Fear Itself


The November election proved that the most potent force in American politics today is fear. Both parties suspected as much, which is why neither candidate saw fit during the long campaign to quiet those fears, as presidents have traditionally done. That citizens living beyond New York, Washington, and a handful of other cities could cite 9/11 as a reason to feel insecure suggested both a willingness to be misled and an unwillingness to draw conclusions from facts. Thus the government has been able quite fearlessly to provide an answer that makes no sense to the question of whom the United States must punish for the attack. The resulting war—which has now killed a third as many and injured many times more Americans than were killed and injured on 9/11, and killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis—has arguably made the punishment more frightening than the crime.

After 9/11 we were often told that we must do something (buy airline tickets; shop Wal-Mart) or else the terrorists would win. We spent with patriotic gusto and were still afraid. Could al Qaeda’s leaders at their most feverish have dreamed that the United States might, in the name of security, so quickly harm its own reputation in the world? Could the Taliban have imagined a day when U.S. government policy would require the public humiliation of women who travel by air? Have the terrorists then not won?

At times like this—and there have been other such times in our history—it’s easy to think of Yeats’s lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” But Garry Wills made the point some years ago that the United States has admirable leaders besides its politicians. When the three branches of government vie with each other to be the most worthy of our contempt we might then look elsewhere for honest voices of conviction.

Wisdom comes in many forms, and the patent is pending on all of them,butthetime seems right for a magazine such as this one to turn its attention from the truths within to the truths without; from, put simply, the I to the we. Emerson would say not to abandon the one for the other, and no magazine named after his famous essay could ever logically do so. Both the public and the intellectual have allowed Emerson’s idea of the public intellectual (what he called “the American scholar”) to become quaint at best and comic at worst. But in the information age we know that information is not knowledge, and even truth can be too wobbly to be called wisdom, and so Emerson’s notion might be more necessary now than ever before.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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