A few years back, I used “fear” as my theme to teach my regular history course. It wasn’t long after the World Trade Center, et al. attacks, and it seemed that anxiety and fear were so pervasive in our culture as a result. It’s understandable, and I thought it might be useful to my students to look at how Americans had dealt with fear in the past. Are there typical responses for us? Is there any continuity to our reactions? What did the people before me do when they were in this situation? This was the only class I’ve ever taught backwards, by the way. I started with September 11, 2001 and let the students talk about their reactions to that. Then, we started backing up to see how people responded to the AIDS scare, Three Mile Island, the Cold War, the turbulent ’60’s, polio, the atomic bomb, race riots, and other situations. I don’t know that we came to any conclusions, but I think it helped them sort out what they were feeling a little.
I would’ve thought that by now, we as a country would no longer be operating so much out of fear, but it seems to still dominate our thinking. We’re so afraid of some rag-tag terrorists half a world away that we’re willing to throw out our liberties and compromise our principles. We’re so afraid of turning socialist that we’ll gladly let big business fuck us over just to prove we’re good little capitalists. We’re so afraid that the godless heathens are taking over that we force public displays of religiosity on the citizenry. We’re so afraid of our neighbors that we want to carry concealed weapons in public — even to look at Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon. If the 20th century was the era of progress, this may end up as the age of fear. I keep wondering when it was exactly that we turned to chicken-shits. I’m really not sure.
Part of it I blame on those freaking progressives in the 20th century. Americans still believe the progressives’ lies that we can eliminate pain and misery and create a well-ordered society. Because this remains the ideal, we aren’t good at coping with the less tolerable reality. We turn on our neighbors, our allies, and most certainly strangers. No longer do we agree with Lockean notions of the body politic and government. We don’t bind ourselves to our fellow humans as an act of faith and search for justice. Now, we look at government as the great defender whose job is to punish those we fear — by whatever means necessary. I think this is probably a natural reaction, and most likely fits America much better now than the pontifications of the Founding Fathers.
I have never been Lockean in my views, by the way. I am a product of my times: I don’t have that kind of faith in my fellow citizens or respect for the human impulse. In reading various philosophies of history, I found that I fit much better with the naïve sophistication of the 14th century than the modern age. I can’t buy into Locke, but I am completely on board with Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406). His view of society is thus: it is necessary, as, individually, we are incapable of besting nature. By joining together, we can protect ourselves from the beasts of the wild and raise enough food to sustain human life. Cooperation brings food and security; however, human beings have a natural propensity for aggressiveness and oppression. It is necessary, then, to develop a mechanism for restraining the members of our societies to keep them from turning on one another. This requires a sovereign (state) with the authority to protect us from our peers. Thus, solidarity and power are the essential elements for a working society. You can see, then, that I’m no optimistic humanist. I am as wary of my fellow man as another. In this sense, I am a part of my age and a product of the same influences that touch my peers.
I like to think, though, that my hostility is not prompted by fear but rather an honest distrust — well earned, I might add — of human beings. History is full of examples of oppression and injustices forced on one person by others. I am a student of history; therefore, I am well versed in the contemptibility of humankind. Of course, this could merely be a weak justification for my bleak worldview and negative theory of politics. I may actually just be a Southern Baptist.