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A White Man’s Fear in a Frightened America

Suburban landscape with the skyline of Dallas, Texas in the background. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, “Between the World and Me” about his experience of being black in White America has touched a place of deep-seated fear and unacknowledged anguish buried deep inside of me. 

Why would I, a sixty something, tall, blue eyed, well educated, white man who has lived a privileged life in White America, be so afraid? 

I think it’s because Coates is right when he points out that we “American Dreamers” espouse Freedom for All, while at the same time, we build our privileged lifestyle ‘on the backs of our fellow humans.’  In more recent times, technology has freed us ‘to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the earth itself.”  The hypocrisy of America’s actions in the world stand clearly opposed to our vision of our country as “the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, rapists, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.”

It frightens me that we Dreamers might reap what we have sown.  If so, all of us, the rich and the poor, the innocent and the guilty, will suffer the consequences. How does America wake up to these consequences and escape from our current dream that is so divorced from reality?

Today America has no language, no story, for such a renewal.   The rejuvenation of hope and belief in our democratic system is hampered because we live out of false belief about the nature of our humanness.   Our cultural belief, which has spawned naked capitalism, is that we humans are just animals with more sophisticated brains, so that life is merely a constant struggle for survival and then you die.  These beliefs are fed to us daily by mass media along with the false belief that America is still the shining exemplar of democratic values where honesty and hard work pays off.   This is simply not true. 

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Many of our citizens recognize that exploitation of nature, other countries and each other does not constitute a galvanizing national purpose, but there is no national conversation to validate that belief.   Our old story, the American dream of continued prosperity, of American exceptionalism, is no longer believable, yet we still live out of that dead belief.   The contrast between the reality of life on the street for the middle and lower classes in America and that of the rich, ruling elite is stark and growing ever more extreme. 

Because the story spun by our national leaders and our national media is just not believable, people are retreating into their own more comfortable belief systems which often are simply self-reinforced cocoons of pseudo scientific nonsense, or religious dogma or Social Darwinist market fundamentalism, or some combination of all of the above.   The fact is that in this time of massive change, people are scared and won’t admit it, so they retreat into denial.  For some, these belief systems are also wrapped in willful ignorance

Willful ignorance is a phenomenon that has been growing year by year and has reached a level where it is a serious threat to our national well being and that of the world at large.   It is hard to believe, but one poll showed that a majority of Republicans in Louisiana believe that President Obama is responsible for the failed Katrina Hurricane response, despite the fact that it occurred three years before he became President.   These beliefs and attitudes revolve around an apparent inability to deal with reality so people make up stories in order to make themselves feel better.  To be clear, these stories are often caused by national media sources which themselves are being driven by ideology rather than truth.

As the philosopher, John Ralston Saul, has written, “We suffer from an addictive weakness for large illusions - A weakness for ideology”.    An Ideology is a system of abstract thought, a worldview, or a way of looking at the world.   When one is operating out of an ideology, it is like having on blinders to other perspectives of the truth.  “Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.” Power in America is tied to the pursuit of all-inclusive truths and utopias which are repeated endlessly by the media.    As a result, our citizens are incapable of recognizing these attitudes as a flight from reality - an embracing of ideology. The unshakeable belief that we are on the road to truth— and therefore to the solution to our problems— prevents us from identifying an obsession as an ideology. 

America’s latest all-powerful ideology is the marketplace and technology.  With all ideologies, the ‘Day of Judgment’ is imminent and terrifying.    Saul points out that Marxism, Fascism and the marketplace all resemble each other in that they are all political ideologies that are hooked on science and technology as the path to utopia.  All ideologies have a utopia at the end of their illusory rainbow.

Utopia is a word coined by Thomas More in 1516 from two Greek words: ‘no’ and ‘place’. To live within an ideology is to have Utopian expectations and to live in limbo - To live nowhere. To live in a utopia is to live where the illusion of reality is feed by the highly sophisticated rational part of the mind.  It is also to live in a state that denies the more complete picture of what it means to be human, to be connected to each other and to the planet because the rational mind offers only a small part of the real human reality.  

Rather than a national dialogue that simply pits one utopian based ideology against another, America needs to find a new conversation, a new story, a new narrative, that is based in a grounded reality.   We aren’t even close, as exhibited by the current conversation among our 2016 Presidential contenders.

Their battling ideologies, of either a paternalist, socialist government or an economic system based on market fundamentalism, seem to cumulatively produce our deteriorating national health, our constant anxiety, defensiveness, and our never ending fears, while our consumer-based society offers up endless ways to medicate or drug away those fears.  

Let’s face it.  Instilling fear in the population is great for business.   Fear is also a proven means for tightening political control by furthering our dependence on the ruling elite who also happen to be the richest 1%.    

Coates writes that “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”   Once again I fear that he is right.

No wonder my fear for our nation, for myself and for my loved ones runs so deep. 

Frank Nuessle

Frank Nuessle is Adjunct Faculty (retired) in the Organizational Dynamics Graduate Program at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is currently on the board of The Pennsylvania Public Banking Project and is researching a book on how organizational design can open humans to a high order paradigm shift - a fundamentally different way of seeing reality – so we can stop destroying the earth.

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