Beyond a Culture of Fear / Essay by K. Lauren De Boer

Fear is the cheapest / room in the house. I’d like to see you / in better living conditions.


Give us a happy ending and we write a new disaster story. —Barry Glassner

“It’s a campaign of fear and consumption,” states rock star Marilyn Manson, “Keep people afraid and they’ll consume.” This lucid insight into the connection between our mass media news diet, the incitement of fear, and consumerism emerged in an interview with Manson in the recent film, Bowling for Columbine. Manson was the brunt of criticism by many community members and the media for somehow inciting the kind of violence that led to the tragic 1999 incident in Littleton, Colorado where two Columbine High School students killed twelve students and a teacher using handguns.

Why direct blame toward Manson? Because of the rock lyrics he writes. And yet, asks Manson, who has more influence on violent behavior, [former] President Clinton, who was shooting bombs overseas, or himself, just a guy singing some rock and roll songs?

On the same day of the shootings at Columbine, the film’s maker Michael Moore points out in his interview with Manson, President Clinton ordered the heaviest bombing assault yet in Kosovo.

“What would you say to the kids who did the shooting at Columbine,” asks Moore. Manson responds: “I wouldn’t say a thing. I’d listen to what they have to say. That’s what no one did.”

Bowling for Columbine is a gutsy, often disturbing probe into the absurd cycle of fear prevalent in American culture today. Our obsession with guns, suggests the film, is the same irrational obsession driving the U.S. war economy. Our violent, fear-filled society is one marked, not coincidentally, by addictive over-consumption. Not long after September 11, George W. Bush evoked the fear of terrorism and the virtues of being a good consumer practically in the same breath.

The phenomenon of misplaced fear in American culture is not uncommon, asserts sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. From overblown crime statistics to exaggerated germ scares to plane wrecks, a wide array of groups—including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects, and political parties—benefit and profit from promoting fear. Glassner’s book, at its essence, raises important questions about how misbegotten fears find their way into the public psyche through a process driven by power and money. He writes: “Samuel Taylor Coleridge was right when he claimed, ‘In politics, what begins in fear usually ends up in folly.’ Political activists are more inclined, though, to heed an observation from Richard Nixon: ‘People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.’ That principle, which guided the late president’s political strategy throughout his career, is the sine qua non of contemporary political campaigning. Marketers of products and services ranging from car alarms to TV news programs have taken it to heart as well.” Glassner’s book continues with an exploration of how the “vendors of fear tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.”1

The kind of insecurity and fear exploited by the current U.S. administration may be good for business in the short run, but it’s bad policy in the long run. Human energy, when manipulated by fear, can become distorted and destructive. Fear can incapacitate and paralyze us, keeping our energy in check. But when the energy does assert itself, it can do so in horrendous ways. Addictive consumerism, adherence to narrow beliefs about the nature of reality, and desperate clinging to what deadens us are some of those. Conformity to fabricated and obsolete worldviews, such as one that sanctions the bombing of other countries to protect our hegemony over resources like oil, is another. Giving in to despair is yet another.

HEROES and villains

The heroes we choose and those we villify can define us in powerful ways. We live in a country where Al Qaeda and Sadaam Hussein have taken on mythic proportions as villains, and where violent characters like Rambo and Dirty Harry are the touted heroes of presidents. In a revealing essay from Mennonite Life (December, 2001) entitled “The Original Peacemakers: Native America,” author James C. Juhnke points out that U.S. history textbooks highlight the warriors, not the peacemakers of the original Americans, despite the fact that, like all human communities, Native Americans were people of both peace and war.”The notable Indians in the master narrative of American history are the military heroes—men such as Pontiac, Tecumseh, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull,” writes Junhke. “Sherman Alexie, popular Native-American novelist and poet, put a cogent question in the mouth of one of his characters: ‘When are the Indians ever going to have heroes who don’t hurt people? Why do all of our heroes have to carry guns?’” White Americans, the article points out, build historical monuments for the Indian warriors, not for the peacemakers.2

In some respects the emergence of a character such as good child-wizard Harry Potter as a hero in these times seems like a good sign. By depicting a world where good triumphs over evil, one recent oped states, the Harry Potter books give us strength to face real enemies.

Yes, maybe. However, a story motif of good triumphing over evil can as easily justify a campaign to invade Iraq as it can inspire one to do battle with a carefully discerned internal demon or, say, the destructive impact of voter apathy on democratic society. A tale doesn’t automatically impart wisdom simply because it depicts the triumph of good. In fact, many traditional myths depict not the decimation of evil, but its transformation. Good and evil are interconnected forces in the cosmos; their encounter is part of a dialectic that ultimately brings about the overall restoration of the whole.


Not surprisingly, one such story comes from Native America, the original peacemakers and arguably the earliest practitioners of participatory democracy on the planet (see story, page 10). Part of an epic Iroquois legend, the story of the Great Peacemaker, speaks powerfully to our current situation, both in terms of the disturbing fervor for war and the need for hope in people with a conscience of peace. Furthermore, the legend has added power and relevance in that it looks to our past as a nation, to the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on its founders.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman provides a stirring rendition of the legend in his recent book The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. The following passage is a condensation of Needleman’s account, which draws on an unpublished retelling of the Onandaga story of Creation by Maril Rianna Blanchard.

The part of the legend we are most concerned with begins at a time when human beings cannot live in peace. There is strife and contention between nations. In Needleman’s words,”There is no place, no structure, no condition within which the forces of Earth and of the human can confront each other in a way that allows a harmonizing, uniting, and peacemaking force to act from within.”

The Creator sends the Great Peacemaker to aid the human beings. The Great Peacemaker sets out on a quest to end violence among human beings with the message of “peace that is power.” He is said to bring a “New Mind” to the nations. This is something they readily accept, Needleman elucidates, because they “glimpse something infinitely more honorable than war…the field of life in all its vibrancy, a call to serve what is far greater than oneself.”

But there is one very powerful chief, Atotarho, who does not accept the message. Atotarho is an intimidating figure who “eats human beings,” whose body is crooked in seven places, and who has snakes in his hair. He utters a great bloodcurdling cry: Hwe-do-ne-e-e-e-e-eh—!, which means “When will this be? It has not come yet!”

“The actual identity of Atotarho,” writes Needleman, “and the story of the struggle with him throw astonishing light on the meaning of the democracy created by the Iroquois Confederacy and on the mystical pragmatism that lies at the root of our own American democracy.”

Atotarho represents a concept of evil that the Western mind is at odds with, one which speaks, not to the age-old batttle between good and evil, but to the human propensity to defeat peace by giving into despair. “Atotarho is not the figure of evil who simply opposes out of an irredeemable black heart,” writes Needleman, “[He] is evil as inability—incapacity to hope, incapacity to try…When he is defeated, he is defeated by being awakened to his own power of love and wisdom…Human evil is goodness acting under a wrong thought; human evil is love acting under a wrong fear, a wrong striving; human evil is the power of the spirit under the yoke of a despairing master.”

True to the matrilineal nature of Iroquois society and to their Constitution, the delivery into the world of the Great Peacemaker’s message is mediated by a woman. Women have equal participation in Iroquois governance. And it is the women—the clan mothers—who appoint the chiefs of the nations and who have the power to depose them. Because the woman is the first to accept and understand the message of the “peace that is power,” the Great Peacemaker gives her a new name: Jigonhasasee, meaning “New Face.” “It is in your countenance,” he tells her, “that the New Mind is manifest.”

Having the blessing of Jigonhasasee, the Great Peacemaker then goes to none other than Hiawatha, perhaps the most well-known figure of Iroquois legend. Hiawatha is a “weak and degraded figure” when he finds him. Like Atotarho, he eats human beings. Hiawatha is given a “New Mind,” as the nation chiefs, when he looks at his own reflection in a kettle of water and sees the Great Peacemaker instead. Hiawatha sees his own greater potential in the Great Peacemaker, and commits himself to bringing the message of peace to Earth. Eventually, Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker go to confront Atotarho, who continues to utter the great cry of despair. Atotarho alone stands in the way of the Great Peace.

Hiawatha, whose name means He Who Combs, must comb the snakes from Atotarho’s hair. Atotarho, who has been consistently cynical, hears the words of the Great Peacemaker when he says that peace, justice, and health will only come when humans are ready to accept them. Hiawatha, with the aid of the Great Peacemaker, is able to break through Atotarho’s considerable resistance as they deliver to the evil chief the Great Law of Peace. They are able to awaken within Atotarho his own sense of power and wisdom. Hiawatha combs the snakes from Atotarho’s hair and his mind is made straight; despair has been defeated.

The Great Peacemaker plants the Great Tree of Peace, a white pine, whose roots extend throughout the world. All the nations bury their weapons of war beneath it. Peace reigns when Atotarho, now with a New Mind, goes on to become the great chief of all five Iroquois nations.3


Ultimately, the Great Peacemaker legend provides a basis for faith, for moving us past despair. To give into despair is to succumb to fear, the ultimate source of all human violence. Evil is the incapacity to hope or to try, we learn from the story, and so the question becomes: Do we continue to utter Atotarho’s cry of despair or do we use the energy of dark times to renew our inner commitment to a peace for all life, to inner peace, to peace in all directions, as the roots of the Great Tree of Peace depict? How we bring about peace in our own lives, how we choose to be exemplars of a planetary sustainable peace is the “radical” (from Latin, radicalis, for “root”) action which lays the foundation for a transformation of collective consciousness.

In our time when we are at war with the planet itself, the tale of Hiawatha, Atotarho, and the Great Peacemaker has meaning not just as a tale of peace between nations, but for peace with the Earth. We are “cannibalizing the Earth” through our overconsumption and resource extraction and require a “new mind” to bring about Pax Gaia.

New Mind refers not just to calm passivity, but to “peace as power,” which means we are in right relationship not only to our inner nature, but to the energies of Earth and Cosmos, even to their more troubling aspects of chaos and uncertainty. This requires faith of a kind which can only come to us from a desire for justice for the entire Earth Community.

Coming from such a place of power, how might we move beyond a culture of fear in dark times?

—A vibrant and functional democracy depends on the honest dissemination of information. The corporate media, in its rightward drift and easy compliance to political power, is failing the general populace. Citizens groups might start running interference and holding the corporate media responsible for perpetrating violence and consumerism under the guise of news and entertainment. We can start by being conscious of just what they are serving up as our media diet. We can boycott toxic news and demand that they stop creating a culture of fear.

—Don’t let consumption define who we are. True peace is to see ourselves as citizens, not simply consumers. We are human beings in a communion of Earth’s subjects.

—Develop our powers of listening—to young people, to Earth, and to our inner sense of peace. We also need to believe in the wisdom of our young people. In The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis tells the remarkably hopeful story of the Gang Summit in Kansas City in 1993 where warring barrio gang members came together on their own initiative, listened to each other, and not only worked out a truce, but talked about “transformation and rebuilding.” “New visions will require new visionaries,” writes Wallis, “And they will most likely come from ordinary people who are willing to become a part of the changes they seek for the very ordinary circumstances of their lives and their society. And that will be the extraordinary thing.”4

All lasting change begins with people talking to each other, with public square diplomacy, with community.

—Have faith that alternatives to the corporate political parties are not only possible, but that the time is right. Paul Ray, in a paper entitled “A New Political Compass,” states that there are a group of “new progressives” constituting 36% of the population who are not yet truly represented by a political party (see page 16). Dennis Kucinich, while a Democrat, is one Washington politician who represents the “political north”(see page 17). Ray characterizes the political north as the Wisdom Culture Paradigm.

—Practice a spiritual ecology of peace. This practice gives us the basis for moving beyond a world of fear, violence, and war because it is a practice based in the embrace of all life and an acceptance of the forces of ecology at work in our lives. This includes chaos, uncertainty, and surprise. Spiritual ecology, through a practice of quieting and attuning our mind to rhythms outside language brings peace because we are in accord with the present moment. Fear of the future falls away.

—We need stories. The Peacemaker legend is one story of a particular people which has some potential for our time. However, telling our sacred Universe Story, seeing ourselves in a meaningful role within that unfolding, is a powerful force for peace within. We are the heroes of that story, the source for peace in the world. Accessing that source and creating in ourselves a New Mind is the Great Work of our time.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” If we commit ourselves to creating peaceful change by not giving into despair and a culture of fear, we practice the spiritual ecology of peace. We take the step of faith that will make violence and war obsolete as solutions to conflict.

K. Lauren de Boer was for many years Executive Editor of EarthLight Magazine.

1. Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, (Basic Books, 1999), p. xxviii.

2. James C. Juhnke, “The Original Peacemakers: Native America,” (Mennonite Life, December 2001), vol. 56 no. 4.

3. Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002), pp. 215-236.

4. Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics: Beyond the “Secular Left” and the “Religious Right”, (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1995), p. 295.