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Fear and Freedom


... life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly 
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic. 

— Robinson Jeffers


I am writing in the week after Tyler Clementi’s death. Tyler Clementi is—or was—the Rutgers University student who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge on September 22. Two other students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, live-streamed a sexual encounter Clementi had in his dorm room. Ravi tweeted, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Clementi’s death is a reminder that—after decades of struggle to assert civil rights for queer citizens—the shame of “making out with a dude” can still kill you. 

Not that Asher Brown got to make out with a dude. Brown, a 13-year-old Houston boy, shot himself in the head in response to the bullying he received because his classmates thought he was gay. Likewise, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., who hanged himself in his grandmother’s house for the same reason.

September: the start of a new school year.

The same month that Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell mocked her G.O.P. rival, Mike Castle, by calling his conduct “unmanly.” She said, “You know, I released a statement today, saying Mike this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants on.”

Compare this to the double-fisted assault on President Obama by the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, backed up by liberal columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. On June 30, Parker published an op-ed piece called “Obama: Our First Female President,” in which she exhorts us to “keep those hatchets holstered” while she explains what she means. Because she knows that her description sounds like an accusation—a hypocritical accusation, coming from a feminist—she is quick to explain that she is not calling Obama a “girlie president.” Rather, “he may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises,” such that “he’s not exactly causing anxiety in Alpha-maledom.” In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Dowd agreed that Obama’s taste for consensus and compromise are feminine in our culture, though she added that his real problem is an inability to connect to others that she calls “humanoid,” an extension of her trope of Obama-as-Spock. It seems that the next stop for an unmanly man is out of this world.


This semester in my writing class, I have asked students to read Hannah Arendt’s “Ideology and Terror,” an essay about the characteristics of a totalitarian state. Arendt, a German-born, Jewish political theorist, is famous for this analysis of the common ground between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, regarded during World War II as polar opposites. Arendt says that these systems share a principle more profound than the division between Right and Left: the principle of total control over citizens through the imposition of fear in every aspect of life. Though totalitarian states transfer power from the army to the police, a transfer of attention to dissenters within, their inhabitants finally internalize state control, rendering the police redundant. The Webcam moves inside the mind itself. At the height of totality, citizens forbid themselves to be themselves.

When we talk about this, my students seem to think I am describing a curious nightmare I share with “Hannah,” as they call her. Born after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they perceive the state of fear as alien to their ethos of self-expression by any means necessary. 


I see where you are going, you say, but I am not suggesting that we live in a totalitarian state, despite the accusations of the Tea Party and the anarchist Left. I suggest instead that the power of fear—like a demon taking a new victim—has migrated from the political to the social sphere, from the rule of the state to the rules of gender. Maybe gender has always been a matter of terror, and the overthrow of Nazis and Soviets made the demon angry in its prison of the self. Denied a nation of absolute control, the spirit of oppression retreats into the high school of the soul. Masculinity must be policed. In the name of the law, we assert what we are by denying what we are not. We build walls around the self and defend them with violence. Gender builds one of the walls: girls are not-boys, men are not-women. Whatever breaks these boundaries threatens our identity, our community, our society. Radical threats demand radical action. Faced with a breach of the border, the demon Gender screams Stop making out with that dude! What else explains the bullying, the teen suicide, the need for man-pants, and the horror of a presidential humanoid? It is one thing, says Gender, to free women to be more like the ruling class, but to let men go huggy-kissy, soft and chatty, all consensus-ey—Let’s hold a bake-off—that cannot be tolerated. How would the Land of the Free maintain its standing in the world, intimidate its enemies, and shine the light of liberty into a darkened globe if no one knows how to be a man anymore?

How, indeed, can we shine a light when we are in thrall to a spirit of fear? When the young, abused for being “abnormal,” an abomination, take their own lives, and so end the pain until the next dissenters open their mouths? What can be done for the republic when a president, elected to end the reign of war, is branded weak and unworthy as he sets another example? The answer is simple enough. We must be free from the fear inside us, the fear of difference that is also the fear of true liberty. Our totalitarian state of mind must end, and it will end, when we make it clear to schoolchildren that the abuse must stop, when we convince adults that the feminist revolution needs another turn. A warning, then, to Dharun and Molly, to Kathleen, Christine, and Maureen: I have breached your borders. I begin to hear the voice of the dead, the voices of children. We are talking now about America. We agree. Let the servants of fear understand, we say. There will be more dissent, and no apology. We are not ready to perish. Bring on the mortal splendor first. We will not serve the republic of pain. We want to live in the Home of the Brave.

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