Here’s an essay I wrote back in 2008 about fear. I’ve been dealing a lot with my fears since this crisis here in Japan began, and this piece brought me some comfort.
Let me know what you think.
This begs the questions what is America and what is an American, doesn’t it? Well, it’s a long story…but Michael Moore managed to compress it a bit:
Before I answer the question, let me tell you about someone I know well: me. Personally, I am both Pro and Anti-American. I’m more pro than anti these days, but I must confess that has not always been the case. Anti simply means against. America thrives on fear. From national security, to home security, to insurance, you name the industry, a bit of fear is behind it. America also promotes fear and spreads it around the world, part of its globalization mission, selling arms to both side of conflicts, attacking sovereign nations in order to prevent them from attacking us in the future (Bush Doctrine) etc..And has repeatedly used fear to divide its citizens.
I am anti-fear, and thus I am often anti-American.
A little about me and fear:
I’m afraid of cockroaches (and most any insect with multiple legs and antennae and egg sacks, and can take flight, and has no need but to survive, no logic, and feeds on refuse in the dark and scatters when the lights come on and… oh, you get the picture) and in Starship Trooper I would be like the first Supreme Commander: “The only good bug is a dead bug!” And, I tell you, even when I think about my position on cockroaches I know it’s irrational, but I can’t control it. They scare me so much I’m liable to empty half a can of Raid on one roach to express my hate. I torture the little fuckers. I hate them because they scare me. They embarrass me too. If I’m with my girl and got my Mr. Smooth on and, God forbid, a cockroach appears, I’m on top of furniture telling her to kill it! Something primal, something worse than the fear itself, takes over. Sometimes, if I’m alone, I can take a deep breath and try to get my equilibrium back. I tell myself, “it’s just a bug! It can’t harm me.” I tell myself, “if you don’t face it, you will live the rest of your life in fear of it, and they are NEVER going to go away. Goddamn nuclear radiation can’t even stop them.”
By the way, I’ve conquered fears before. I used to be TERRIFIED of roller coasters and airplanes. Now, they’re tolerable. I can’t say I like either one, and as far as roller coasters are concerned, I don’t have to face them too often so they are easily tolerable. Airplanes, however, were a major conquest for me. I used to find religion on take-offs and landings…have a long conversation with the Creator about why He should get me where I’m going in one piece. Now, I can almost sleep through either.
How did I do it? Well, firstly I decided that I wanted to do it. I acknowledged that there was a problem. That if I didn’t overcome this fear then the quality of my life would be significantly diminished. You could argue that John Madden and Aretha Franklin have good lives though neither ever flies, but I bet they wish they could get where they needed to be faster than by bus or train, or ship. Secondly, I made it a point to learn what I could about aviation. I read about how airplanes work and why accidents occur and how other people have coped with the same condition. It helped a lot. I realized that my fear was based partially on ignorance. I really thought that if the engines gave out the plane would plummet to the earth. Maybe I saw top gun and how Maverick’s plane went into a flat spin and thought that could be me, minus the ejection seat and parachute. But, I learned it was all bullshit.
Not to suggest that all fears can be alleviated this way. I’ve tried the same thing for cockroaches and I can’t even bear to look at the pictures of them on websites.
Where am I going with this? Well…I used to be afraid of white people, too. Afraid of their power over the quality of my life. I inherited this fear from my parents and my community. People who have experienced white hate first hand. People who had escaped the humiliation, degradation and domestic terrorism of the Jim Crow south and came north to NY for a better life. For some the better life materialized. For most it didn’t, but there were more opportunities than the south offered if one was so inclined to capitalize on them, and had the wherewithal, education, or intelligence to pursue the American dream. But, the trauma of their ordeal in the south left a bitter taste in their mouths and for many the north was just a different version of the south.
I grew up in the warm embrace of these traumatized people. They dealt with the lingering fear of their past by trying to instill in me a love of my blackness. They hypothesized that the only cure for fear and hate was knowledge and love, and so they filled me with knowledge of all the black heroes that helped make this country what it is and contributed to the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.Racial Pride. I was bursting with it!
The fact that there had to be a Black History Month only reinforced the division I felt existed in America. But, in my childhood, black history month was everyday. And, in every other story of a black hero, there was a white nemesis: Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey had the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, MLK had the KKK, etc…, and their demise or failure was often attributed to this nemesis. So, yes, I developed what seemed at the time to be a healthy fear of this white nemesis out there waiting to take me down. “The Man” was very real for me. School field trips took us to the sites of police brutality or unjustified murders and to boycotts of racist businesses. The thought “The white man is evil!” was debatable in this environment, not an idea to be discarded out of hand as foolishness. To hear or even say the words that the white man is the devil wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. Why? Everything has a dichotomy, not unlike the dichotomy between thought and action. Everything has an antithesis, not unlike right and wrong, black and white, love and hate. Right?
So, to my young mind, it made sense that the love and safety I felt among my family, friends and the community I lived in had a nemesis filled with hate and a desire to destroy me and mine. It made sense. This fear, beautifully disguised as a shield of black pride or self-love, and this hate, barely visible through its cloak of righteousness, actually made sense.
Now, it doesn’t. It’s essentially senseless.
I realize the error in the logic presented to me, now. How divisive it was. How limiting it was to my ability to experience what the world had to offer and what I had to offer the world. And in realizing the error I realized that my fear was irrational. I realized that I didn’t have, as Ayn Rand said, sufficient respect for the senseless. That this senselessness was the true nemesis, and that I was inadequate to do battle with it due to my initial indoctrination by the traumatized. That it was something that could not even be fought. Not with logic. Not with intelligence, and certainly not with righteousness or a degree in African American history. Nor with weapons of any kind. It’s just out there, like some formless, matter-less thing. It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s not Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist…It has no region, no country, no boundaries whatsoever. It’s just out there; it hungers, and feeds and waits. It’s the consummate WMD. It’s like a super cockroach! Not afraid of light, not afraid of fear. In fact, it feeds on fear and hypocrisy and spits out the pits. It is powerful. It is a power source with an unlimited power source: fear.
And it loves America because we are one of the most terrified countries on earth!
I don’t really understand it well but it’s like pornography: I know it when I see it. And I realized that most people can see it but simply disregard it or think that it is something that can be offset by religion or yoga or drugs. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. I’ve never given religion or yoga a try, and drugs, well, they have exposed it but I was never really sure if it was the drugs or this…thing. Some people understand it somewhat, and some understand it well. For example, when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I realize she was lyrically painting a portrait of it, practically anthropomorphizing it.
And there are some who understand TOO well. It’s an ally of theirs.
Now, back to the Michael Moore video above. It’s a rough overview, of course, but it demonstrates how this thing is fed: fear. If we were to make a sequel to that brief history of America where would we begin? Are white folks armed to the teeth, still living in fear of a black planet in their suburban seclusion? Have black people proven themselves to be worthy of this fear? Are black people still cringing waiting for something awful to happen to Barack? Waiting for another terrorist attack to ratchet up the fear and hand McCain an undeserved victory? Or, is all of this simply a tool to keep this creature fed?
I think McCain knows what he’s doing, but I don’t believe McCain understands what he is doing. He wants to win and in order to do so he must rally the masses behind a cause, and unfortunately the greatest rallying force he (and most people in general) know is Fear. What better way to make people lose their minds and willingly sacrifice their own best interest. But, I don’t think he’s the one pulling the strings over there no more than Bush is pulling the strings in the White House. Somebody wants to use this thing to stay in power. BUT, they underestimated the people’s recognition of the thing that is fed by fear, but now that they’ve realized their error, they’ve taken it up a few notches. And they will do ANYTHING to achieve their goals. Frederick Douglass once said: Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
There’s a clear reason why I support Barack. Sure, Barack Obama wants to win. too. But he is known for saying things like “what unites us is greater than what divides us” and “we’re not a collection of red states and blue states, we’re the United States.” The media calls this soaring rhetoric, like it’s some kind of fantastical populism. And to be honest, when I first heard it I was like, “Oh, please…give me a fucking break!” But not because I didn’t believe that it was in our country’s best interest. I do. The reason I was cynical was because I have lived in a divided country my entire life. A country divided along racial, economic, and cultural lines. Lines maintained by the status quo. I came to believe that it had always been that way and will always be that way, and anyone who says different is either a liar (politicians), a dreamer (Martin Luther King) or a mentally unstable victim of police brutality (Rodney “Can’t we all just get along?” King).
My favorite scene from the movie Primary Colors is when Emma Thompson and Adrian Lester are having a conversation, and she asks him why he wants to be campaign manager for the governor. I hear his answer in my head when I think of Barack Obama. He said:
I wondered how it would be to work with someone who actually cared. I mean, it couldn’t always have been the way it is now. It must have been different in my Grandfather’s time. You were there. You had Kennedy. I didn’t. I’ve never heard a president say “destiny” and “sacrifice” without thinking, “bullshit.” Okay, maybe it was bullshit with Kennedy, too. But…people believed it! And, I guess that’s what I want. I want to believe it.
Yeah, I want to believe too. And over the course of the last year, Barack, even if he is full of shit too (though I doubt it seriously), has done what I didn’t think was possible: He made me a believer. And, not like some cultist or fanatic. I’m very wary of fanaticism. There’s a lot of that where I grew up…too much. I never drink any group’s Kool-Aid. Never! I’ve always been an independent thinker, even when I appeared not to be. But, Barack, with words, has painted a picture of a country I’ve never known but I’d love to live in. And, he doesn’t present it as some kind of fantasy world. It’s actually a world I believe we’ve all glimpsed at various times in our lives, like a peek through a portal into a parallel universe.
I know I have.
He says, as a result of the efforts of many Americans over the course of our history, we find ourselves at a crossroad where we can choose to make our country the kind of country most of us want to live in, for ourselves and future generations, we’re almost there. I’ve never had anyone make me see America in that way before.
Some of you will think it’s because he’s black and I’m black. If you do, then you’re probably not black, or didn’t grow up in a black community. Black people wouldn’t think that way. We know that our communities are festering with black politicians who I would not only NOT cast a vote for in a presidential run, but I’d be tempted to switch parties to make sure they didn’t stand a chance of winning. In my entire life, In Bedford Stuyvesant / Crown Heights, on the local level, the candidates were almost always black (except the Mayoral race of course). So, you had to look at their records, not their skin color if you wanted to make an informed choice. An informed choice usual meant the lesser of two evils, as it often does on the state and national level.
Thus, I came to believe that politics was simply that: A choice between the lesser of two evils. Which meant politicians were evil, by design. But, I think that democratic sage Bill Clinton said it best:
I’m sick of feeding the beast. I’m sick to death of fear!
I’m going with Hope!