Fear Factor: pick your terror, America

I’m going to talk a bit about fear here. But let me just give you the conclusion to this post right off the bat: You don’t have to be afraid of anything — especially terrorism. You shouldn’t be, anyway. There’s too much craziness in your life to be scared of anything specific. Pakistani novelist, Mohsin Hamid, said it really well on NPR the other morning:

“The first line of defense in terrorism is, very simply, courage to conduct yourself in this world in a way where you are not overwhelmed by anxiety and things that frighten you.”

So, my conclusion in this admittedly long essay is that we all need to live our lives boldly. We need to experience this short little existence on earth that we have as vividly as possible — for ourselves, for those we love, and for the generations coming after us.

It may seem like there’s a lot of nasty shit going on right now, but that’s always been the case. Try growing up during the Cold War and drilling for nuclear armageddon every quarter of the school year … when you’re in elementary school. Or try, like my parents did, growing up in the Great Depression and being a teenager during World War II.

Or try this on for size: your neighbor could be crazy and have a room full of old Nazi weapons he intends to use on people this Saturday night. Your commute to work tomorrow may be your last one if you keep taking the highway instead of the slow back roads. Or maybe some opiate addicted friend of your teenage daughter is going to rob your house tomorrow and he finds you home sick and you try to stop him…and he’s got a gun.

I’d go on listing random shit that can happen to any of us any time, but I know you understand this. There are 330 million of us bouncing off of each other all the time. Anything and everything is possible. Fear is all about perceived risks. The emphasis here is on “perceived.”

Terrorism is a Terrible Thing to Waste

You’ve heard some version of this before, I hope: The odds of being killed by a refugee terrorist in your lifetime are 1 in 45,808; the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 113.

Yes, we have tons of laws governing driving behavior. And we’ve made a rather overt and in-your-face investment in security to protect us from terrorism. I’m not going to argue that we’re overspending due to fraudulent fear and inappropriate risk aversion towards terrorists and immigrants. I simply want to make it clear that terrorists are accomplishing their goal admirably in the U.S. (and Europe, it would seem). People are scared shitless. Politicians help with that. The media helps too. If you make a big deal of weird dudes in black with beards promoting how scary they are with little video clips on TV and the Internet (and breaking through all our defenses occasionally to kill a bunch of innocent people for no apparent reason), you can make a lot of money, or get elected — or both.

And so it goes. Ever since September of 2001, we’ve been living in a world where a lot of folks are getting rich because of the maxim:

“Don’t let terrorist threats go to waste.”

It’s a beautiful thing, I suppose, for the news industry and certain types of politicians. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking liberals or conservatives – Democrats or Republicans, a huge number of people are benefitting from a very small band of assholes and losers trying to make themselves feel important.

keystone cops
Keystone Kops, one hundred years ago

But what about our own asshole and loser? We’ve been reading about people’s fear and horror and dread in the face of Donald Trump and his cronies now for at least the last year. Before fear set in, most of us were amused or disgusted (probably both). Trump turned the whole Republican campaign into a circus (certainly he had help from other candidates). The term “clown car” was being yodeled throughout the land. I read somewhere back in the summer of 2016 about the Keystone Gops, but that never really caught on.

These days, few people are still laughing without the need to scream first, or cry, or throw up, or smash their heads against a brick wall. We’re living with a strange, new mixed psychology we’ve never had to deal with before. I for one feel like an alien sometimes. I don’t recognize these emotions in me. What is the name for how it feels to be powerless as a witness to uninformed, small-minded ugliness that is also bizarrely comical and weirdly pathetic and goofy?

No one can be cynical or even offended anymore. Those are boring, trivial responses to what we are all forced to watch unfold before us daily. Anyone who says they’re baffled or amazed that there are a large number of fellow citizens who still approve of this guy and his careless ways is running from the most interesting aspect of this whole debacle: 63 million of our fellow citizens chose this fool and made his truly ludicrous anti-human/anti-American, half wit ideas supremely legitimate.

All because of fear and anger and hate. Those were Trump’s go to campaign appeals. They were in diametric opposition to Clinton’s stated “Stronger Together” sentiment. In essence, then, fear trumped love.

Barack Obama and the novelist Marilynne Robinson talked a lot about the problem of fear with each other back in 2015. Their conversation got compiled and published by the New York Review of Books in two parts (reference links are at end of this essay). It is highly recommended reading, even now — maybe especially now.

At one point Robinson says to Obama: “fear … is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.” 

Barack Obama, Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson with President Obama, 2015

Earlier that fall, Robinson had published a remarkable essay called, “Fear” in the NYRB. I am not a religious person, but her great insight in that essay is that we simply don’t have the moral or psychological tools for handling fear. She writes that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” And she points out, quite importantly, whether you’re Christian or not, that Jesus is supposed to be “a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.”

That ain’t meaningful these days for a slew of the citizens in this country. Very clearly. I won’t go into the obvious problem that Christianity turns up about faith, except to say that fear for many seems to be winning. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny aren’t products of stupidity or anger. They’re functions of fear. They’re the simplistic way people have to show their fear. It’s easy to hate someone who is different or who challenges you. You don’t have to acknowledge your fear and self-doubt. Everyone’s getting in on the act these days. It ain’t just folks deemed oppressors.

Yeah, yeah, you say. Fear and hate are nothing new. We’ve been at it for centuries — millennia even. But something happened at the beginning of this century, and it’s grown and morphed and spread through all of us like a toxic, gelatinous, foggy ooze impossible to categorize as either solid, liquid, or gas.

Fear has been the goal of terrorism for decades. There may be all sorts of rhetoric spewed around by terrorists and their media mouthpieces, but the only meaningful outcome of bombing buildings, shooting innocent people, hijacking airplanes, taking journalists and aid workers captive — even beheading people on TV and the Internet — is to create fear and all the confused emotions that come with it. Indeed, terrorism and terrorists are ultimately nothing but the embodiment of fear itself. What are they actually trying to accomplish beyond that? It’s just not clear.

Terrorists’ acts, then, become a way to externalize their own fear. They’re trying to make the fear they feel an object. They’re passing it along to others. Some become converts. Some — most — are their supposed enemies.

Many have already pointed out that our insane new fixation with the virtual world and the media is amplifying all sorts of dangers in our real world. I don’t want to go into that here. You know this. Newspapers and the nightly news have always highlighted sordid tales of violence and mayhem. And I’m not trying to say that terrorism is a hoax or that it’s something we shouldn’t worry about.

Productivity and Beyond

We have, however, lost track of what makes life good and truly meaningful. I’m not talking about romance or the arts or the innocence of children or pets or sunsets or good sex or quiet walks in the woods. I’m talking about the creative force in each of us. I’d like to say it’s an instinct, but I’m not so sure anymore because if it were an instinct, hate and anger and fear wouldn’t be such easy diversions for so many. Donald Trump wouldn’t have been able to appeal in such a brazen direct manner to people’s fear. And his taking of the White House wouldn’t have made so many people say that they feel terrified, frightened, and horrified. Indeed, the media wouldn’t be getting so rich off of him either.

Maybe one of the reasons that fear turns so easily into hatred and anger and hostility is that no one wants to feel scared and face that reality. Hate a little and you fool yourself into thinking you aren’t afraid.

The creative force I’m talking about is not some mystical or religious principle. It’s simply the mental state that allows you to figure out how to make things better around you. Some people use it to keep their homes tidy and their gardens beautiful; some use it to create art and friendship with people in their everyday lives. Some people let their creativity guide them as professionals or as parents or community leaders. I don’t think of creativity as a cognitive process so much as the interface in each of us between problem solving and love of life. On my best days, I wake up happy and I go through the day happy. I transfer that happiness as best I can to others around me, whether members of my family, people I work with, or the checkout cashier at my grocery store. Donald Trump said he was going to make America great again. What does that mean? When I wake up happy America is great. I bet you feel the same way.

So, I want to ask you: Why are so many people intimidated and frightened by Donald Trump and what he represents? And for that matter, why before Trump were so many intimidated and frightened of Barack Obama? Too, why so much hatred of Hillary Clinton and/or Bernie Sanders?

Each of us has a multitude of options for expressing our beliefs in our actions. That’s where the creative force comes in — or, should come in. I have friends who spent thousands of dollars flying into Washington for the Women’s March in January. Why didn’t they use that money for something positive and productive right at home? If you’re upset about Trump’s hostility towards environmentalism, invest in an electric car, take mass transportation to work, put a photovoltaic solar system on your house. Be fucking happy!

If you’re shocked and upset about de-funding of the arts or public radio, how much are you yourself contributing to those causes? What about the schools and childcare? Do you know the educators in your neighborhood? Are you helping them in their day to day struggles for funding and finding quality teachers? Or how about the criminal justice system and policing in your community? Do you talk to cops? Are they really the enemy? Have you thought about joining groups that bring your community together for common purposes? Should you be giving $50 to The League of Women Voters this year or $500? How about $5,000?

I’ll tell you the best place to start: youth sports and arts programs. Go volunteer. You’ll be surprised what happens to you as a person. I’ve coached sports in my community for nearly twenty years. I feel connected to everyone here — from some of the richest families in Florida to a family where a 65-year-old woman on oxygen taught her seven-year-old grandson three buses to get to practices and games until we realized what was going on and organized a carpool pickup for him.

I could list a hundred creative, productive acts that are available to each of us. I honestly find it hard, though, to imagine myself protesting in the streets against vague boogeymen. I can’t see myself running around saying Group X is evil and the enemy. I would have liked to see last January’s amazing women’s march be about supporting Planned Parenthood and women’s health issues. There seems to me a stark difference between saying your against something and saying you support something obviously better.

Another example: I get Black Lives Matter. There’s no question that American fear and anger has it’s deepest roots in racism. But there’s also no question in my mind that there’s a stark difference between protesting against “white supremacy,” and demonstrating in support of better funding for inner city schools, small urban businesses, a $15 minimum wage (can we raise that number to $20, please?), and basic universal health care.

I mentioned Bernie Sanders above and how there was indeed a degree of anger sent his way. That came both from conservatives, some in the media, and a strong contingency of Clinton supporters. There was a reason, though, that he was so successful with his candidacy — and probably would have gotten the party nomination and possibly the presidency. His platform was more about appealing to our creative natures than any of the other candidates. He gave us a vision of the future, especially of universal health care and free tertiary education. Yes, he had a lot of criticism for “the establishment” — especially the super rich — but he still balanced his whole campaign on positive changes that could make everyone’s life better in this country.

Was Bernie realistic? You tell me. Is it realistic to think that we should spend $100 billion a year fighting terrorism when heavy weather calamities can wipe out huge regions of the country overnight? For that matter, how realistic is Donald Trump, duly elected, in thinking he’s going to solve our immigration problem with blanket travel bans for “certain people,” database tracking of non-citizens, and building a wall on our southern border? Has there ever been a more comical, small thinking person elected to high office in the history of this country?

Fear Factor 101

There’s no question we all need to be concerned about this new guy and what he is trying to do in this country. We need to be concerned about terrorism too, and what it’s doing to the global balance of power. But there’s a big difference between being concerned and being afraid. Terrorism wins every time you feel afraid. So does Trump and all those who voted for him out of hatred and spite.

What is the point of fear anyway? It’s not just a negative emotion, it’s a useless one. It is a function of feeling helpless and insignificant. Is that you? Is that the people you know and love? If you say you’re afraid of Trump, you need to think about what that means. I don’t like the sound of that.

Fear in a JarMaybe fear is just a first step. Maybe it’s what happens when things change and you’re not ready for that change. Maybe you just have to face the change and let yourself dangle a bit on the end of a rope, quaking, saying, “No. No, no…” until you realize that doesn’t help, doesn’t do a damn bit of good. Maybe you need to face the shit that life throws at you (all of us!) until you figure out what to do about it and how to make a difference.

I understand that none of this is simple. It’s just that fear is essentially a no win mental prison once you’re stuck in it. There is no darker form of false consciousness.

Terrorism has quite obviously taken advantage of that little problem of consciousness. And now a lot of folks are letting Trump and his band of nasty buffoons do the same thing to them. When you’re locked into a prison like this one, the worst thing is to think think you’re being reasonable and rational by being appalled and afraid. When people tell you you’re being a baby or point out you’re confused and you let them become the enemy — thus, further locking you into a prison of fear — you are in a prison of your own making. There is nothing rational about fear and nothing reasonable about letting it govern one iota of your life — or your judgment of others.

If you think I’m full of shit, consider what was planned for Earth Day weekend this year. Normally, Earth Day is about celebrating nature and all the people and companies and projects out there supporting conservation, preservation, and progressive sustainable economic growth. Renewable energy projects often get front billing — also recycling, green household products, electric cars, organic gardening, etc. If ever there was an acknowledgement of creativity and productivity, Earth Day is it.

However, this year the focus is on science and scientists. Tomorrow there are to be marches “for Science on Earth Day” all over the country, the main one, of course, centered in Washington, D.C. About a week later there will be a national protest called The People’s Climate March with marches all over the country as well demonstrating against the Trump administration’s elimination of climate solutions from our national agenda.

Both of these marches are important. I get that. The growing hostility in Washington from conservatives towards science and reason is as dumb as it is irresponsible.

The same, obviously, can be said for Washington antipathy for anything having to do with solving the climate change process. This kind of backwards thinking is immoral, anti-American, and venal as hell. However, both of these marches, while partially supportive of science and climate solutions, are still substituting for Earth Day proper, overshadowing positive, creative forces with anger, disapproval, and combativeness. They stem from the fear that the politicians who have power do not care about what scientists tell them.

If you don’t see the problem there, then I submit to you you’re one of the ones who is trapped. You can get out of it, for sure, but the first thing you need to see is that they want you to be angry and worried. They want you to hate them, and they damn sure don’t want you feeling like there’s a better world that you can make if you just put your mind to it along with others who know what you know.


Yes We Can?


Stronger Together?

Nope. All that stuff is great, but it’s over with.

How about Fuck, yeah! Let’s do this!

Further Reading:

Part I: “President Obama and Marilynne Robinson – A Conversation” :Part II

Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books“Fear”

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