When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President in 1933, at the height of the Depression, he famously declared to the American people, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In January, 1941, less than a year before Pearl Harbor, fear was on Roosevelt’s mind again when he invoked freedom from fear as the last of four freedoms essential to democracy and peace. Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear later became the foundation for the post-war Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations.
Roosevelt’s vision of freedom from fear, at a time when Nazi Germany was invading one country after another, was a world where “no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.” Now, with Russia’s horrific assault on Ukraine, Americans, along with the rest of the world, stand in awe at the Ukrainians’ fierce will to defeat Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainians have not let their fear paralyze them. Their courage astounds us. Unlike Americans in this era of extreme polarization, disinformation and distrust, Ukrainians are united in fighting a foreign invader in order to preserve their democracy. Sadly, in our country today, we seem to be in a war over the meaning of democracy itself.
Instead of fearing a foreign enemy, more often we fear each other. We are afraid of people in the opposing political party, people of a different race, people whose native language isn’t English, people who identify as transgender, religious people outside the Christian faith and even the public servants who protect our electoral process and teach our children.
Freedom from fear? We’ve become a fearful people. We have little chance of truly exercising freedom of any kind when we are in a prolonged state of fear and distrust. The culture wars in which we are engaged are debilitating and, worse, dangerous to democracy. These days Americans often act like warring tribes, rather than members of a pluralistic society in the longest standing democracy on Earth.
Who benefits from Americans’ fears of “the other”? In the short term, it’s cynical politicians who manipulate our fears for their personal political gain or unregulated media behemoths who make billions off of us. But continually stoking people’s grievances against perceived enemies – different racial or religious groups, immigrants, intellectual elites, or the mainstream media – ultimately destroys a democracy.
There are, of course, sometimes real enemies to be resisted that most people recognize. Almost immediately after Russia attacked Ukraine, Americans united across political and cultural divides to support the Ukrainian people in a fight for their lives and their country’s sovereignty.
Ukrainians, across their political differences (President Zelensky had plenty of opposition in Parliament before the war), united to defend their democracy. They are willing to die, not to keep one man in power, but to defeat a real enemy and to protect their democratic way of life.
In contrast to the Ukrainians, one wonders if we Americans have become our own worst enemies. Is there a way forward – across our fears and our divides – to recognize our common ground and shore up our own democracy? Can we still listen to one another?
Thankfully, the Four Freedoms and Beyond project, which includes an exhibit at the Princeton Public Library, opening May 7, gives us a special opportunity to do just that.
Artist Maggie Meiners’ folio series “Revisiting Rockwell” reimagines Norman Rockwell’s famous portraits of everyday Americans living or longing for those freedoms in the 1940s. The exhibit and three subsequent programs invite us to consider what freedom means to us in 2022.
More information can be found at fourfreedomsandbeyond.com.