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What Happens When Fear Encounters Justice?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” That was in 1933, at the depth of the Depression, and he could assume that he was speaking for most Americans. The fears were shared. That’s no longer the case.

Many are afraid that Trump will win or not leave office if Biden wins. Fewer are afraid that Trump will lose. Robert Reich’s recent “This is terrifying” email exposes, a significant shift from Obama’s climate of hope to Trump’s climate of fear.

Many fear that Trump is out of control. Trump has gotten away with violating our sense of decency and democracy so many times that one has to wonder if losing the vote will stop him. On the other hand, who is afraid of Biden. How could such a nice guy be a threat?

It’s not Biden that Trump’s people are afraid of. I think they are afraid that if they lose Trump, their enemies will destroy their way of life—the American way according to them. Trump did not create these fears. The fears are actually part and parcel of the “American way” itself, which has now, once again, been exposed as not what it’s made out to be.

I think it’s fair to say the fear of Trump’s people is the fear of exposure. Exposure of our nation’s violations of humanity, of its devastation of the earth, and its false narratives. Most of us who belong to privileged groups probably share this fear to some degree, but it has not frozen us. We will deal with it when we have to. There are others, however, who appear frozen in fear.

What do Trump’s people fear? Anyone can make up their own list. Here are three that would be on mine.

(1) They fear multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism assumes a shared humanity. It assumes that culture does not determine human dignity. It’s not that all cultures are the same, but the differences are not essential. What is essential is our humanity

(2) There is a second fear that has a long history: the fear of evolution, which was showcased in the Scopes trial in 1925. This fear not only prevents Trump’s people from requiring him to address the climate crisis, it also allows Trump’s dismissal of science. One must be frozen in fear to tolerate the exposure of supporting policies that has resulted in the death of thousands.

(3) A third fear that maintains the climate of fear today is the fear of vulnerability. It’s behind the bravado of claiming that our nation is the strongest, the best, and the most innovative. Even Biden joins in protecting us from our vulnerabilities with his rhetoric of “possibilities.” In a world of winners and losers, there is no place for the acceptance of vulnerability, even mutual vulnerability, which is actually one of few avenues to escape a climate of fear.

In terms of social climates, the climate of fear, at least in our present circumstances, has no greater enemy than a climate of justice. Trump’s recent rejection of restorative justice programs in our public schools is the tip of the iceberg—the tip of a fear that the call for justice exposes as wrongheaded.

Fear by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s about what is feared and why, and about what it does to the fearful. If one is full of fear, there is not much room for anything else. The opposite of fear is not courage, but rather confidence: confidence that what one is protecting is worthwhile. If it doesn’t measure up to the criteria of justice, I doubt if it is.

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