'Tis the Season
for a New Story Line

Commentary by Alton Miller

Originally printed in the Beverly Review, Chicago, Dec. 1, 2004

Where there is no vision, the people perish... - Proverbs 29:18

A grim story line has taken hold of the American consciousness. The theme of this story line is fear, and the only way to break free is to reflect reality with a better story.

Too many Americans are living in fear. Especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001, we have been told again and again that the world is a hostile place, full of "foreigners" who hate and envy Americans for no better reason than that we are good and they are evil.

The drumbeat of fearful tidings is more than a matter of simple repetition. The American public is the target of a masterful public relations campaign to fan the flames of generalized anxiety about our precarious position in a dangerous world. In such a world, whimpering liberals are outmatched by our foreign enemies, and only the realpolitik of combative conservatives can save us.

This is especially true since September 11, but it did not begin with those terrorist attacks. Conservative policies have always thrived on a climate of fear and distrust, and the far right has a history of conjuring wicked enemies ever since the emergence of labor unions over 100 years ago – anarchists, or "Reds," or the Comintern, or the Evil Empire, or drug addicts (they're evil, not sick), or anti-Christians of various descriptions – or, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Muslim terrorists.

For many conservatives, the authentic American heritage is a story of realistic, rugged individualism confronting an idealistic, craven collectivism. They believe that the "losers" – people who can't hold their own in the rat race – want to level everyone downward to the lowest common denominator. Only by upholding traditional authority can they prevent the fall of civilization. This is an ancient view of The People as The Mob.

This dog-eat-dog, I-got-mine worldview flies in the face of all the stories we heard in Sunday school, and the homilies that decorated our primary education – the generosity and the largeness of spirit and the tolerance and the grace that we were all taught lay at the heart of the American way of life. The radicals' crabbed, small-minded, inward-turning, nasty view of the human condition can be justified only as a hard-edge realist's response to serious threats to our way of life.

The "Homeland Security Advisory System" – the color-coded terror alert scheme – has never settled below "Yellow," or "Elevated," which indicates "Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks." It's pretty clear that the whole point of this system is to perpetuate – and raise to a formal, legal status – a permanent state of anxiety.

Fear for Every Occasion

The strategy of fear is ready for application to just about any item on the conservative agenda. Drilling for oil in Alaska? We need that domestic oil to make us less dependent on the Arabs. Tax cuts? It's the only way to bounce back from the economic impact of 9-11; Osama wants you to pay higher taxes. Draconian drug abuse laws and enforcement? Drug abuse is no longer a victimless crime, it's providing aid to terrorists. Crackdown on immigrants? How else to confront the alien threat. Looser restrictions on police and prosecutors, tougher criminal penalties, longer sentences, the death penalty? Terrorists and potential terrorists have no rights. Trashing gay rights, abortion rights? Terror is God's scourge of liberal sinners. Political criticism of our commander-in-chief? Whose side are you on?

The climate of fear shows up in some unlikely places. In "Conscience, A Newsjournal of Catholic Opinion," Jennifer Block writes about the "severe gutting" of the fact-sheet on condoms issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before Bush took office, the CDC advocated condoms and advised on their proper use, but now instead stresses abstinence.

"This agenda is so ruthless," Block says, "that members of several domestic sexual and reproductive rights and health organizations speak of a pervasive 'climate of fear' created by the Bush administration; a climate in which entities on various levels, from non-governmental HIV/AIDS prevention groups to high schools and even epidemiologists at the CDC, are being pressured to toe the party line."

In what was arguably our country's darkest hour, Franklin Roosevelt asked us to shake off our anxieties: "The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself."

During World War II, Winston Churchill entered legend as the indomitable optimist who inspired a nation of plucky islanders by refusing to live in fear of what seemed to be an irresistible German juggernaut.

Despite the horrors of the Great Depression, Americans and moviegoers the world over sang along with Walt Disney, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

But the Bush administration nurtures fear and anxiety. Where there is no vision – where no one has provided a counter-narrative to the bad tidings of human demise and decay – the people perish.

Needed: A New Story

In practical terms, a "vision" is best understood as a new story. And this sometimes means living a fiction, as if things were on the mend, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

Christopher Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, writes how the Czech hero Vaclav Havel, "then working as a marginal playwright and poet under a Communist regime, realized that 'resistance' was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living a fiction – 'as if' he were a citizen of a free society, 'as if' lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, 'as if' his government had actually signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights." His hope was infectious and undermined the regime, creating conditions for a liberated Czechoslovakia.

The activist preacher Jim Wallis writes in his book, Faith Works, of what he calls the power of hope: "Believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change." He advocates a formula of "faith-hope-action-change," and shows how it worked in different ways for both Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Ultimately, he wrote, social change comes only through organized action. But effective action is possible only when there is genuine hope that improvements will result from all that hard effort – otherwise, why should any of us get up off the sofa? Hope requires a narrative – a fiction supported not by facts but by faith (religious or otherwise) – to inspire the imagination so we can understand how we're going to get from the beginning, through the middle, to the end – in other words, a story told in advance, as if it had already happened, of how we were able to accomplish the journey we haven't yet begun.

In this season of hope and good tidings, and New Year's resolutions, my personal hope is that more of us will resolve to contribute to the narrative of genuine American core values – not I-got-mine individual redemption (whatever that might mean to you, in secular or religious terms), but the barn-raising, we're-all-in-this-together, sense of the common good that fortified the Pilgrims in the 1630s and saved the nation from anarchy three centuries later. 'Tis the season to start spreading the good news.

And keep in mind the rest of that line from Proverbs: the full verse reads, " Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he."

2004 Alton Miller