It would be amusing if it wasn’t so chilling. Looking at old movies at the thrift store, I smirk at our former fear-mongering. It seems so quaint, so naive, from such a bygone era. And it makes me think about the present-day fear-mongering that I probably don’t even notice.
Remember Red Dawn, when it seemed so plausible that Russians would invade the US? Thirty years later, the remake of the same film depicts nefarious North Koreans doing the deed– a new boogeyman for a new generation. The recent “Olympus has Fallen” is a half-baked action thriller that imagines a North-Korean takeover of the White House (never mind that the lead actor is himself a foreigner, only from a more trustworthy country). Remember ‘Die Hard’, where Bruce Willis took on Eastern European terrorists on US soil? Remember when Charlie Sheen was a hero Navy Seal, traveling with his team to Syria and Lebanon to stop the bad guys there? Remember when Rambo fought *with* the Afghan Mujahideen? My how times have changed!
It taps into something deep within us, this need to draw boundaries, stoke fires of fear, and generally cast a suspicious eye on anyone who isn’t ‘us’ . We hear it all of the time: Muslims are trying to damage the fabric of our society, the Chinese are taking over our financial system, and Mexicans are stealing our jobs (when I was a kid the narrative was that Mexicans were ‘too lazy’) and we need a fence to keep them out. There’s always a ‘they’, and there’s always an ‘our’.
The late philosopher and sociologist Rene Girard– who just left us last year– called this mimetic desire. That humans are characterized by desire, and so are essentially opposed to one another. So much so that the central task of bringing humans together into groups and societies is the need to alienate and scapegoat some ‘Other’ to be the recipient of our collective anger, to justify our pursuit of our desire. We don’t just have villains and enemies– we create villains and enemies, in order to define ourselves and to project our worst character attributes on others. All so that we can get what we want.
(And yes, Christian theologians have taken note of Girard’s work, pointing out that the clearest example of this mimetic impulse happened when we were so threatened and fearful of the best and least sinful person in history that we had him put to death… literally a scapegoat for our sins. )
It’s an idea as old as human history, and as fresh as today’s headlines.
We see it all the time when many, many folks in the US speak boldly about their fears of the corrupting influence of immigrants. These US citizens are good people, smart people, kind people, Christian people– they are only trying to be faithful to their families and their nation. And yet they stoke fears that immigrants might do violence to us, might change our way of life, might overthrow us and establish some kind of occupation. When all along, the reality we don’t want to see is that this exact thing has happened, on a horrific scale… when those trying to escape religious persecution in Europe eventually enacted a program of mass genocide against the people who were previously living in this land. We overthrew the societies who dwelled here, we fought battles and engaged in germ warfare, we established an occupation. Our nation-state is built on theft and violence and murder and deception, so of course we are paranoid that this could happen here… because it already did! Though at the same time we tend to forget that it happened in the first place. We suppress the truth about ourselves, then project it on our most recent Other.
Spoiler alert!: in a recent The Walking Dead graphic novel, there is an epic conversation between our protagonist Rick Grimes and the most nefarious bad guy ever, Negan. Negan is in fact a prisoner of Rick, captured long before and held in a jail to serve a lifetime sentence. But Rick has recently found what might be an even more evil and formidable enemy, so with hat in hand he consults with Negan.
Feeling the gravity (and in a rare display of empathy) Negan asks a brilliant and illuminating question: “Are they you?”
Suggesting, I think, that the fastest track to leadership is having a loyal constituency. And the quickest way to get there is to foment some fear, conveniently located in a clearly defined Other. Leaders need enemies (ergo societies need armies, and ergo armies need wars).
Negan confesses that he’s actually jealous of Rick. If Negan had had such a formidable foe, he’d probably still be in power. It’s an astounding expression of this mimetic desire, as big as the Bible and human history. We define ourselves by alienating others. We come together by separating ourselves, or more commonly by separating others– with or without their consent.