Commentary: Fear itself
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2010 - Editor's Note: Professor John Downing talked about fear in his adopted country of the United States as he gave Saturday's commencement speech to communications students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"What I want today to ask you to think about," he said, "is whether we Americans may often be nursing our fears, coddling them, obsessed with them, almost in danger of falling in love with them."
Downing, a graduate of Oxford University and the London School of Economics, is retiring as director of the Global Media Research Center at SIUC and as a professor in the Radio-Television Department.
Downing was born in southeastern England in 1940, just before the Battle of Britain began. As a boy of 4, he left Britain, then besieged from the air by Nazi rockets, and sailed through the Mediterranean to join his father in India. He remembers the fear of that journey evading Nazi submarines.
During his childhood in India, he learned, "it was not normal to have a white skin; it was not normal to be a Christian; and that Hindus and Muslims behaved as well, or as badly, as people in Christian countries." He added, "For many of us here in the USA, just one of those things – language, skin color, another faith – can be enough to spook us."
Even though America is protected by oceans, Downing has found that, "in my experience we Americans do often seem more open to panic-mongers than a number of other countries are. Our talk radio is full of screeching prophets of doom. We are a democracy, but in my experience we are amazingly apprehensive about confronting our bosses at work, and even students are very cautious about provoking their professors."
Here is the text of his address:
Today, obviously, is a day to celebrate, a day to be genuinely proud of success. For some skeptics in the family, maybe even a little amazement at success! For many students’ families, paying for this has been a constant battle; for many students it has meant working 10, 20, even 40 hours a week on top of study. I want to begin by saluting such high levels of dedication and determination.
But - underlying our genuine happiness in marking the achievements of our family members and friends, underlying our students’ pleasure – and relief! - in getting their degrees, at this point in time there is a persistent undercurrent at the back of our minds, an undercurrent we try hard to suppress, but an undercurrent which will not be squished: fear.
Fear of economic chaos. Fear of job losses. Fear of the collapse of pensions. Fear of health care getting even worse, not better. Fear of the rest of the world moving in. Fear of car bombs. Fear of endless wars grinding up our young people. Fear of offending the boss.
To say we should never feel fear would be to live in cloud cuckoo land. People who know no fear at all get medals – often posthumously – but in normal life may be known as the people you don’t want to get in a car with if they’re driving. Myself, I certainly know fear: fear for a loved one undergoing an operation; fear for a daughter on her fourth tour in Iraq; fear as a 4-year-old on a British ship going through the Mediterranean in 1944, when deafening gun practice shook the whole ship; fear walking down a Belfast street in 1974 in Northern Ireland at the height of terrorist activity and wondering which one of the parked cars I was walking past might be one timed to blow up.
But what I want today to ask you to think about is whether we Americans may often be nursing our fears, coddling them, obsessed with them, almost in danger of falling in love with them. Yes, fear is painful. But it also has an attraction.
Some of us love horror movies. Some of us are fascinated by violence in movies and videogames and crime stories. Fear grips our minds and makes our pulses race. The thrill of fear in war, as journalist Chris Hedges has written, can be a force that gives meaning to our lives. We pay to go on the roller coaster.
Yes, I feel fear. But on many fronts, when it comes to learning to live with fear and not to be crushed by it, I have been very fortunate. At the end of that journey in 1944, surviving the Nazi submarines, I ended up in India and joined my father, an irrigation engineer there for 25 years, but himself born and raised in a tiny fishing village on the coast facing Ireland. It wasn’t until many years later that I cottoned on to the enormous lesson I had learned in my two years of childhood there, and learned for good. I had learned, effortlessly, that it was not normal to speak English; it was not normal to have a white skin; it was not normal to be a Christian; and that Hindus and Muslims behaved as well, or as badly, as people in Christian countries.
For many of us here in the USA, just one of those things – language, skin color, another faith – can be enough to spook us. It’s not that we love to hate - though some of us really do. It’s that we live on this huge island, four time-zones across just in the continental 48, and there is so much here to see, long road journeys to take, magnificent countryside of many kinds, cities with brilliant museums and live music joints. There’s football and basketball and baseball, and barbecue to die for. We have states bigger than France, Texas ranches bigger than Rhode Island. We have often a sense that if the rest of the world were to cut us off, we are big enough to survive, even if we had to tighten our belts a good deal.
But in reality surviving by ourselves hasn’t been true for well over a hundred years, indeed going on two hundred. Without migration from Ireland and Germany from the 1840s on; without cheap labor in the years 1880-1920 from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Lebanon, Syria and many other countries; we could not have become the world’s premier economic power by the end of World War I.
Today only 30 percent of the oil we use is generated within our borders – and sometimes at great risk, as the environmental nightmare in the gulf shows. 70 percent of Walmart’s items come from China. We exclaim at new subdivisions growing up and new malls – but in much of the USA, those buildings only go up with Mexican and Central American sweat. Our computer industry and our medical research are highly advanced, but a whole chunk of the top talent there comes from India, Pakistan, China and other countries.
Recognize it or not, like it or not, America is in bed with the rest of the planet. We could fantasize about living behind walls and shutting out the rest of the world and feel safe. But really: Would we all be just fine with living Amish-style?
In my individual experience, 21 years a citizen, 30 years living here, and visiting to date 35 of the states, we Americans tend to be more easily nervous about the rest of the world than most other nations. It’s been claimed that only about 20 percent even of our senators and representatives may actually own passports.
It is strange, because technologically we have far the most powerful military in the world. What is more, we have been attacked on our own soil just three times in 200 years: by the British in 1812; by the Japanese military at Pearl Harbor; and in the 9/11 massacre. Talk to Russians, to Poles, to Chinese, to Koreans, to Germans, to Congolese, to many of the peoples of Darfur, to Iranians: our bitter memories of bloodshed and loss and brutality are absolutely real, but so too are theirs, and magnified in ways I cannot even imagine. The Civil War aside, we have come off rather lightly compared to some, and that war is now nearly 150 years ago.
Yet in my experience, we Americans do often seem more open to panic-mongers than a number of other countries are. Our talk radio is full of screeching prophets of doom. We are a democracy, but in my experience we are amazingly apprehensive about confronting our bosses at work, and even students are very cautious about provoking their professors. We mutter to each other, but we knuckle under. We may badmouth our political leaders, but over and over again we trustingly follow them into wars, supposedly to save our skins.
The reasons for this dominance of fear, if there is truth in my views, are complicated. I suspect they have deep roots in our history as a settler nation, and in the fact we have no recent experience of prolonged war or prolonged terrorism on our soil. But I am not going into that now.
Instead I want to close by urging us all to shed timidity. When you graduates get out into your first jobs, certainly don’t think you know it all – but equally, don’t think you have to religiously swallow whole whatever your bosses tell you just in order to get ahead. You may have to conform outwardly to what is expected of you – but that doesn’t mean you also have to fall in love with being a conformist. The jobs out there, the careers out there, are constantly changing, and you are likely over your lifetime to have several careers, not just one. You will need to be your own person in order to navigate all this – not a cushion bearing the imprint of the last patootski that sat on you, not a frightened mirror of what your last boss told you to think.
Perhaps conceive it like this: the word ‘fear’, a thousand years and more ago in the oldest versions of the English language, in Old English, Old German, Icelandic, did not mean the feeling of being afraid. It meant an actual disaster, an actual terrible happening of some kind.
I think we need to reflect on and recover this difference in meaning. We need to be able to distinguish between actual disasters and real nightmares, and our all-too-frequent readiness to be kick-started into being afraid. Especially, of being automatically afraid of the rest of the world. It would help in that if you took learning another language more seriously. You’d have a lot more fun if you did. But engage with the rest of the planet, learn from it, grow!