Knowing that I write about how fear of the Other is a major theme in American myth and politics, a friend recommends a New York Times article by David Brooks: “On Conquering Fear.” It references the Passover prayer book (the Haggadah) and offers “subtler strategies and techniques to conquer fear.”
Brooks tells us that in the story of Moses, Hebrew married couples were immobilized by fear of Egypt’s Pharaoh. But by “challeng(ing) each other to see beauty in the other,” they “began to sense unexpected possibilities.”
Once people start speaking to each other and telling stories to each other, they generate alternate worlds. A story isn’t an argument or a collection of data. It contains multiple meanings that can be discussed, questioned and reinterpreted. Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear.
Later, at the critical point when the Israelites face the crossing of the Dead Sea, they begin to sing – not in celebration but to defy their fear. Their “climactic break from bondage is thus done in a mood of enchantment.”
So “the sophisticated psychology of Exodus…” writes Brooks, teaches that it is sometimes wise to confront fear “obliquely and happily, through sexiness, storytelling and song.”
I sincerely praise Brooks for a fine article. In this age of heightened – and manipulated – fear, we can all appreciate what he says. We can only transcend the paranoid imagination by turning toward the creative imagination in art and ritual.
But we have to consider this article and this writer by noting what he doesn’t say. This is my responsibility as a mythologist to you as the reader. And it is your responsibility to think mythologically, to train yourself to identify the subtle ways in which media gatekeepers continuously revive the myth of innocence. So let me unpack it if you don’t mind.
First of all, consider the massive irony that an article about facing fear was penned by a fear-monger, a vastly influential media giant who has supported all of the American empire’s military adventures and has provided many other articles that have helped raise the level of fear in the culture. For more on Brooks, please read this older blog of mine.
The media watchers FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) include Brooks in their list of “Highly Placed Media Racists.” Why? Because he often quotes outright, unreconstructed bigots in his “reasoned, moderate” essays.
If Brooks has any wisdom to offer, remember the old joke that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Now let’s consider the text of the article, which constantly references the myth (there is no archeological record for it) of the Exodus. I offer two points to consider:
One: the people in the story who experience fear are the Israelites, not the Egyptians. Stories of Jewish fear are familiar to us, from medieval persecutions to the Holocaust. However, Brooks’ article, which has appeared in the Times during the debate about Iranian nuclear weapons, subtly reinforces the dominant media theme of Israelis and their constant fear of Arabs, especially Palestinians. Yes, I know that Egypt is currently Israel’s ally, and Iranians are not Arabs. But we are talking about images, not objective truth.
I’m not nitpicking here. This toxic narrative that completely inverts reality (the actual, overwhelming fear of the Israeli army that all Palestinians fear every single day) is a constant in our media. In fact, this is one of David Brooks’ primary functions as a gatekeeper. Can you imagine him telling a story with the same “anti-fear” theme, but with Palestinians as the subjects?
And, before I’m accused of being a self-hating Jew, let me remind you that this is not about Israel. It’s about Israel’s function as a surrogate for an American foreign policy that has remained remarkably consistent for fifty years, regardless of who has been President.
My second point is one of the primary themes of my book. The grand tale of American exceptionalism — that America is the one nation divinely ordained to bring freedom and opportunity to the rest of the world — was originally born in Biblical terms. The seventeenth century myth likened the Pilgrims to the Israelites. The English Church and Crown represented Pharaoh, and the Native Americans became the Philistines (which, by the way, is the Arabic word that modern Palestinians use to describe themselves: Philistina).
In this manner America offered its original sin and contradiction to the imagination of the world. Our tales of liberation were bound up from the start with the original invasion of Palestine.
The quest for liberation from fear has always justified Biblical vengeance. In the “either-or” context of monotheistic narratives, it is a simple series of steps from difference to slavery to fear to escape to journey to arrival. But the steps continue: to invasion to conquest to colonialism and eventually to genocide.
God commands and the invaders obey. Or do invaders create new myths to justify their crimes? Just what do you suppose happened to the indigenous population of Jericho once “the walls came toppling down?” The Israelites, so recently liberated from slavery themselves, tell us:
And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. (Deuteronomy 2:34)
This religious rationalization of extreme violence, two thousand years before the appearance of Islam, became the ideology that supported the invasion of the Americas and all of the wars of American history. Ironically, the 1948 conquest of the Holy Land took much of its energy from American “manifest destiny,” which, as I have shown, was itself modeled upon the Israelite conquest of the Philistinas.
The Israelites feared Pharaoh, Brooks tells us. What he doesn’t tell us is how sometimes we come to identify with our own oppressors, how the victims of Nazi barbarism became barbarians themselves.
Am I nitpicking to claim that Brooks neglects to mention that centuries after the Children of Israel escaped destruction by Pharaoh their descendants would kill 504 children of Gaza in the summer of 2014? Or that eight months later, not one of the 9,000 houses completely destroyed in that war has been reconstructed?
I know, I know. Why focus on the negative? Of course there’s no need to bring this dark stuff up in the context of a truly uplifting story. But do we have the ethical right not to?
The mandate of Depth psychology is to become conscious of the fullness of reality, both the awe and the terror. It tells us that the victims of history cannot conquer fear by projecting its source onto other victims. Either we all face our fear or none of us can.
Brooks concludes his article: “Eventually, the Israelites are able to cope with fear. This makes them capable of loving and being loved.” I say: May it be so. May we all take his advice; may Brooks take his own advice.
He writes, by “challeng(ing) each other to see beauty in the other,” they “began to sense unexpected possibilities.” I say: We cannot truly see the beauty in each other unless we can see it in all the Others of the world. I say: May we all realize that our fear of the Other mirrors our fear of recognizing our deepest selves. May our collective, creative imagination make art out of our fear and our grief.
The Persian poet Hafiz says:
Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.
The Spanish poet Antonio Machado says:
What was your word, Jesus? Love? Forgiveness? Affection? All your words were one word: Wakeup.