Saturday, July 24, 2010

Be Not Afraid

I hear the word "scary" a lot in political conversations; Obama is not simply someone with whom my conservative friends have significant political disagreements; he's "scary." Sarah Palin is not just laughably naive and delusional; she's "scary." The Obama administration's agenda is not some half-assed attempt to move us closer to European democracy hopelessly hamstrung by partisan politics; it's "scary." The Tea Party is not just a bunch of right-wing wackos getting way too much media attention; they're "scary." Oh wait -- I'll concede this one. People making a big show about how they have guns and threatening to use them against their political opponents are, in fact, scary.

This taps into some kind of apocalyptic zeitgeist in which we are headed inexorably toward oblivion. I remember seeing a book that predicted that Bush would find a way to get elected for a third term and set up a fascist dictatorship. Obama is marching us toward socialist totalitarianism. Muslims are going to take over the world and make us all wear burqas. Fundamentalist Christians are going to take over the world (or just the Texas school board) and take science back to the Dark Ages. Mexicans are going to come streaming across the border and, um, get jobs or something. Al Gore is going to take over the world and make us all drive hybrids.

The litany is as varied as it is hysterical: Our way of life is at stake. Our cultural values are at stake. Someone, somewhere, is making a mockery of everything that made this country great. America is no longer the Christian nation it used to be. America is no longer the secular nation it used be. [Both of those are, to some extent, true, but I digress.] The arm of American imperialism is reaching farther and farther. The American empire is in decline. Technology is getting out of control. The environment is getting out of control. We're too smart for our own good. We're getting dumber. Kids aren't keeping up with technology, and won't be competitive in the global market. Kids are too reliant on technology and can't read any more. And so on.

All of these things -- some of them more connected to reality than others -- are "scary."

Maybe it's always been this way. Maybe we've always demonized the opposition in the strongest possible terms. Maybe we just have this tendency to throw everything onto an apocalyptic screen. I call this "archetypal projection": some things are so important to us that we have to talk about them in terms of life and death, of heaven and hell, of impending judgment and The End of the World As We Know It. I don't mean to be glib. Bad things -- scary things -- can and do happen. A post-capitalist society might also be a post-collapse society. A terrorist cell might just get a nuke and use it. Somebody might actually put Sarah Palin in charge of something important. But as I hope my (very ad hoc) list indicates, not all of these "scary" scenarios can be true at the same time.

One of my Facebook friends is looking for a flagpole, or materials to make one. This is a man whose "about me" section used to read "Only two people have ever offered to die for you -- Jesus Christ and the American soldier," so there's no doubt he needs the flagpole to show his patriotic colors. I'm a little surprised he doesn't already have one. And I think he's doing it because he's scared, because he feels there's a great spiritual battle going on for the soul of the nation. Old Glory becomes an ebenezer.

I can relate to my friend on a certain level, I think (or would like to think) but really nationalism makes me uncomfortable. Were I of a more fideistic bent, I might call it a form of idolatry, and at one point I did. I suppose even now I might find that language useful, even if I don't connect the dots the same way I used to. I still can't bring myself to say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the National Anthem. To direct one's attention to an object, make a special gesture, and say special words or sing a special song seems an awful lot like worship. I like to keep the list of things I consciously worship very small, and I'm working on the list of things I unconsciously worship. A piece of colored cloth doesn't make the cut.

Neither, I'm afraid, does "the republic for which it stands." I don't hate America. I am neither proud to be American nor ashamed, simply because I had nothing to do with being an American. I am American by the accident of birth. I happen to have been born in a particular time and a particular place and I don't see why I should have rights that others don't simply by virtue of that fact. Am I supposed to be proud to be lucky?

Add to that fact the circumstance of having been born white, and male, and now we can add to that constellation of rights a set of privileges I'm only vaguely aware of. Should I be proud of that as well? I'm not sure Jewish men ever really prayed "Lord, thank you that you did not make me a Gentile, a dog, or a woman," but that's what this is starting to sound like. I'll pass.

At any rate, it recently struck me: isn't there some point at which the philosophical musings of a handful of disaffected white middle class British colonials who happened to win a war in the late 18th century cease to be relevant to our present condition? Isn't there a point at which the vagaries and vicissitudes of our collective social life so far exceed the Founding Fathers' capacity for foresight that the system itself is hopelessly stretched at the seams?

What would that look like? Would it look like a two-party system so ideologically bifurcated that that both sides see the other as a harbinger of the apocalypse (and at least one side seems hell-bent on inaugurating it)? Would it look like our being so far removed from our history as marauders, conquistadors, and squatters that we become hypersensitive to immigration and religious alterity? Would it look like a world in which everything is "scary?"

I don't know. My biggest beef, I guess, with this kind of hyperbolic language -- besides my personal aversion to drama -- is that it leaves us of bereft of a language to describe things that are genuinely devastating, like the BP oil spill. On one hand, this is simply an incredible travesty for which have a hard finding the appropriate words. There's a whole world -- a world once teeming with life and livelihood -- now gone. Fixing it is not available to us. All we can muster is some kind of meager damage control. It's not the End of the World As We Know It, but it is the end of a world.

We lack the language to describe it because we've cheapened our stronger language by using it to describe people whose politics we don't like. But we also lack the language to describe it partially because we know, somehow, that life will go on. This won't significantly change policy. It won't cause us to re-think our relationship to oil so much as it will encourage us to be more careful, like the lung cancer patient who decides to cut down to a pack a day.

In a world where everything's "scary," nothing scares us.