One of the many unhappy byproducts of the election and now rule of Donald Trump is the return of fear to the political table. Though fear is an old topic in politics—according to Thucydides, the Athenians proclaimed it one of the three strongest motives for action (the other two being honor and interest)—the Trump regime has resurrected it in multiple ways.
Vulnerable populations, from the undocumented to the LGBT community, from Muslims to Mexicans, are facing intensified harassment on the street, and surveillance, scrutiny and worse from the state. That’s not new, but it has gotten worse.
Citizens and dissenters braving the wrath of Trump are being forced to contemplate the possibility of a police state. In the last several decades, the police have traditionally reserved their most brutal and summary uses of power for African Americans and Latin@s and the working poor. But it is now conceivable that those powers could also be turned on legions of white, middle-class, and other protesters who get on the wrong side of the law at an airport or in the streets. Again, not new, but it has gotten worse.
Most surprising of all, civil servants and government bureaucrats—as well as the leaders of institutions inside and outside the government—are being forced to confront how far they are willing to go in resisting, overtly or covertly, the raging torrent of fiats and edicts flowing in and out of the White House on a daily basis. Not to mention Trump’s bullying: So far that’s been mostly rhetorical, but it could turn into action before too long.
In 2004, I wrote a book called Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Though conceived long before 9/11, its themes and arguments took on an unexpected urgency because of 9/11. But one of the critical explorations in the book—the micro-politics of fear, how fear is lived and leveraged in everyday life—got almost no attention at all. The reason for that, I suspect, was that the issues I was raising about how individual men and women cope with fear of a repressive government and a repressive society were only being experienced by a subset of the population: Muslims and Arabs.
Now that has changed. We’ve returned to a kind of fear that is ubiquitous throughout parts of the world and, truth be told, has been quite common throughout American history. The kind of fear that poses fundamental questions to men and women, citizen and non-citizen alike, as they go about their daily lives: How can I go on with this specter hanging over my head? What can and can I not do? How much courage do I have? Do I have the inner resources to resist this policy or policeman? What am I willing to do, how much fear can I tolerate, in order to challenge this unjust law?
To get a handle on these facets of political fear, The New Republic will run, over the course of this week, a daily series of excerpts from Fear: The History of a Political Idea. The material is drawn from a range of historical sources and moments: mostly from McCarthyism, but also from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Jim Crow, the Dirty Wars, Nazi Germany, and more. With the rise of Trump, that history seems suddenly and newly relevant.
Fear is a Moral, Rational Emotion
Roy Huggins—screenwriter, producer, director—may not have been the most talented man in Hollywood, but over the course of a midcentury career he managed to compile a resume of some achievement. In 1958, he won an Emmy Award for Maverick; later he produced The Fugitive and The Rockford Files. But it was not for these accomplishments that Huggins would be remembered. He would go down in history—if he made it that far—for his 1952 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
As a young screenwriter in the 1930s, Huggins joined the Communist Party, at the time one of the few forces in American life organizing against European fascism. In 1939, after Stalin signed his nonaggression pact with Hitler and the party reversed its stance, Huggins quit the party. Eight years later, when HUAC launched its investigation of communism in Hollywood, the studios announced that they would no longer employ party members—and, as it came to pass, anyone refusing to cooperate with HUAC. With this and other sanctions in mind, Huggins named names. Nineteen to be exact, though some he refused to spell for the committee. He deemed it more principled, one observer notes, “to give the names but not the letters.”
Why did Huggins cooperate with HUAC? Because he detested the Soviet Union, he says, and the United States was at war in Korea. The Communist Party was allied with America’s enemies, in some cases committing espionage on their behalf, and it was run by hypocrites, praising Stalin and the Bill of Rights. But Huggins had other concerns as well. He had a family, and though he may have daydreamed about the political theater of going to jail rather than betray former comrades—witnesses refusing to name names could be cited for contempt of Congress and imprisoned—he wondered, “Who the hell is going to take care of two small children, a mother, and a wife, all of whom are totally dependent upon me?”
Congress had also passed legislation, dubbed the “concentration camp bill” by an aide to President Truman, that gave the attorney general emergency powers to round up and detain suspected subversives. “Do I really want to go to a concentration camp for who knows how many years?” he asked himself. “The terror was undoubtedly upon me,” he says, his decision to cooperate “a failure of nerve.” As soon as he testified, he regretted it, and he continued to do so throughout his life. He may not have liked Stalinism, but he was hardly sanguine about McCarthyism. Nor did he like being an informer. “Jesus Christ,” he said to himself, “you had your moment of truth—it came, and you should have said, Stick it up your ass, and you didn’t.”
As Huggins tells it, he cooperated with HUAC because he was afraid, and he was afraid because he faced real threats. His fear was thus rational in the sense of being reasonable. What it was not, he insists, was moral. In itself, his fear was amoral, an involuntary reaction—“the terror was undoubtedly upon me”—to overweening power. Its consequences, however, were decidedly immoral, for fear, according to Huggins, inspired him to betray his beliefs. He may have been a victim or a coward, a casualty of repression or a man without qualities, but it was fear that led, or forced, him to forsake his principles.
Much in Huggins’s experience—and the historical record—bears out his claim about the rationality of his fear. But can his fear be so neatly separated from his moral beliefs? After all, testifying before HUAC did not betray Huggins’s opposition to communism. Nor did it undermine his commitment to the United States and its defense. If anything, these beliefs may have contributed to his fear of HUAC. Huggins had a fear of violating his duty to the state: either a heartfelt fear of doing wrong, born of the desire to do right, or a fear of the inner torment or external disgrace he would experience were he to do wrong. Huggins also believed that challenging HUAC would call into question the legitimacy of American institutions, a luxury he thought the United States could ill afford during the Cold War. Huggins feared the power of the state, but also feared the loss of that power, a fear aroused by his commitment to American democracy and opposition to communism. Because Huggins’s fear of weakening the state contributed to his fear of challenging it, we can say that far from being opposed to his beliefs, his fear of the state arose in part from them.
After September 11, we saw a similar fusion of fears, in which the rational and the moral reinforced each other. Between September and December 2001, according to a study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust, 74 percent of television coverage about 9/11 and America’s response was “all pro-U.S.” or “mostly pro-U.S.,” while 7 percent was “mostly dissenting” or “all dissenting.” Network executives admitted to tailoring their coverage in order to avoid the appearance of criticizing U.S. foreign policy—not because they faced state-sponsored coercion but because they feared a conservative-led backlash, which might have resulted in lower ratings. According to Erick Sorenson, president of MSNBC, “Any misstep and you get into trouble with these guys and have the Patriotism Police hunt you down.”
But more than cold calculus inspired these fears of conservative criticism: such fears were accompanied, reinforced, or aroused by a heartfelt belief in the legitimacy of those criticisms and in the need to support U.S. foreign policy. After issuing instructions to pair any scene of civilian destruction in Afghanistan for which the U.S. military was responsible with reminders of the devastation of 9/11 and of the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, CNN chair Walter Isaacson testified to the mix of rational and moral considerations underlying his network’s coverage. “If you get on the wrong side of public opinion,” he admitted, “you are going to get into trouble.” At the same time, he said, it “seems perverse to focus on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” It was the Taliban, after all, that was “responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in.”
After ABC News president David Westin declared that he had no opinion about whether the Pentagon should be considered a legitimate target for enemy attack, he was roundly condemned by Rush Limbaugh and others, and quickly apologized. According to the New York Times, “Executives at ABC News said Mr. Westin decided to apologize because he realized that the comment—made in answer to a question—seemed unduly cold and even wrong. But they also acknowledged that they were eager to stop an onslaught of negative public attention.”
It is impossible to know in these cases which concern, the rational or the moral, is determinative; in all likelihood, they are equally influential, making fear and capitulation seem the rational and moral response to pressure. As leading journalist Michael Kinsley has admitted, “As a writer and editor, I have been censoring myself and others quite a bit since Sept. 11. By ‘censoring’ I mean deciding not to write or publish things for reasons other than my own judgments of their merits. What reasons? Sometimes it has been a sincere feeling that an ordinarily appropriate remark is inappropriate at this extraordinary moment. Sometimes it is genuine respect for readers who might feel that way even if I don’t. But sometimes it is simple cowardice.” In the words of CBS News anchor Dan Rather:
It is an obscene comparison—you know I am not sure I like it—but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tires around people’s necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. … Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions.
It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole—and for all the right reasons—felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within them- selves. And one finds oneself saying, “I know the right question, but you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask it.”
This melding of fears is not peculiar to liberal democracies: even the most repressive regimes can inspire it. Take Vladimir Stern, one of the founders of Czechoslovakia’s secret police. The son of a Communist who died at the hands of the Gestapo, Stern was a life-long idealist, a believer in communism, and after the abortive Prague Spring of 1968, a devotee of its more dissident strains. Until 1954, Stern ran one of the secret police’s prestigious academies, educating officers in Marxism-Leninism and the arts of deception, torture, and murder. He knew that what he was teaching his students was a betrayal of the humane socialism that inspired him to join the party and staff its upper echelons. Like Huggins, he kept quiet because he was afraid of what the state might do to him. But his fear of the state was inseparable from his commitment to it. “Maybe I was a coward,” he later acknowledged. But, he added, “Maybe I thought that to step out and say what you think would harm the Party. I made excuses for the Party. I stayed in even though there were things I disagreed with. I don’t want to defend the murdering and torturing, but basically the system was correct.” Like Huggins and the U.S. news media, Stern feared to oppose the very system that made him afraid because he believed in the legitimacy of that system.
Huggins’s moral beliefs may be connected to his fear in yet another way. One of his main fears of going to jail, he says, was that his family would suffer. This fear entailed a complex moral judgment—that Huggins had a duty, trumping all others, to his family, that that duty was primarily financial, and that it was he who was responsible for their economic well-being. Huggins did not consider that his wife could have worked. Nor did he believe that he might have a duty to teach his children the virtue of making personal sacrifices for freedom or of not informing on former friends and comrades.
By contrast, when director Elia Kazan told his colleague Kermit Bloomgarden that he was thinking of naming names because “I’ve got to think of my kids,” Bloomgarden responded, “This too shall pass, and then you’ll be an informer in the eyes of your kids, think of that.” Bloomgarden did not discount the obligations to one’s family: He merely understood those obligations in more than economic terms. Because Huggins did not, opting for jail seemed to him slovenly, immature, and irresponsible: “When you’re thinking of becoming a hero, you feel like a slob. You feel, do you really have a right to do that?” The fear of jail, by contrast, seemed wise, moral, even elevated.
It could be argued, of course, that Huggins’s concern for his family was merely a pretext for his own fear of going to jail. Yet men and women with family ties often submit to repressive regimes when those without such ties do not. Stalin, for example, corralled many individuals to cooperate with his tyranny by threatening their families, and had less success among those with no families. In a 1947 letter, the head of Soviet counterintelligence recommended invoking suspects’ “family and personal ties” during interrogation sessions. Soviet interrogators would put on their desks, in full view, the personal effects of suspects’ relatives as well as a copy of a decree legalizing the execution of children. The fact that other men and women, facing worse penalties, only choose Huggins’s path when their loved ones are threatened suggests that a concern for family is not a pretext but a genuine contributing factor to fear.
Perhaps the Soviet experience, though, teaches the opposite lesson: that a fear for one’s family is inspired less by morality than by a natural or biological inclination to protect one’s own. That would be an overreading of the evidence, however. For starters, it ignores the fact that while men and women submit to repression out of a fear for their families, they also betray their families out of a fear for themselves. David Greenglass famously betrayed his sister, Ethel Rosenberg; Stalin arrested or killed the spouses and siblings of four of his closest associates, only one of whom protested with any zeal. It also overlooks the fact that what we often fear is not just harm to our families, but the shame or guilt our violation of familial duty will bring to them and us.
It is precisely this fear of shame that Crito marshals against Socrates, only in his case, it is for the sake of disobedience to the state. After Socrates is convicted by the Athenian jury and prepares to accept his punishment of drinking the hemlock, Crito recommends that he forgo his commitment to abide by the verdict and honor instead his commitment to his family’s well-being by taking them into exile. “I think you are betraying your sons by going away and leaving them,” says Crito, referring to Socrates’s decision to accept death, “when you could bring them up and educate them. You thus show no concern for what their fate may be.”
Crito concludes—in language Huggins would appreciate, though with a recommendation he would not—that Socrates is not acting morally at all. Socrates, says Crito, merely wishes to play the part of a martyr, reneging on his real obligations, to his family: “You seem to me to choose the easier path, whereas one should choose the path a good and courageous man would choose, particularly when one claims throughout one’s life to care for virtue.” Of course, the virtuous example of Socrates and vicious example of David Greenglass no more disprove the thesis of there being a natural impulse to preserve one’s family than does anorexia disprove the notion of our having a natural impulse to eat. What these cases do suggest is that the fear for one’s family is more responsive to politics and ideology than we might think.
Huggins’s fear was certainly self-interested, though even here a moral conception, of self and interest, may have been at work. The most immediate threat Huggins faced in refusing to cooperate with HUAC was not jail but the blacklist. What made the blacklist such a potent threat was not merely that it might send a person and her family into poverty, but also that it preyed on her particular sense of what mattered to her in life. Blacklisted men and women could survive by selling vacuum cleaners or waiting tables but often felt that they were not living the life they were meant to live.
Rutgers professor Richard Schlatter, for instance, had been a Communist while a graduate student at Harvard during the 1930s. In 1953, he was called before HUAC and cooperated. “It was not just the question of losing my job,” he said, “one can always find a way to live. But the only way in which I could do anything I felt worth doing was by being a teacher, a scholar, an academic. The thought that all that might come to a sudden end had a dampening effect.” While some on the blacklist could surreptitiously pursue their vocations, writing under pseudonym, for example, others could not. “I am a man of a thousand faces,” actor Zero Mostel declared, “all of them blacklisted.” Or as actor Lee J. Cobb put it, “It’s the only face I have.”
When we think about fear and the action it inspires, we often think of it as Huggins did, as an involuntary acquiescence, amoral or immoral, to overwhelming power. Though we may later regret the fear that forced us to betray our beliefs, we do not doubt that it is a pure reflection of reality, dictating submission. But this view obscures our moral collusion with fear: how we construe our interests, how we legitimize the power that threatens those interests, how we choose to respond to that power. Why, then, do we insist upon viewing fear and its attending actions as an expression of passivity?
Perhaps because that view enables us to think of ourselves as blameless, as physical objects obeying the laws of nature. If fear is an unwilled reaction to pure power, if submitting out of fear is the only possible response to that power, we cannot be held morally responsible for our capitulation. “Being told that you are a slave,” Joseph Brodsky notes, “is less disheartening news than being told that morally you are a zero.” But Huggins’s—and our—regret suggests the flaw in this conception. If fear and the actions it conditions were truly a forced surrender to external circumstance, few of us would hold ourselves responsible for those actions. If the reality Huggins confronted were as non-negotiable as he suggests, it would make no sense to accuse him of moral failure. Fear certainly cannot be separated from this reality; it is instead a fusion of our rational and moral apprehensions about this reality.
By Huggins’s own account, his was a lonely choice. He felt obligated to his family but did not turn to them for advice. Most of us, however, make decisions about what to fear and how we respond to fear with the help of trusted intimates and advisers, Hobbes’s teachers and preachers. Sometimes we consult immediate figures in our lives, like parents, therapists, lawyers, and priests. Other times, we look to more distant mentors, influential men and women in our imagined communities who advise us, indirectly, by their words and deeds. What they do, how they respond to their fear, sets the tone for the rest of us. If they believe a danger we are confronting is worthy of fear and not to be challenged, we may follow their lead.
Miriam Lewin, a leftist imprisoned and tortured during Argentina’s Dirty War, remembers well how one influential person’s capitulation to fear deflated her and the lower ranks of the Left.
In 1974 those who were captured didn’t break. We thought we were growing; we thought the people were with us. The situation was different; morale was high. Later we began to feel that each person who fell was just one more of thousands who fell. If your chief fell before you and turned you in, and you’ve lost thirty-five friends, your husband, and your brother, by the time you fall you already have a sense of death and defeat. After a while you start to think, How is it that my chief collaborated and me, I’m just a poor foot soldier, why shouldn’t I save my life?
If these figures do not capitulate—one thinks of the eight lonely individuals who stood in Red Square in 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and as a result, reports one survivor of the gulag, “made millions stop being afraid”—we may be emboldened to resist or overcome that danger, which can have the tonic effect of lessening our fear. Whether near or far-off, advisers do just that: advise. They do not dictate or force, they merely help us think about which dangers we should fear and how to respond to our fear. Fear poses complex moral dilemmas of the sort that Huggins confronted, in which self-interest and moral principle cannot be so easily separated. It is in this space that our teachers and preachers of fear work, throwing their weight behind one interest over another, making one principle seem higher than the other.
Huggins may not have sought or taken such counsel, but screen actor Sterling Hayden, whose credits range from The Asphalt Jungle to Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather, certainly did. A self-styled man of action, Hayden ran off to sea as a young man and was discovered by talent scouts while working on the Brooklyn docks. In 1941, he broke his contract with Paramount to join the Marines and later fought with Tito’s partisans against the Nazis. Back in Hollywood in 1946, Hayden joined the Communist Party and then quickly dropped out. In 1951, he was called before HUAC. He named seven names, including Bea Winters, his former lover and party recruiter, a decision he regretted to the end of his life.
Sorting out the motives behind Hayden’s capitulation presents something of a puzzle. True, he and his wife had entered into divorce proceedings, and Hayden feared that unfavorable publicity might cost him custody of his children. He worried about losing his job, particularly since he had just begun an expensive psychoanalysis, and he feared going to jail. Yet this was the man who a decade earlier had abandoned a promising Hollywood career to help lead a guerilla campaign in Yugoslavia. When a Paramount executive at the time tried to persuade Hayden to reconsider his decision to leave, Hayden responded, “Goddamn it, sir, but I can’t act and keep my self-respect. It’s the only thing I have and I guess I’d better hang on to it.” “What good is the rest, the money and the schooner and the living, if I don’t like to look in the mirror when I’m shaving?” he said.
Much had happened in the intervening years to persuade Hayden of the virtues of being afraid and acting in accordance with that fear. Hayden had joined Tito and the Communist Party at the high tide of American liberalism, when radicals teamed up with Democrats to make the astonishing transformation in politics and culture that was the New Deal. During the 1930s and ’40s, most of Hollywood leaned left, and Hayden leaned with it. By the late 1940s, Hollywood had righted itself, with industry employers refusing to hire Communists and anyone not cooperating with the government. The effect of the industry’s surrender was palpable. It deprived uncooperative witnesses of the one protection—job security—that might have persuaded them to carry through their opposition. It demonstrated the coercive power of the government, and magnified it. If Hollywood’s power brokers, with all their resources, could not stand up to Congress and the FBI, how could individual leftists?
Though Humphrey Bogart had initially rallied against HUAC, the studios’ acquiescence convinced him that he was a “dope.” Someone like FDR, said the man who immortalized on screen the refusal to bow down before any authority, could “handle those babies in Washington, but they’re too smart for guys like me.” The surrender of the studio heads morally deflated the government’s opponents, persuading them that there was no honor, only theater, in pressing their resistance. This was the context, these the distant voices Hayden heard, when he decided to testify.
The more immediate influences on Hayden’s decision, however, were Martin Gang, his lawyer, and Phil Cohen, his therapist. When Hayden first began to suspect that he was being blacklisted, he turned to Gang for advice. Gang suggested that he draft a letter to J. Edgar Hoover, explaining his past involvement in the party and expressing sincere repentance. Cooperating with the FBI, said Gang, would keep Hayden under HUAC’s radar and out of the television lights. Unconvinced, Hayden turned to Cohen, who assured him that Gang’s recommendation was reasonable. So advised, Hayden submitted the letter. But on the day he was scheduled to speak with the FBI, he had second thoughts.
“Martin,” he told his lawyer, “I still don’t feel right about –”
“Sterling, now listen to me. We’ve been over this thing time and time again. You make entirely too much of it. The time to have felt this way was before we wrote the letter.”
“Yes, I guess you’re right.”
“You know I’m right. You made the mistake. Nobody told you to join the Party. You’re not telling the F.B.I. anything they don’t already know.”
Hayden spoke with the FBI, which only made him feel worse and turned him against his therapist. “I’ll say this, too,” he told Cohen, “that if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Not long after, HUAC issued him a subpoena.
Cohen again tried to pacify him. “Now then,” said Cohen, “may I remind you there’s really not much difference, so far as you yourself are concerned, between talking to the F.B.I. in private and taking the stand in Washington. You have already informed, after all. You have excellent counsel, you know.” Again, Hayden capitulated.
In recent years, scholars and writers have extolled the virtues of an independent civil society, in which private circles of intimate association are supposed to shield men and women from a repressive state. To the extent that these links are explicitly political and oppositional, this account of civil society holds true. Few of us have the inner strength or sustaining vision to opt for the lonely path of a Socrates or a Solzhenitsyn. Deprived of the solidarity of comrades, our visions seem idiosyncratic and quixotic; fortified by our political affiliations, they seem moral and viable.
But what analysts of civil society often ignore is the experience of Hayden and others like him, how our everyday connections can echo or amplify our inner counsels of fear. “Friends and family worry about me,” wrote Mino Akhtar, a Pakistani American management consultant in New Jersey who campaigned against the war in Iraq and the secret detention of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11. “They tell me to be careful, that I’m taking risks. They say that if my face and name keep coming up in public I won’t get any more consulting jobs. I think about that sometimes. You work hard to establish yourself, you have the good job, big home, these mortgage payments; it’s scary to think you can lose it all.”
It is precisely the nonpolitical, personal nature of these connections that makes them so powerful a voice for cooperation. Afraid, we think about our lives and livelihoods, loved ones and friends, and we doubt the meaning or efficacy of our politics. When comrades advise us to resist, we discard their counsel as so much political rhetoric; when trusted intimates advise us to submit, we hear the innocent, apolitical voice of natural reason. Because these counsels of submission are not seen as political recommendations, they are ideal packages of covert political transmission.
Though it may be possible to identify the rational and moral elements of Huggins’s fear, are not some fears, like those we experience when our lives are threatened, purely rational, and the capitulations they authorize blameless concessions to threatening force? I take it as a given that the desire to preserve one’s life and to avoid physical pain is an imperative few of us ignore or override with any ease. Faced with the proverbial demand for our money or our lives, most of us would choose the latter, for in that context, it hardly seems a choice. But our analysis of the fear of death cannot end there. For in politics, the fear of death and bodily harm is seldom as straightforward, the choices seldom as simple, as that which we experience when a lone gunman threatens our lives.
In politics, our fear of death is surrounded by moral obligations, authorizing us to act on that fear in certain situations and not in others. Our legal system, for example, makes distinctions between fears of death that entitle us to kill in self-defense and those that do not, on the assumption, as Hobbes noted, that “not every fear justifies the Action it produceth.” Even the concentration camps and the gulag, as Tzvetan Todorov wrote in Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, authorized actions born of the fear of death in certain instances and not others. These obligations and restrictions do more than grant or refuse us license to act upon that fear: they also enhance or minimize it.
On the battlefield, for example, soldiers are enjoined by the imperative of courage not to run in the face of enemy fire or to leave their comrades behind. But does courage entail the suppression, management, or elimination of the fear of death? Is courage a severe duty requiring us to continue fighting in the face of our fear, or a cultivated ethos, subduing our fear of death? Aristotle, still our premier theorist of courage, never quite made up his mind on this question. He thought true courage required that we stand fast in the face of known and feared danger. The courageous man “endures and fears,” and no man “endures what is terrifying more steadfastly” than he. Courage asks us not to have no fear, but to persist in the face of fear. But Aristotle also defined the courageous man as one who “fearlessly faces” death on the battlefield and in “any situations that bring a sudden death.” Because of his ethical training, the courageous man felt no fear in the face of his own death or on the battlefield.
In politics, we know that both versions of courage obtain: where individuals fear death but resist its counsels for the sake of their obligations, and where their obligations and worldviews extinguish their fear of death. Usually, men and women experience some mix of these kinds of courage all at once, suggesting that Aristotle was not so much confused as he was clear. Take Thomas Chatmon, a black activist from Albany, Georgia, who traveled the state to organize opposition against Jim Crow. Driving along a back road one day, Chatmon was stopped by two white men. One of the men, according to Chatmon, “slapped me so hard, boy, I seen stars” and said to him, “You the damn nigger from Albany, came down here and made that speech last week.” Deciding not to kill Chatmon after a white woman unexpectedly appeared on the scene, the men let him go with a warning: “Now you be careful, boy, you be careful.”
By his own admission, Chatmon was scared, but his belief in God enabled him to persist in the face of his fear. “I know God protected me all those times. I have been protected many times in dangerous spots like that. And the only somebody that could have brought me through was God himself.” Likewise, whenever his wife expressed fear that something bad might happen to him, he would tell her, “Don’t think like that, think positive because you can’t allow this fear to get to you.” But Chapmon also went beyond mere endurance, finding the serenity that comes from not being afraid. “That’s what Franklin Roosevelt told us years ago,” he explains. “‘The only thing you had to fear was fear itself.’ You got to get rid of that. You can’t be afraid.”
Whether they achieve a courage of steadfastness or serenity, soldiers of the literal and metaphorical variety contend against the fear of death because they do not wish to live a life in which they have betrayed their comrades or beliefs. Montesquieu, as we have seen, thought that when we accede to our fear of death, we do so as purely physical beings. Hobbes knew better: The reason we fear death and submit to its dictates is that we value the projects and purposes, the friends and families, that make our lives worthwhile. Were we to lose those sustaining connections, we might very well lose our fear of death.
This is what happened to Nadezhda Mandelstam in 1934, when she and her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, were sent into internal exile by the Soviet authorities.
Until a short time before, I had been full of concern for all my friends and relatives, for my work, for everything I set store by. Now this concern was gone—and fear, too. … Having entered a realm of non-being, I had lost the sense of death. In the face of doom, even fear disappears. Fear is a gleam of hope, the will to live, self-assertion. It is a deeply European feeling, nurtured on a self-respect, the sense of one’s own worth, rights, needs and desires. A man clings to what is his, and fears to lose it. Fear and hope are bound up with each other. Losing hope, we lose fear as well—there is nothing to be afraid for.
So important to us are these connections that Hobbes thought they contained an unassailable argument for why we should do everything possible to stay alive. It simply made no sense, he claimed, to risk or embrace death for the sake of an abstract principle, for how could we pursue or enjoy that principle if we were dead? But Hobbes overlooked another possible conclusion to his own insight. Might not some purposes be so important to us that we can’t imagine giving them up and still leading a worthy life? Do not some concessions to fear require betrayals of principle so great that, once made, we can no longer claim those principles as our own? Having lost them, do our lives not seem worthless and no longer truly ours? “Is life,” Socrates asks Crito, “worth living for us with that part of us corrupted that [our] unjust action harms and just action benefits?” No, replies Crito, as have other men and women the world over.
This is the first in a series of five posts this week on fear in the age of Trump, drawn from Fear: The History of a Political Idea.