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Me: You said recently—probably on Twitter—that for the last year or so you’ve been reading books in which talk about “fear” plays a central part. Why?

Myself: For some time I had been noticing how often, in all sorts of conversations, “fear” was invoked as an explanation for this or that behavior, political affiliation, religious identity, and so on—usually someone else’s fear, described by the observer as pathological. And at the same time, many people (on Twitter, for instance) were themselves expressing all sorts of fears—and not infrequently, the people doing so were the same ones who held up some other people’s fear in their tweezers and inspected it with repugnance. Then I read the galley for John Fea’s important book Believe Me, with its emphasis on “evangelical fear,” and felt that I needed to think about the “discourse of fear” in a sustained way. 

Me: So what have you been reading or re-reading? 

Myself: Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman, Paranoia: The 21st-Century Fear; Martha Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis; Roy Scranton, We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change; Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman, The Long Shadow of Temperament; Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger; Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me; Paul B. Wignall, The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Millions Years of Extinctions; Thomas Sugrue, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race; the Fall 2003 issue of the Hedgehog Review, with the theme of “Fear Itself”; Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?; Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea. . .

Me: Enough already! We get the picture.

Myself: Lee Clarke, Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination; Robert Wuthnow, Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats; Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time; David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.

Me: STOP! OK, OK, you’ve read a lot of stuff. But what’s the takeaway?

Myself: I made a start at answering that in a piece last summer for the late lamented Weekly Standard, “Fear Factor,” with the Nussbaum book particularly in view. Here’s one paragraph:

Many instances of what we might call the discourse of fear depend on a rhetorical sleight of hand: To describe those you are arguing against as being driven by fear is thought to be effective, even as you are appealing to fear of the outcome should these fearful types get what they want. In his recent remarks on the Trump administration, a critique in many respects persuasive, former president Barack Obama denounced “the politics of fear,” as he had while he himself occupied the White House. Never mind that President Trump’s critics have themselves routinely waxed apocalyptic. Lisa Sharon Harper, a widely respected African-American evangelical speaker, writer, and organizer, tells us that “majority conservative rulings have already whittled back civil rights protections, leaving this generation’s children as vulnerable to a new Jim Crow as my great-grandparents, who fled for their lives from the terror of the Jim Crow South,” a warning clearly intended to inspire fear and dread.

That “rhetorical sleight of hand” is pretty widely employed; that’s useful in itself. But you learn a lot more from entering the discourse of fear via multiple conversations. Ira Katznelson, a very good scholar, begins his book with an epigraph from E. B. White, from a letter to the New York Herald-Tribune, November 29, 1947: “I live in an age of fear.” And Katznelson takes this as oracular. It wasn’t an age in which there was fear and immense suffering (on a scale hard to grasp) but also optimism and great accomplishments, all tangled together in the texture of ordinary, extraordinary everyday life. No, Katznelson tells us: It was “an age of fear.” Then you shift from Katznelson to various accounts of the present in which we are said to be living in an “age of fear” unlike anything in the history of the human race.

That the discourse of fear is so obviously flawed doesn’t mean that we really have nothing to fear, as Bill McKibben and many others have tried to pound into our heads. Nor will it do to selectively invoke our ultimate (and most precious) trust in God to admonish others for their fears, only to pivot and excoriate those very same others for quietism and wishful thinking when, for instance, it comes to climate change. Again it must be said: How infinitely twisty we are. Let us try, by God’s grace, to do better.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

Photo by Patrick Cain via Creative Commons.

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