• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Fear and Politics; Fear and Education

I see some parallels.

July 26, 2016

Would you rather be safe or feel safe?

It’s a tougher question than it seems. Naturally, we would rather be safe from harm since harm is less likely, but what if you can’t help but feel as though you aren’t safe?

Think about flying on a plane. The odds make air travel tremendously safe, far safer than driving, and yet many feel sufficient  terror when flying, they choose the more dangerous alternative of driving.

These people are willing to put themselves at risk to feel safe.

The recent Republican National Convention reminded us that we’re supposed to be afraid, of terrorism, of crime, of someone stealing our jobs and our wealth, of changing the country into something that is not “America.”

The county is apparently a cesspool of violence, and yet the data says that violent crime has been declining since peaking in the 1990’s.

But data can’t stand up to fear, to the daily refrain of another shooting.

But perhaps I should be afraid, the data for Charleston County in South Carolina, where I live, shows that in 2015 we experienced a fifteen-year high in homicides (77), the vast majority of them involving firearms.

Charleston city was also a site of domestic terrorism when a white supremacist walked into Emmanuel AME church and killed nine people while they worshiped.

But despite the frequency of homicides and proximity to terrorism, I do not feel unsafe. The homicides – particularly the gun-related ones – are confined to less affluent areas than where I live, and because of the color of my skin, I do not have to fear being murdered by a white supremacist terrorist.

I feel safe, because in reality, I am safe.

For many who don’t feel safe, Donald Trump is their “voice.”

Those of us who find Donald Trump a dangerous person to put in the presidency are also supposed to now be afraid. Professor and Internet big thinker Clay Shirky went on a Twitter spree instructing us on what to do to stop Donald Trump predicated on a fear of Donald Trump.  It was heavy on being afraid of the consequences of a Trump presidency.

I fervently hope that Donald Trump does not become president. While others seem to like that Trump trusts his “gut,” he is guilty of what I believe to be the most grievous sin when it comes to being tasked with making important decisions – incuriosity – a trait he has displayed over and over in interviews.

But because most of the dumb things I’ve done in my life have been out of fear, I refuse to fear a Trump presidency in July.

This isn’t an argument for complacency or passivity, but for rationality and sobriety. Polls in July are not predictive of what will happen in November.

When it comes to fearing a Trump presidency, ask me again in October. And even then, I will tell you that deep down I believe that the Republic is strong enough to survive even this.

Being exposed to all this fear that flies in the face of the rational evidence actually reminded me of the experiences of many of my students.

A significant segment of my students engage with their educations from a fundamental stance of fear. They are primarily afraid of bad grades, some of them believing a single “bad” grade (sometimes meaning even a B) will permanently derail their futures. Students with B’s don’t get into Vanderbilt med school or Yale law school or even get a job other than waiting tables.

They are wrong, of course. The world is not so punitive that a single B in college knocks one out of contention for a prosperous middle class or better future, but they fervently believe this to be true.

For example, I tell them that while it can be difficult for a new graduate to get started, even during the worst of the most recent recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates peaked at 5%. But no matter what rational, factual evidence I muster, they prefer to hold on to their fear.

Those that have something seem more inclined to believe that opportunities are scarce, that “failure” is severely punished.

Interestingly, I believe the most fearful to be those who come from relatively secure socioeconomic backgrounds. This makes sense, they have something to lose, and as players inside the “meritocracy,” they’ve likely marinated in a pressurized stew of competition.

On the other hand, the students who are working full time and going to school or financing their own educations rarely seem to exhibit “fear.” Worry, even anxiety, but rarely does this extend all the way to fear. Again, this seems understandable. When you are reaching for what is next, fear isn’t particular useful or motivating.

Perhaps this is part of what is at work with the Trump campaign. There is no disputing that his rhetoric of cultural revanchism appeals to fringe white supremacists but this group is, thankfully, a relatively negligible proportion of his supporters, because they are a relatively negligible chunk of our society.

Instead, the vast majority of Trump’s supporters are people who tend to be better off than average socioeconomically. They are animated by what George Saunders dubbed “usurpation anxiety syndrome” which organizes around not only economic concerns, but cultural ones, i.e., worries about runaway “political correctness.”[1]

By all possible measurements they are very safe. They are not at risk for gang violence. Despite the recent tragedies in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere, the odds of being killed in a domestic terrorist attack are incredibly low.

White people still make up over 60% of the populace. It’ll be another almost 30 years before we’re not a majority, and even then, we’ll be the largest plurality. Besides, last I checked, those non-White people are also Americans.

But the history of America is inextricably tied to this “othering.” Our current president has been subjected to it for his entire tenure. Donald Trump exploits the fear of the other (“I am your voice”) to make the fearful feel safe.

This is a fear rooted in believing that success is finite, resources of wealth are exhaustible and the government has been busy giving some group other than them more than their share.[2] In many ways it’s reminiscent of the attitudes of my relatively privileged students.

Rather than reaching for the next rung, they’re just trying not to fall off the ladder. What they have is going to be taken. That this has become the message of the Republic Party is mindblowing to me.

In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” promising that “January 17, 2017, safety will be restored.” Could there be a more hollow promise?

Once the thrill of rallying around a Donald Trump-like figure for an electoral contest is gone and reality intrudes, the disappointment will be severe, the fear will return.

I don’t want my students to be similarly disappointed by their educations, so I will keep emphasizing the necessity of reaching for the thing that seems out of their grasp, and to know that other graspers are not standing in their way, but are making the same climb next to them.


[1] This can, for sure, take on racial and racist forms, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between the white supremacists and the tribalism that runs through Trump supporters. They’re more than happy to invite Hispanic or Black people into the movement, provided they believe the right things.

[2] There’s a lot of talk about how Donald Trump has no consistent ideology, but I think this is incorrect, as even his foreign policy views seem shaped by a belief in scarcity and finite resources to be dividing among competing groups. There is no such thing as an ally in this world. There are countries that will pay for U.S. protection and there is everyone else. Donald Trump’s world view is actually highly consistent.


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