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By Rootsie
October 23, 2004

I heard a commentator today say that all substantive issues have drained out of the 2004 presidential election, and that the whole thing is boiling down to a few voters' perception of which candidate will make them/keep them safe. It's all come down to fear.

'Safe.' Now ain't that a shame. And ironic, since America's abiding myth is that we are a nation of risk-takers, as all of our heroes, from pioneers and warriors and adventurers to modern corporate pirates, attest.

Well what are we so afraid of? The barbarians at the gate, the terrorists. As obvious as it is that the media are masters at manipulating people through fear, their tactics wouldn't work on a fearless people.

I know my writings might sound to some like a one-note song, but let's look at some history. The first fraidy- cat Americans were the Puritans, those small people who braved the Atlantic in their small boats seeking some small measure of liberation, within the parameters of their starched-collar Protestantism.

What they sought: Zion in the Wilderness, the City on a Hill, a New Jerusalem. What they found: a frigid slate-gray ocean; a land dense and dark with ancient, and no doubt, to them, gloomy forests; hardscrabble soil that yielded little; wolves and bears and wildcats; and if that weren't all discouraging enough, dark people. Lurking, hiding, skulking in the underbrush, liable to pop out at any minute with their expressionless faces and clothes made from skins. Wait a minute now: land of milk and honey? This was more like the Catholic Hell, and those strange dark people demons here to welcome them to their final home. They began to think that they must have gotten their theology wrong, and this the punishment.

They talked a big game, the Cotton and Increase Mathers, the William Bradfords. They perched their little gray villages at the edges of that great unknown darkness, whose vastness they must have sensed, raising storms of Old Testament thunder. But secretly they were appalled by how heinously they must have transgressed against their God to wind up in a place like this. This is the great fear that lies at the deep heart's core of America.

The only possible response to this encounter with primeval darkness was light, light, and more light: clear the forests, cut down the animals and those irritating dark people, once they had outlived their usefulness. And look out to the sea, towards familiar places, establish a brisk maritime trade to bring familiar comforts, and from the beginning, slaves. Slaves to aid in the enlightening project, the pacification of the rough wilderness. Build and thrust, up and up and up, until gleaming towers scraped the skies. God himself became a vastly distant creature of light, way up there somewhere, not of much use, but demanding obeisance and frequent, fervent, mention.

The light of Liberty. The light of commerce, technology, progress... Well it wasn't a City on a Hill when we got here, but we are surely making progress.

Simply put, America is afraid of the dark.

This plays out literally and figuratively in countless ways. Constant, virulent, racism. Anti-depressants. Clean lines, polished steel, tons of windows. A hatred of real intelligence, i.e. introspective types. America has never been much for looking at herself.

Carried away by her rhetoric about freedom and equality, America flirted for a brief moment with the idea of freeing the slaves and sending them back to Africa. But L'Ouverture's rebellion in Haiti put a quick end to that. They will murder us in our beds, never mind that we might deserve it. That's too much introspection. No one talked in those heady days of equality for the Indians; they were simply too much of a moral affront, and useless besides. Total eradication was the prescription for that problem.

So now it's the A-rabs too. Nothing seems to constellate the deepest fears of Americans like dark-skinned human beings. And this bunch, unlike blacks and the remaining invisible Indians, really do seem to want to murder us in our beds. And so we are looking for a big daddy to make us feel safe. Too bad we banished God to some heaven of indeterminate location.

Could it be that the mighty, muscular, ostensibly light-bringing projects-- military, industrial, and technological, which so distinguish our history, have always been pre-emptive strikes against our fear, undertaken in order that we may feel some measure of 'safe'?

Safe from what? Safe from history. Safe from the shattering of our great national myth of particular favor from God, whom we need to imagine as smiling down benevolently upon our grand experiment. From the first we doubted it.

Freedom. Justice. Equality. Funny how ill-suited those first small people were for such things. The Protestant ethic is not particularly conducive to expansive ideas about tolerance and human dignity, and for all of the rhetoric, those ideas have not taken firm root here. They simply have not. For all of the material excess and the mind-boggling technology and illusions of freedom, we are a fearful, profoundly unfree people: a depressed people, an addicted people, a murderously violent people.

We have tried to fight back the shadows. Our cities glow eerily in the distant darkness. Our rhetoric reflects our desperate craving for light. What you deny and deny comes back to get you in the end. We have made a monster out of that darkness, and it threatens to envelop the whole world.

Black is the color of the good earth; we poison it. Dark are the roots which nourish, which we deny. Black are the skins of people who built this place, whom we have murdered by the millions. We pretend that we just do not understand why 'they' hate us. We know. We know very well. All of this desperately gaudy Technicolor culture of ours we have constructed to distract us from all the things we know.

There is something so pathological about all of this. Physically speaking, Americans are pretty much the safest people in the world. And in terms of the intangibles of life, when does an overwhelming desire for safety get us anywhere? We admire and value courage and risk-taking, but only vicariously I guess. We are more than willing to render vast regions of the world unsafe for the people who live there for the sake of our own safety. So much for the selfless generosity of the American spirit. Another myth.

Here we stand, the most terrifying menace the world has known, crying out for safety. Safety.

Tell it to Fallujah. To Gaza. To Pine Ridge. To South L.A.


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