear, Inc.’ out of business

My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s. She has a lot of fear in her life now.

She often doesn’t know where she is or who the strange man in the house is, even when she’s home alone with her husband.

The last thing she needs is scammers calling her on the phone to scare her into giving them money.

A voice mail left on her phone recently went like this:

“This is Susan Mullen. I’m contacting you in reference to legal allegations that are being filed against you. We are requesting a verbal statement from you. Failure to respond will result in a forfeiture of your rights and a process server will be contacted to have you served at your home or place of employment. Press zero now! To speak with a mediator. You have been officially notified.”

The call comes from a US number, processed through a VoIP service and has been traced to India.

It has always been possible for anyone with a phone to call anyone else with a phone and scare them to death. But now this is becoming more common.

Fear is big business. Call it “Fear, Inc.”

In fact, fear-mongering for money and power is the defining challenge of of this generation.

Bob Woodward’s recent book on Trump is titled “Fear” because its central insight is that Trump’s political career is based on the insight that scaring people gives you power.

Trump told us that rapists were pouring over the border, gangs have taken over our cities, our allies are taking advantage of us, China is stealing our jobs.

Some of the president’s fear mongering is based in fact — ISIS terrorists are trying to wipe out Christians in Iraq.

Most of it is based on exaggeration or outright lies: The murder rate is the highest it’s ever been (in fact homicides are way, way down from decades past).

He dog-whistled fear of black people and foreigners. Everyone in the world except Russia is out to get us, Trump told us. Trump scared us. So we elected him.

Let’s turn that around: We elected Trump because he made us afraid.

(More accurately, he amplified the fear we already felt as the result of getting news from other fear mongers: Putin, Fox and Facebook.)

These news sources discovered long ago that fear gets you power and money.

There’s nothing new about this, of course. It’s the defining insight of terrorism, which is a war tactic whereby you gain power through fear.

Creating fear for profit is the business model of fake news, pharmaceutical drugs and TV evangelism.

Creating fear for power is the driving force behind today’s divisive politics. “People react to fear, not love,” Richard Nixon told us.

Everyone’s life is a mixture of joy, happiness, fear and sadness. Fear mongers mine money and power by converting our joy and happiness into fear and sadness. The more unhappy we are, the more money and power they get.

They’re ruining lives by the billions out of naked self-interest. The scammer who preys on the elderly and people suffering from dementia is operating from the exact same business model as the fear-mongering politicians like Trump, the cable "journalists," and the TV evangelists. 

It’s time to stop this.

Statistically, life is getting better and safer. But we all feel like the world is getting worse and more dangerous.

These trends are driven by the rise of Fear, Inc. And the fear will keep rising until we shut down the fear mongers.

Instead of rewarding the fear mongers with money and power, we need to do the opposite. We need to punish them with non-support, with scorn and ridicule, with legal action and with political action.

Instead of bickering with people on social media over the different things different fear mongers have scared us into fearing each other over, we need to unite against the fear mongers.

We journalists need to challenge fear mongering politicians every. Single. Time. And never stop until they stop using fear to gain power.

Most importantly, we need to learn to instantly categorize fear mongering for what it is and reject it categorically. Reject scary stories and hyperbole and insist on the statistical facts.

Reward the politicians and companies and people who are helping to contextualize events and phenomena in our world in a way that helps us understand the world, not fear it.

Because life is scary enough. We don’t need fear magnified because some sociopath wants power — or make a few bucks on a phone scam.