Fear, Itself and Other Dangers
Rusty Nelson on Peace and War
Earlier in my lifetime, Americans had an affinity for memorable statements of their elected leaders. In spite of philosophical, political, and religious differences, we could be inspired by catch phrases, warnings, and imperatives like Kennedy’s, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Eisenhower’s great popularity was no match for the spiraling power of the military-industrial complex, but we certainly remember his warning, today.
In the 21st Century, the messenger may have brilliant rhetoric and universal insight and still fall flat with a jaded and cynical public. Obama has electrified his fan base with his words and delivery, over and over, but he can’t find resonance with critics who are hung up on one or two issues that make him the enemy. We’ll go back decades, at least, for a presidential quote or go with a contemporary outsider.
It’s not surprising that Franklin Roosevelt, with four terms, is remembered for more presidential zingers than anyone else. FDR was an orator in the golden radio years, and he seems to have struck a chord, as the U.S. entered World War II, with his declaration that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.” It’s a legendary line, and most of us have taken it for granted as a wise slogan from a president determined that his country, his people will not tremble in the face of powerful enemies, hardship and sacrifice. I invite you to be a little cynical about the famous sentence.
Roosevelt wanted to fully engage American forces in the war almost as much as Churchill did, and the British prime minister loved war, even more than Roosevelt loved the U.S. Navy, a big chunk of which he sacrificed to Japanese air power in order to ensure war would be well-received by the American public. He didn’t fear fear. He feared a lack of commitment. He feared Americans of the 1940s could not fully hate Germany, Kaiser Bill had been too easy, and many Americans were of German stock. Germans were too like Americans, but the Japanese were different, devious, and ripe for demonizing. Fear, itself, not war and all of its miseries and insatiable appetites.
And so, we were brave, obedient, aggressive and militaristic. We who survived were declared victorious without fearing what our victory had cost and would continue to cost. I think it cost us any good judgment we might have had about fear. Ask a police officer what he or she fears. Ask your family, your neighbors, your senators. Ask yourself. Do you believe the answers?
This whole discussion is distorted by the bizarre language of our culture. Have you ever considered putting the ‘fear of God’ into a ‘God-fearing person?’ In a closet in your house, is there t-shirt or a skateboard that declares, “No Fear?” Does your spirituality have room for, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?” As a child, I was baffled by the word fear, because I was being raised to be unafraid and yet fear God, who was portrayed as a loving father and, simultaneously, a jealous and vengeful arch-sociopath. That childish word problem would be cute to recall, except I know there are thousands of adults who have yet to process the semantics.
We should fear the fears that make people want to kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Mohamed Morsy, and allowed Oklahoma to torture Clayton Lockett to death, but we should be terrified by the U.S. thinking, policies and circumstances that stimulated the condemnation of each of these men, now appearing in American media headlines.
Meanwhile, fear is just one element driving humanity’s self-destruction, one of the things that we need to fear, and another fear that must be addressed. And, if you think fear is the only thing, I find that really frightening.
Be afraid. Fear the courage of those who hate us. Fear the arrogance that creates more courageous people who hate and fear the people and/or the government of the U.S. Fear the brutality that American fear uses to deny its own existence. Fear what happens when a fearful military giant cannot use courage when brute force and perfidy are at its fingertips. Fear the polarism gives cops confidence that the world consists only of good guys and bad guys. Fear the despair that keeps those condemned to be bad guys from believing in their goodness. Fear the assumption that you will be secure if you leave decision-making to someone who has more advantages and resources than you.
Take courage. Use your fear to become aware of everyone around you, the common needs, aspirations, sorrows and joys. Use this awareness to build community, encourage the fearful, and struggle for justice, and you will notice you no longer fear individuals, loss of material objects, or the passage of time.
On a personal note: With your support, I have been able to write without fear in this space for more than two decades. Writing engaged news articles and social justice commentary was a vocation for me, and I have yet to run out of material or enthusiasm.
However, since long before I was drawn to social justice, I’ve had an itch to write fiction and poetry. Suddenly, Spokane Veterans for Peace has provided an outlet for its writers with the publication of Vet Lit: How We Remember War. I have three pieces in it and was able to help Hollis Higgins and Mikel Stevenson compile and prepare the manuscript for Gray Dog Press.
We dedicated the book to our WWII vets turned peacemakers, Mike Ladich and Buell Hollister.
If you know us, it’s because we’re PJALS people, and we hope you’ll help us sell our books, not just to get our investment back, but to make sure our voice is heard over so much military propaganda and all the posing, praising and promising that passes for support for veterans. Thank you for being a reader. I hope you’ll want to contact any VFP member for VET LIT, a local venture in putting veterans’ voices into print.