Statistically, the odds of being killed in a plane crash are infinitely smaller than the odds of getting killed in your car. But few of us feel that gut-wrenching, white-knuckled fear when we get in our car to drive to work or the grocery store. Why not? Part of it is that moving around on four wheels on the safe and solid earth just feels safer than going really fast in a very heavy and complicated piece of machinery at 30,000 feet. But it’s also, I believe, about control. In the car, we have the illusion of control. I can avoid a crash, stay away from the crazy elderly/drunk person who is swerving out of their lane in front of me, drive the speed limit, etc., etc. In the plane, I can’t amble up to the cockpit and casually suggest we fly over or around the scary thunderstorm I’m seeing from a perspective from which humans were not really ever meant to see thunderstorms. It’s easier to be afraid of things over which we feel we have little or no control.
Which is why on a Thursday, with no classes to teach but plenty of other things to do, I find myself pacing around my house, trolling the internet for any bit of news that makes me feel better, listening to NPR and even watching the local news just to see what the political t.v. ads are saying. The world seems to be collapsing around us and the most I’ve figured out to do is to buy squash and balance my checkbook, and wonder what I should not be buying.
I saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show last night, talking about how she’s been listening online to FDR’s fireside chats, the voice of the last president to lead the country though an economic crisis. FDR talked about responsibility. The responsibility of the government, the responsibility of the banks, and would you believe it, the responsibility of the American people. Here’s what you can do, people out there. You can maybe not panic. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That wasn’t about the war, that was about the last “Clusterfuck to the Poorhouse.” A calm voice over the radio explaining to the American people what was happening, and what they could do.
I want a fireside chat. Is that too much to ask for anymore? Are those days just gone when a national leader could actually be a source of comfort? People are afraid because they don’t know what to do, because they feel like they have no control over what’s happening. We’re in the plane, and the pilot has announced that there’s trouble. Buckle your seatbelts. What do we do now? Say your prayers and good luck to you? Not panicking seemed like a relatively small thing for FDR to tell people to do, but it mattered. Bank runs are all about panic. The up and down of the stock market is about nothing more than the collective level of panic of a certain group of investors. No one is loaning anyone money anymore because they’re in a bit of a panic about whether they’ll ever get the money back. And I’m not the only one thinking, when do I pull my money out of the bank or out of my retirement savings and start stuffing it under the mattress? It’s not the smart decision, it’s the panicked decision. But what else are we supposed to do? There’s a vague sense that we should be doing something, but no one’s making clear what that is. Are we supposed to go shopping again?
If by some incredible miracle, Barrack Obama is elected, I’m under no illusion that a magic solution to our economic woes will appear. It’s a long road back to economic health from here for whoever ends up in the White House. But what I do hope for is comfort and a message about what we as average Americans can do. Economies run not just on money and numbers, but on faith and trust and hope. All of those things are much easier to have when there’s a vague sense of control, the feeling that you can contribute in some meaningful way to the eventual outcome.