On the efficacy of fear

I was going to write this essay earlier this month, probably after a GOP debate. But, life intervened, and I set it aside.

I certainly wasn't expecting the Paris attacks. But I should have expected the reaction among most everyone on the Right.

While Parisians are crowding outdoor cafes and continuing with their lives as a raised fist against the fear which Daesh wants them to live under, conservatives in this country are running around flinging fearful fecal matter in every direction, warning that Daesh is under your bed, or that the orphaned refugee could be a sleeper agent ready to detonate a bomb at your nearest NFL stadium.

However, I'm not going to say that this is against American tradition. The fact is that the United States has always had a very vibrant Party of Fear.

This, in many ways, is to be expected. A country founded on the expropriation of the native population and the enslavement of another population will always have a healthy fear that what it stole will in turn be stolen. Thieves are the most paranoid of people.

First it was the Irish Catholics. Then it was the southern Europeans. Then the eastern European Jews. During all this, of course, the Yellow Peril was always good for a strong dose of fear. Then the various Red Scares (1920s and 1950s). The US has never had a dearth of people to fear. It can be quite accurately stated that fear is the motive force of this country.

So when my well-meaning liberal friends say that the scapegoating of Syrian refugees fleeing the same violence visited upon Paris is "not who we are", I sadly have to say that history tells a different story. The meme going around Twitter is the fact that in 1939 a healthy majority of Americans were against resettling Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the US. And, of course, a few years later, American citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up into concentration camps for the duration of World War II. Fear is an old friend of the Republic.

That doesn't mean it needs to continue to be so. That doesn't mean we have to be slaves to our history.

The wonderful thing about humans is that, given the right conditions, they can evolve. They can become better. They can become more than who they were. Just anecdotally, I see this in my own life. I don't hold myself up as a paragon of virtue. But I can see that I'm a better person now than I was in my youth, that I've grown and I've expanded my circle of concern. Every human has this potential within herself.

The problem is that fear is strong. To quote the poet: "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration." Fear speaks to our basest, most unevolved instincts. It speaks to our reptile brain, the foundation of our evolution. Flee or fight. Sometimes both. Fear is the "natural" reaction.

Empathy and compassion are traits which belong to our evolved selves. They are learned. They are not instinctual. Someone who has developed neither can easily slough off the images of dead children and screaming mothers. It doesn't concern them. It doesn't impact them. It takes an entire culture to inculcate empathy and compassion. And that has always been a tough slog, the world over.

But the fact that it is possible is the hope upon which we hang. What Daesh and the US right share is a total slavery to fear. Fear of the different; fear of change; fear of losing power.

In the Middle East, Daesh must be confronted with the combined fury of an outraged world. At home, it must be confronted with the assertion that "we will not live in fear". We will go to cinemas. We will go to concerts. We will conduct our lives because we are their masters, not you.

Fear has an efficacy if you let it enter your soul. Shutting your gates to fear is not "natural". But it is the only choice which will allow the world to survive and prosper. Any other choice leads to the abyss.

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Having the Authority

Remarks by President Obama in Manila