In the movie Bowling for Columbine film maker Michael Moore makes a very interesting, and often missed, argument. Many see the film as an anti-gun movie, but it really isn’t. He directly compares the US to Canada and notes that Canada has lots and lots of guns — but few murders. In fact, here in Maine we are a ‘gun-tooting’ state. Hunting is prevalent, back when I lived in Augusta more than once I saw hunters with guns walking past my house. Yet Maine is the safest US state. We have low crime rates, and murder is extremely rare.
No, Moore argued that the main problem in the US is fear: we are a society gripped in fear, and that leads us to aggression and paranoia. Consider Y2K, the aftermath of 9-11, and the way some people still seem genuinely afraid that somehow if the US cooperates with the UN or tries to talk with countries like Iran it will cause “our enemies” to gain strength and us to “look weak.” Often these fearful people seem most afraid about what others will think of us, that we will back down or lose face. The mark of a fearful person lacking self-esteem is an overarching concern about what others think, rather than ones’ own real situation. That seems to be a cultural problem here — though it could be changing.
The US spends half the world’s military budget. No country could possibly invade or conquer the US. Some say we have to keep trade lanes open with our navy. Well, who is attacking our trade lanes besides rogue Somali pirates? And doesn’t everyone in the world have a shared interest in protecting trade, not just the US? One can point to terrorists, but even there the fear is way out of proportion to the threat. People imagine all sorts of scenarios, but the fact is that fewer people have been killed in the US by terrorists than are killed in car accidents every few months. 9-11 killed 3000, we have about 12,000 domestic gun murders each year.
While downing the twin towers was a spectacle, our military destroys more property, buildings, and kills more civilians than terrorists ever have. But, some protest, what about what terrorists might do — one imagines nuclear terror, biological weapons, and other nightmare scenarios.
The irony of fear is that if you act out of fear of something, you increase the chances you will experience it. Invading Afghanistan and Iraq only made the US more hated and disrespected, and has helped worsen a fundamentally imbalanced economy. To the rest of the world we look like people who would rather kill than negotiate, who see anything other than ‘our way or no way’ as weakness, and arrogantly mourn our own loses while mocking the loses of others, including those we cause.
Would be terrorists would not target the US because they “hate our freedoms.” That’s an absurd and dishonest claim, even though some play on the igornace of the population to argue such things. It’s also not because of Islamic extremism. In fact, the reverse is true — western and American policies have helped the Muslim extremists gain popularity and support in especially the Arab world. And when Americans engage in Islamophobia — hatred of Islam bred by fear — it creates ugly images overseas which only exacerbates the problem. Our fear is our greatest weakness. It may be trite, but FDR was right: we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
But it’s not just foreign policy or domestic homicides. It’s also in our every day lives. In the last election campaign one could see visceral hatred on each side of the spectrum, people tend to ridicule and insult the other side rather than engage. Democrats fear the right, Republicans consider the left un-American and dangerous. Fear permeates every aspect of American life. Another good movie, this one from over 15 years ago, is from Albert Brooks, called Defending Your Life. That movie is set in Judgement City, where people go after their death to determine if they have to go back to earth, where people are bound by their fears, or if they have overcome their fears enough to move on in the universe. The earth is portrayed as a rather forlorn place of suffering, inhabited by spiritually unadvanced souls.
Regardless of what one thinks of that scenario, the underlying theme is that fear is what holds us down in life — that when we are afraid we don’t take chances, we don’t appreciate the good things as they happen, and we create more problems for ourselves. Fear makes it impossible to live a truly free and fruitful life.
Still, I sense a change lately. People had been beaten down by the drumbeat of media inspired fear. The biggest story before the 9-11 attack had been shark attacks in the southeast. A sensationalistic media has been playing on fear for decades. The American people bought it, fearing Saddam, Osama, the Russians, the Iranians, Muslims, Blacks, the MRSA virus and a host of other things out there. Common media teases are things like “what common food may be a killer lurking in your refrigerator…watch at 11:00 to find out.” We had to be stronger than every other country (what if every country felt that way?) because we were afraid not to. We had to attack because we were afraid of being attacked. We didn’t try to see other perspectives, negotiation was weakness, we were good, they were evil.
But after awhile reality breaks through. The failure in Iraq, the on going problems in Afghanistan, the reality of what war means, and the lies from political leaders cause people to reconsider what kind of country we are, and realize that fear ultimately is self-defeating.
I believe the reason that Barack Obama was able to come on so strong and take the Presidency was not his oratory, style, policies, ideology, or even campaign tactics. Rather, the American people are sick of fear, and want to move towards hope. Instead of lashing out against others, we’re ready to talk, compromise, and recognize that most people are good, and want a peaceful world. Yes, there are the cases like Israel and Hamas, or al qaeda, where people certainly want to use violence to destroy enemies. But to many the US looked strangely similar, as we choose massive destruction, rationalized by the fact that due to our technology we could kill more innocents while saying we’re doing more than anyone else to try not to. Blinded by fear, we didn’t see the hypocrisy or the arrogance in our behavior.
That seems to be changing. The American spirit is not one of on going fear, but a strong belief in our ability to shape the future and make it better. We’re at base pragmatists rather than ideologues, we believe there is no contradiction between individualism and concerns about the community and social justice. Perhaps the current multi-leveled crisis, from foreign policy to economic policy, is an opportunity to go from fear to hope. That would seem ironic — to have our culture lost in a media inspired fear while times were good, only to overcome that fear when things get bad. But that’s because fear isn’t really the fundamental American value. It was stoked by a sensationalist media, talk radio, and politicians who realized fear could get the emotional response that would yield votes. Hope takes more work than fear. It requires imagination, confidence, and even some risk taking. But ultimately fear is self-defeating, and hope leads to greater rewards.
2008 was an historic year. It might ultimately be remembered as akin to 1929, the year the economy started into a major long term crisis that would end in war. Or, perhaps, it could be remembered as the year that the American people had enough of the fear mongers, and turned to hope.