I talked recently to a friend of mine. He's English, but has lived in both Australia and the U.S. He thinks highly of America, but said something interesting. He said that Americans struck him as particularly fearful lot. He thought it odd, indeed, he was almost incredulous, that the most powerful country in the world was so full of fear.
He was speaking mostly of geo-political matters, but his comment went along with something I've been thinking about lately.
If you've read my blog before you likely know that one of my own greatest fears is that we are slowly tearing ourselves apart as a nation. We seem to have lost much of the common ground that once allowed us to have different opinions. Bitter, acrimonious division seems to be the rule now. I don't know how long a country can last like that. Yes, I know there have been contentious times in the past. This seems different to me, and I find it alarming. Perhaps the thing that worries me most is that more and more people seem to see a lack of empathy with others to be virtuous, something to be celebrated.
I've wondered, with growing anxiety, what we could still have in common. Then I happened upon an article about the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's a chilling premise--religious fundamentalists stage a coup and impose a system of grinding oppression, reducing once-independent women to slaves.
As might be expected, those with a more progressive bent find the series to be both excellent and chilling, while those who are more conservative find it to be pretentious and paranoid.
This reaction reminded me of another cultural phenomenon that elicited the same reactions but on different sides of the aisle. Back in the 90s, there was a very popular series of books, the Left Behind series. Written by an evangelical pastor and speaker, this was about a group of Christians persecuted by a one-world government bent on their destruction. It was first a book series, then some movies. These books were a big deal to conservative Christians, while they largely drew snickers and scoffs from more liberal, secular sorts.
Full disclosure: I have not read either Atwood's book or the Left Behind books. I haven't watched the new series based on her book and my only experience with the film adaptation of Left Behind was about ten minutes of the film adaptation once while home sick. I was flipping through cable channels (as I recall, it involved poisoning Bibles and snowmobiles kidnapping Kirk Cameron. But I could be wrong. Like I say, I was sick.)
My point in writing is not to laud or criticize either of these works. And if you comment, please be courteous. People can have different literary and film tastes.
My point is that both secular progressives and conservative Christians embraced a series that was based on their deepest fears. As my friend observed, we Americans really are a fearful lot, sure that the people in Red or Blue states want to take away our freedoms. Clickbait headlines to the contrary, I think either of these dystopic futures are not exactly imminent, even if we don't like specific current developments. If we take counsel from our fears, we can find conspiracies and frightening omens in almost anything.
Converting bogeymen and nightmares into entertainment isn't new. Ghost stories, Grimm's fairy tales, and any number of other storytelling traditions go way back. We have always coped with the shadows around us by confining them into the confines of a story.
Progressives scoffed at the ideas that shaped Left Behind and the certainty many on the right had that the Obama years were the opening lines that would lead us into this nightmare; conservatives think it's ridiculous to imagine Massachusetts as a giant fundamentalist cult and don't think it likely that even if he is a serial harasser, Donald Trump is going to lead us into this future.
Right now, you are likely rallying arguments for why your side is right, why your fears are different. The other guys are demonstrably hysterical and irrational. Your fears, by golly, are the fears of any right-thinking, intelligent person with half a functional brain who is not evil and stupid.
Can we set that aside for a minute? Don't focus on the content of our fears, and let's not shout at each other about whose fears are more rational or likely. Let's focus on the underlying human emotion. Fear is fear. It is a terrible thing, something none of us want.
These books/film adaptations remind us that we all fear. Red, blue, purple--we fear for our loved ones and ourselves. We fear what the future holds. Most frightening, we don't fear foreign armies, we fear each other. And that is frightening. Truly frightening.
When I was a kid, I worried about nuclear attacks and Russians parachuting into the country and quietly taking over. I didn't fear what other Americans would do if they got in charge. But now, many of us do.
Ironically, this fear leads to anger and hate, which perhaps then increase our polarization. Should any of these terrible situations ever come about, I suspect it will be because we so feared the other that we struck preemptively. Fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at some point.
But that does not need to happen. My hope is that we can look at each other and realize that we all know fear. We are human, at the end of the day, not so very different in the ways that matter most. And our fear, while different in form and shape, feels the same. Perhaps if nothing else we can start to find some sort of humanity in the other, developing some empathy here. A sort of compassionate confederation where we retain our disagreements but see the other side as acting on emotions that also stir us.
And perhaps, by doing so, we can prevent the worst dystopias from every coming about.
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