BAGR4: Fear Factor - Sky Hiatt


From Black and Green Review no 4, winter 2016.

The advanced civilization of the present is marketed as a stronghold of fortified security where citizens can confidently live out their lives free from the dangers posed by uncivilized life. Life spans advance, health improves, and we are protected from the threat of wildlife attacks, attacks from nation states or terrorist invasions. Considering this popular narrative on its own terms, it would seem that those fortunate enough to be living in such societies would be typified by fearlessness and living fearless lives. But, ironically, though securities have advanced and proliferated, our fears have not receded. To the contrary, they have evolved in step and thus are ever-escalating. So far at least, our fears are always one step ahead of our security technologies.

When European settlers landed in North America facing a primal paradise unknown even in their fantasies, reaction was mixed. Some, perhaps only a few, embraced it. Many, if not most, feared the untamed, wild world and set forth to alter and destroy it. According to Brooks Atkinson in This Bright Land, many pilgrims despised the “hideous wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men.”[1] At least one settler committed suicide rather than face life in the howling wasteland of the New World.

These were the vast primordial forests of the lost continent into which light could barely penetrate nor men pass through. Europe had already reconfigured most of its prehistoric woodlands into rolling farmlands, shrub-bound homes, lawns and formal gardens. From this subdued world the conquerors, entrepreneurs, freed-serfs, and adventurers set sail for a place where Nature reigned unrestrained. The newcomers, oppressed subjects of the Old World social order, were a fear-based people who often struck an antagonist approach to the New World. Fear was their untiring, constant companion. The settlers were un-wild and perhaps over-civilized, so it was difficult for them to see themselves as the future would see them—intolerant, misled, sickly, cruel, uprooted. To calm their fears, they pushed back the forest, cleared the land, killed the animals, exiled surviving tribes, and they prevailed. But this did little to assuage their fears. And hundreds of years later, that day is yet to come.

The uprooted, surging Old World masses, dislodged from inherited knowledge and fleeing the industrialized hubs of Europe, were at a historic disadvantage and poorly prepared to accept advanced philosophies of the native people to whom nature was a consoling confidant. Only a few took advantage of these ideas and the chance to be wild themselves. The rest picked up their saws and axes and bit into the empires of white pine, chestnut, red cedar, and other trees of the Eastern forests. They felt more secure in their solid log cabins with muskets by the door. But they would live and die in fear in that strange, unfamiliar New World, unaware the muskets fed the fear and helped set up an ill-fated model for the future.

Transplanted to the present day, the pilgrims might be astonished at how their tentative venture has prevailed and they might well yearn to live among us. But if they got that chance, they would soon notice, with the objectivity of time travelers, that we had suffered a series of unfortunate setbacks. The early hopes and ambitions carried unsuspected consequences. Surviving descendants still feared the forest, what was left of it. In the cities, some even feared the individual trees. They still feared the wolves, bears and bobcats, rarely seen but still terrifying. By now they’d come to fear almost anything wild: foxes, coyotes, opossums. Bats, spiders. Even bees.

And new fears evolved. The weather—wind, cold and rain, became increasingly difficult to tolerate. The Sun had become a hazard. There were increasing concerns about the purity of food, air and water. There was a growing distrust of other people. Community, family and extended families all depreciated. Tribes lingered as a faint mystic memory. Doors were locked, mace tucked into pockets. With wealth came fear of poverty, fear of the poor, fear of crime. In some areas, the modern vocabularies had trouble keeping pace. Neighborhoods were fortified by suburban version of the Great Wall—gated and patrolled communities. Such a monumental stronghold civilization had become, the size of it was also worrisome.

And so, in the cycle of cyclic times, the word fear became systematically outdated and the nomenclature advanced accordingly. The modern pilgrims suffered from clinical fears. Generalized anxiety. Chronic stress. Panic attacks. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Imaginary fears—hypochondria, paranoia. And phobias—lists too long to memorize. Fear of open spaces, fear of closed spaces, fear of heights, fear of the dark. Hydrophobia—fear of water. Phobophobia—the fear of fear itself. Obsessive compulsive disorder, personality disorder, multiple personality disorder. At a certain point, even the cracks in the sidewalk can get you down. By the twenty-first century, civilization and advanced technology, working together, had transformed fear into pathology. Against such fears as these the muskets didn’t help much.

Self-help came to monopolize whole sections in the bookstore. Stress Management. From Panic to Power. Plato Not Prozac. The Anxiety Disease. Panic Attacks. Don’t Panic. 10 Simple Solutions to Panic. The Anxiety Answer Book. Anxieties, Phobias and Panic. Coping with Social Anxiety. Overcoming Anxiety. Feel the Fear and Beyond. Feel the Fear and do it Anyway. And so many more.

To keep up with the neuroses, entire professions were carved out of the social bedrock to treat the teeming plague of fears. Fear therapy offered hope in coping with crippling real-life symptoms. Toward this end, pharmaceutical industries stepped up as a natural godsend manufacturing mood stabilizers, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics and soon became the most profitable industries of their time.

Microscopes revealed a universe of germs we never knew were there. Bacteria, virus, protozoa—extreme germs with unsettling resistant capacities. And the armaments intensified. Antibiotics, vaccines, hand sanitizers, placebos of medical nothingness. But, in the inevitable undertow of seething industrial antagonisms, the germs the scientists discovered, others yearned to weaponize. First there was fear, then terror, then terrorism, then bio-terrorism—a toxic epiphany of interdisciplinary cooperation synchronized by history. As innovation advanced, out-pacing human cunning, progress became the vehicle of perpetual promise that never quite materialized.

We built the walls, made the weapons, manufactured the drugs, designed the surveillance cameras, home-security systems, smoke alarms, house alarms, car alarms, bullet-proof glass, gated communities, peep-holes, missile systems, cudgels, nerve gas, razor wire. We refined basic tools into the tools of agriculture, refined the tools of agriculture into weapons, refined the weapons into an arsenal, refined the arsenal into a military industrial complex to appease the conquering mind. The result? Even thermonuclear warheads, the special weapon, were tainted with the promise of radioactive contamination that could make the planet unfit to live on.

An unlivable planet was just another uneasy compromise for the security-seeking mind. The bomb brought with it gamma rays, long-lived isotopes and radioactive-waste, assembled from a teeming sea of equations invented to stabilize our sanctuary and yet our worries easily outpaced them. In the end, the mushroom cloud was just another hollow victory eating away at the DNA.

These were the high-tech fears that neither Australopithecus nor Neanderthal ever knew of. Had there always been this nascent temptation in technology to disgrace us?

By the Twenty-first Century, as academia filled the pages of textbooks with secrets of heavy water and plutonium, we were born again, the ultimate suicide bombers: masters of potential self-immolation , self-termination. Lewis Mumford observed that we had given technology the authority to destroy us.[2]

Sheltered in our luxury fortresses, we’ve sharpened our enhanced perception of risk, and erected an advanced warning, global positioning radar of risk assessment. Yet, the wider the moats, the higher the walls, the more our security seems jeopardized. Where is the absolute equation of refuge? Is it asking too much to be invincibly protected in the error-prone wasteland of the melting pot? When carbon nano-fibers confirm the singularity and molecular machines become self-healing and self-replicating, what then? Acute fear? Totalitarian fear? Are we on a quest to distill fear into its deadliest form?

Outfitted with our accentuated perceptions of fear, we have navigated toward an aversion to discomfort of any kind. In an increasingly eccentric, sterile, but clearly still hazardous world, catering to the overly protected, overly troubled population inching their way toward a bondage to comfort, a mandatory aversion to being cold, hot, wet, thirsty, hungry or bored. By now, as our instincts and hardiness continue to fail us, we drift off course from original species strengths, practical achievements and intimate associated, primal joys.

The wild boy of Aveyron ‘rescued’ from the forest of France around the age of twelve in 1799, could sit exposed for hours in the cold rain. He could lift hot coals from the fire with his bare hands. On the inside, he spent his days by the window looking longingly at the moon and the forest.[3] He was wild. He wanted out. But his kindly captors trained him to crave comforts and he lost his feral vigor. We’re a lot like him, implausibly altered versions of our former savage selves, domesticated into ghosts and apparitions.

As the present tightens its grip on urgency, we pass our days within a system of nesting shells, layers of security, walls within walls, each one more costly, forbidding and impregnable than the one before. But what happens when pressures from all other species, and the demands of the Earth’s extremes, are removed? Diamonds fail to crystallize. Coal does not solidify. Species die out or unwind back into plasmids. Muscles atrophy. Inertia takes over. For us, species essence and genetic promise have corroded into a dependent lethargy. Crippled by machines and dependent on them, fluent in the jargon of compliance, how can we ever again comprehend our lost potential? How could a courageous, healthy future ever materialize among us?

Rachel Carson once wrote of “the irony of our accomplishments.” Did she mean that living is a risk technology can never wholly minimize? Or, is there another New World out there waiting for us beyond this one? Is there a permanent demilitarized no-fire zone, a green zone, an archdiocese of absolute impregnable asylum? Or is it the human race, but with another meaning?

It’s called the “revenge effect”—unanticipated negative consequences of new technologies. Infinite fallibilities. Legacy defects. So much risk that the messages sent out in Voyager must have fallen out of date by now. Perhaps the gold, anodized disc should have suggested a declaration of technological wariness. By the time it reaches anyone we will have begun to suspect we’re not immortal. Those that find it may already suffer from the blindness that afflicts us.

From vacuum tubes to solid state and digital dementia, we memorize the electronic hierarchies, sit back and wait for them to happen. From hostile take-over to hostile nations, to failed-state syndrome, we’ve seeded distressed signals of endangerment into the airspace of our exceptionally moribund version of paradise.

So much has happened since the pilgrims faced off with the forests and the wild men. Not even the prophets among them could have predicted it. The tentative pioneers thought the howling wilderness was dangerous. Now their fear has grown and endangers everything. Nature was subdued, the price alarmingly high. It’s sad to win and realize you have won nothing. We’ve become the fragile cyberian wanderers who submitted to fear and built a world -dependent on it. Daily life has become a kind of war we never counted on. The newest fear? That the wounds of our discontent now run too deep to ever heal.

Some say technology is innocent—it is the human mind that sins. But that’s just linguistic mockery of real events. From the day that the first sword was raised, the sword has punished us. We’ve become the master criminals, but childlike, and incapacitated. Technology has generated an implausibly plundered planet, lifted us from the primordial past, tempted and tormented us. Ancient aptitudes have been bred out. Silhouettes of grandeur lie emulsified in doubt. Technology has created non-remedial, chronic fear where only natural fear existed before it. As Chilean social critic, Ariel Dorfman wrote in The Empire’s Old Clothes, there‘s been “destruction of inner fears….survival of nightmares.”[4]

[1] Atkinson, Brooks. This Bright Land. Doubleday Natural History Press. 1972.

[2] Mumford, Louis. The Myth of the Machine: Pentagon of Power. A Harvest/HBJ Book. 1970.

[3] Lane, Harlan L. The Wild Boy of Aveyron. Harvard University Press. 1996.

[4] Dorfman Ariel. The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and other Innocent Heroes Do To Our Minds. Duke University Press. 2010. Pg 180.

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