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Posts Tagged ‘fear’

As a result of watching the recent presidential debates I’ve had the opportunity to catch glances of local broadcast news. I don’t watch a lot of tv and certainly not the news because in the past I found it to be shallow, superficial in its coverage, and slanted deep into sensationalism. These recent glances have reconfirmed my views and I now believe news exists purely as an instrument of fear mongering.

To what end, what purpose is all this fear sold to us as information that we feel compelled to need?

Fear, I’ve decided, is our national drug, our soma, one that once consumed requires a steady diet. Politicians dispense with rational and honest discourse in favor of getting votes by pushing fear like drug dealers earning loyalty – and dependency – by giving it away freely. The media redistributes this fear-drug after cutting it with good old-fashioned advertising hucksterism, knowing the consumer won’t consider the harmful side effects and decay to their ability to reason because they’ve become dependent on it. Thus the constant need for greater amounts of fear just to feel sated.

Enter dystopia.

The Science Fiction genre has a long tradition of discussing our current problems by masking them in constructed worlds similar to our own but distant enough not to cause us anxiety. They feed our strange human desires to explore new worlds, engage with the possibilities of life beyond our solar system, and through various proxies shine a light on our very human condition. They are cautionary, sometimes moral, tales with the promise of salvation or a warning of ruination as a matter of choice.

With kids constantly fed a steady diet of fear – on tv, in politics, in classrooms, anywhere it can be pedaled in favor of the ability to think for oneself – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have grown to expect a dire future as entertainment. The ultimate message may be one of the human spirit triumphant over forces of darkness-to-come but rarely does it extend beyond the narrative hero. It is the flaw of hero-worship, this notion that one person may triumph in the end with the assumption that all will be right with the world from that point out. Revolution and change are rarely the carefully orchestrated desires of one individual motivating the masses, they are the will of the masses unified to rise up against the individual for the good of all.

The dystopic vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it isn’t the will of one person forced down on all, it is a collective agreement and a surrendering of free will and free thought that allows for the worst to happen. Over time, and with a steady diet of dark futures without workable solutions provided as road maps, dystopia as entertainment may condition readers to readily accept these worlds as eventualities. Fear re-conditions the mind to accept being afraid as a standard state of affairs, thus requiring a constant feed of fear in order to feel normal.

It took decades before people broke free of the fear and political inevitability of a nuclear Cold War. As entertaining as dystopic fiction can be, I hope it isn’t decades before readers (and writers) snap out of the coma of fear and seek out the roots of new stories that honor rational thought and honest discourse, and that politicians and the media lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Or, to bastardize Vonnegut: Tomorrow becomes the illusion we choose to believe, so we must take care in the illusions we choose to believe.

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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In old New Orleans there was a young man named Soot, a blacksmith’s son, a young man totally without fear. Soot was fond of taking his lunch in the graveyards around the French Quarter, a tombstone for a back rest. If the townspeople needed someone to search the crypts their lost children they would send in Soot. In hurricanes when the people of the village would run for cover, Soot stared into the sky and would say “So much fuss over a little rain.”

One day Soot’s father sent him into the world. “You’ll soon enough discover fear on the road, and when you do return home.”

Soot traveled the swamps of the bayou by punt until he came to a Cajun village. As it was late at night and raining he took refuge beneath a gallows which had been built over the water like a high boat dock. He was nearly asleep when he noticed a body hanging above him.

“Now, what are you doing up there?” Soot asked.

“I was left here as an example for the people of this village, but I am innocent and deserve a decent burial ceremony with my people,” said the hanged man. “The Preacher stole from the church collection but he is a revered man in the village and I am a Houma so the people believed him when he accused me of theft. Perhaps you can help me.”

“What can I do,” said Soot, who was not afraid to be talking with a dead man.

“The Preacher hid what he stole in his attic, beneath a board on the floor marked with an X. Bring this information to the attention of the Judge and he will set things right.”

And right then, in the middle of that rainy night, Soot found the Schoolteacher’s house and banged on the door. When the Preacher refused to open up Soot kicked the door in, threw the Preacher over his shoulder, and carried him to the Judge’s house.

“Judge, here is your thief. There is a board in his attic marked with an X and beneath it is what he stole from the church. You must take down that poor Indian who was hanged and give him to his people for a proper burial.”

Everything was as Soot had said, the Preacher admitted to accusing the Houma, and was hanged himself the next day. Soot was invited by the Houma tribe to the funeral ceremony where he was given a tea to drink that gave him visions of the man whose name he cleared.

“For what you have done, I thank you, and in appreciation I have left a staff in your boat that will beat away and vanquish any spirits you may come across.”

The next day Soot continued his journey on foot when he soon came upon a plantation owner crying by the side of the road. Now, Soot’s family had once been owned as slaves on a plantation but he did not know the fear his relatives had known so he approached the man.

“What troubles you, sir?” Soot asked.

“I was forced out of my house so the army could use it in battle, but so many died in there and their spirits won’t let me enter to collect my family possessions. I would gladly give my house for the photos and family mementos inside.”

Soot wasn’t certain this wasn’t some sort of a trick but if there was anything to fear in the house he was determined to find it. “Give me a day and I will clear the house for you.”

Now Soot hadn’t reckoned on finding over two dozen ghosts inside, but that’s what he found there. The spirits charged at him as he entered, their uniforms in tatters, their ghostly bodies blackened and charred, some still carrying their useless weapons. As they drew near Soot held out the staff the Houma had given him and stamped the floor with it. At once the spirits fell as if struck down by the loudest bell ringing around their ears. Soot found an old ammunition chest that he stuffed the enfeebled ghosts into like so much cotton batting, then found the lid and nailed the case shut. At night he walked around the Southern Gothic mansion and found it to his liking. The next morning he met up with the owner and invited him into the house.

“You’ve driven away the spirits?” he said.

“Come, collect what you want without fear,” said Soot.

The plantation owner was cautious at first, but soon realized he was able to move around freely without fear of a haunting.

“However can I thank you?” the owner said.

“I do believe you said you’d give your house for your family possessions…”

The plantation owner was struck dumb. “That was merely a figure of speech.”

“That may be, but I’ve done as you’ve wanted, and this house is how you can thank me.”

“This house has been in my family since it was built, I won’t give it up so casually as all that,” the owner said, growing more indignant.

“Very well. I’ll just release these spirits I’ve rounded up–”

“No! No! Take it, take the house, take the whole plantation!”

Soot was well pleased that he had not been so easily taken in by the plantation owner and he had planned to send for his family to join him there when he had finished his travels. That night he spent the night in the softest feather bed the mansion had to offer when, in the middle of the night, he awoke to a clatter of noise outside the house. He went to the window to investigate and saw a very large cross burning in front of the house, with shadowy men in white gowns and white hoods on horseback nearby.

“Oh father, now I know, fully know, what fear is,” said Soot.

Soot gathered up all the valuables in the house, loaded them along with the staff the Houma had given him into trunks on a carriage, with plans to leave at first light. One last thing he did before he left, he pried open the ammunition crate and let loose the spirits he had stuffed inside. The groggy ghosts didn’t seem to remember how they had ended up crammed into the crate. Soot was more than happy to inform them that they had been placed there by the owner of the house who was due to return any day. The soldier spirits thanked Soot and with that he returned to his father’s blacksmith shop.

*

Freely adapted from “The Young Man Who Went Out in Search of Fear,” story number 244 in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes. New Orleans came up in conversation as I was reading the original story and suddenly I could see how parts of the American South could easily fill in for the forests of the Grimmoire.

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Yesterday I handed in my last packet of materials for grad school.  I still have a week to compile my final paperwork for my degree, but all the heavy lifting is done.  There’s also that little matter of a residency to attend in January – something about delivering a lecture and attending a graduation ceremony – but, yeah, done.

It feels so anti-climactic.

I’ve got some work in for my final workshop that I know isn’t up to the standards of the novel I just finished (hmm, need to start looking for an agent I guess) but I also didn’t have the time to make it top drawer.  Thinking about it, about its flaws and how much work it needs, makes me wonder if I can do it on my own.  For two years now I’ve had one-on-one responses from advisors who would ask the hard questions at every step of the way, making sure my manuscript took a nice, balanced, well-rounded shape.

From here out I have to rely on that voice being inside my head.

For the next month it will be easier to retreat into the world of school just a little longer, to mercilessly edit and refine my lecture and prepare for book discussions and workshops.  Then, come January 20th, the tether is cut and I’m set to glide free.

And that large land mass below, with its persistent and unfeeling gravity, attempting to pull me down flatten me on impact?

That would be fear.

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* a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism.

* a person who terrorizes or frightens others.

* a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities

We call Osama Bin Laden a terrorist. We consider him responsible for those who act as his advocates. He doesn’t move about Iran or Iraq or Pakistan informing and instructing people in how to act, he merely inspires those around him to shout “Death to Infidels” and “Kill Americans!” and to set off car bombs in a campaign intended to undermine the efforts of others to maintain order.

We’ve seen less blatant but equally effective terrorism in the past. We’ve seen leaders use fear and terrorism as a political weapon. Despots and dictators, certainly, and those who hide behind the skirts of religion and power to engage in acts of violence, censorship and ethnic cleansing.

Currently we have a pair of terrorist operatives in this country inciting their small cells, their “base,” into a frothy fury of fear and hatred. They speak of the evils of other Americans and, like Bin Laden, are willing to let the individuals carry out their message. They even go around the country calling themselves radicals. And when their followers shout out words like “traitor!” and spit out “off with his head” at their rallies then there is no doubt who the real terrorists are.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are no less terrorists than Osama Bin Laden.

The campaign has gone beyond any previous level of partisan anything-to-get-elected tactics and has moved into the realm of the truly evil. To those who have never understood how a thing like Nazi Germany came about — remember, Hitler was elected Chancellor in a democratic election — I only need to point to the current phase of the McCain campaign as a living reminder. This isn’t a question of ideological differences, this is a campaign of terrorism, plain and simple, based on fear, anger and hatred.

No matter who wins the election, if anything happens to Barak Obama or his family — or any innocent American for that matter — as a result of the current campaign rhetoric I will personally hold John McCain and Sarah Palin responsible for the rest of their natural lives. They have done nothing to quell the rabble, to talk the villagers from gathering with their pitchforks and torches of hatred, and in doing so encourage those they consider their supporters, their base, to act on their behalf. These are the people McCain calls “my friends” and who Palin identifies with as “plain folks.” If they want to play a game of guilt by association by tying Obama to a former domestic terrorist like William Ayers then they better ready themselves for the inevitable. The first person who carries out an act of violence or terrorism on behalf of McCain or Palin, that blood will be entirely theirs.

Just like we do with Bin Laden.

We are standing at the brink of history. There is an opportunity for that history to fall to either side. We will either move forward or tumble backward. There are terrorists among us.

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So I’m looking at the footage of the protest on the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday.  You know, the “Free Tibet” banners that were hung from the bridge?  Nice to see a bit of the old home, remember just how politically active the Bay Area is compared to the rest of this great nation.

But… wait.  Isn’t the Golden Gate Bridge one of the high priority targets for protection by Homeland Security?  If a group of protesters can mount these banners on the bridge with this sort of ease, what does it say about our ability to protect the bridge from terrorism and sabotage?

It’s just as I have always believed: terrorism in this country is built on fear, a fear perpetrated by our own government for its own political ends.  We’re not any “safer” than we were before 9-11, just as we’re in no greater danger than before.  The fear and terror are created within and come from the top down.  If we were serious about securing the homeland (which always sounds a little too close to the Fatherland for my taste) then things like this protest on one of the most visibly public American structures couldn’t have happened with such ease.

Americans should be afraid.  Of their own government.  The founding fathers said so.

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