The Great American Fears

Being SecondBeing DefiledBeing SeenBeing VulnerableBeing JudgedBeing PunishedBeing MortalBeing ImmortalBeing Annihilated

Here they are, right up front. The fears of:
  • Being Second
  • Being Defiled
  • Being Seen
  • Being Vulnerable
  • Being Judged
  • Being Punished
  • Being Mortal
  • Being Immortal
  • Being Annihilated

The Roots of The Great American Fears

My earliest notes on the subject of what I call “The Great American Fears” date from as far back as 1981. At one point I envisioned a full-fledged book, but alas, that may never be. Instead, I will settle for a simple set of declarations that may or may not resound with any reader who happens upon this page and wishes to pursue the subject more deeply. Someone younger and wiser than I needs to get a handle on this perpetual American sickness: at the most foundational level a fear of annihilation so deep and all-consuming that we would destroy any and all shadows, all projections, all representations of humanity that mesmerize us on the one hand, and reflect the opposite of how we declare ourselves to be on the other. We insist that we are first, pure, strong, smart, inventive, envied, courageous, and eternally dominant even though we are less than three hundred years old as a nation. We want to carve out a new and never before seen homogeneous culture that is so enchanting the whole world idealizes and embraces us, willing to forego their own varied cultural expressions and mastery achieved over eons to taste the sweet nectar of a truly intentional and chosen society, a brave new world. For some, a white world.

It is my contention that the Great American Fears arise out of the very nature of American history and affect everything from family structure, sex, and the capacity for love in all its forms, to domestic politics, immigration policy, and foreign aid. Americans will do anything to allay these fears. We will engage in brutal behavior that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will unwittingly invite the suicidal consequences of acting out the fears whose truth we wish so desperately to avoid.

Furthermore, I believe that these fears are the soil in which both well-deserved pride and shameful prejudice flourish in the currently dis-united states of America. We have produced a deadly compost of arrogance and self-loathing that threatens to subvert every attempt in every generation to achieve “a more perfect union,” the penultimate flower of American democracy. On the one hand, we speak and write endlessly about the centuries-old impact of institutional racism on American ethos and consciousness. On the other hand, much like Holocaust deniers and survivors in Europe, we rail against anyone who dares to bring “that” up again: the genocide of indigenous populations, the unique system of slavery that kept Africans bound in perpetuity, the laws that kept Chinese and Japanese “excluded,” and the ridiculing of Irish, Poles, and Italians as Europeans of lesser intelligence or weak moral fiber. We are obsessive and compulsive as we repeatedly acknowledge and deny the deepest contradictions that make us one of the most interesting places on the planet.

The Inevitability of Physical and Political Contradictions

We are mesmerized by almond eyes, chocolate skin, thick dark hair, muscular build, and feisty women. And yet we persist in proclaiming the divine right of blond hair, blue eyes, dainty damsels, and extremes of either genteel or boorish men, preferably all of Northern European ancestry. As Christians, we borrow Old Testament Scripture from Middle Eastern Jews and Muslims with whom we share Adam and Abraham as progenitors, to declare that God has made us the chosen people and them the castaways. Of course, He told the same thing to the others in this dynamic historical triad and ostensibly gave us as Christians, Jews, and Muslims dominion of all we see before us, not only in our own countries but also in all other nations of the world. Our dominion extends to other humans, animals, land; elements above and below the land and sky and sea; dominion over the very planet itself. We borrow the seeds of democracy from Indigenous Americans and our definitions of high culture from our swarthy Southern and Eastern European neighbors, even though we now refer to contemporary Greeks and Italians as fiscally irresponsible, lazy, even unintelligent, along with Poles whose centuries of rich intellectual and artistic culture have been almost totally annihilated. Dare I say it? We consider them stupid.

Categorization Is Normal

To be clear, the very nature of being in the world requires categories and categorization to simply help us identify, get by, and organize our bombarded and complex daily lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with using the tools at our disposal – in this case attributions and ideas about people, places and things – just to help us function with ease and order. It is when those tools take on a life of their own and keep us from thriving that we must revisit the usefulness of categorization and certain categories in particular like race, gender, national origin, ethnicity, religion, and class.

Geographically and Historically Challenged

In addition to physical and cultural categories, we are challenged geographically as well. Here in the West, we are unaware of the centuries-old and sometimes centuries-long empires of Africa such as the Kush, Punt, Carthaginian, Aksumite, Solomonic, Malian, Songhai, Benin, Yoruba, Hausa, and Zimbabwean. We even go so far as to remove culturally revered Egypt from Africa altogether, tacking it on to the Middle East instead based selectively on those in its population that are lighter-skinned. Many Americans have no idea that Egypt is actually located in Africa or that the continent (not country) is four times the size of the United States, or that there are Africans above the Sahara who are as dark as night. Some cartographers even point out that certain world maps, perceived to be scientifically objective, are not drawn to true scale because to do so would show the geographical diminutiveness of white inhabited spaces in multiple regions of the world vis-à-vis non-white ones. [ in a new tab)]

Europeans know much more about such things than we do here in the U.S. and are quite sophisticated about geography, but they become apoplectic when it comes to the Ottoman and Moorish invasions centuries ago by dark people and foreign cultures too powerful for anglicized Christianity to fend off. These “others” left their mark not only on the land but also on human biology, “defiling” the purity of northern European standards of beauty. That mixed biology persists in Western Europe and accompanied the first settlers to the U.S. centuries ago. Telltale tracks show up in DNA samples of genealogical buffs who make use of new technologies to unearth their roots, some of which are surprising and not altogether welcomed. Anecdotally, a few of my European friends confirm that much of what is going on politically in Europe at present stems in part from a centuries-old hatred of domination by Turks, and Moors, and Poles.


On the political front here at home, we refuse to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, even if our very own white women and girls are disenfranchised from participating in what we tell ourselves we built altruistically for them, not for ourselves. The documentary history of the suffrage movement in the U.S. shows intense brutality as well as disdain directed towards women who insisted on the vote.

“Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

That’s it. That is all there is, and since 1776 we cannot seem to get this done. Only fear can explain this – a fear so visceral and so deeply embedded in the American male psyche that no amount of evidence or assurance to the contrary can abate it.

Science and Reason

Okay, so what about the so-called preëminence of reason and neutrality: what about science? A science that derives from a religious worldview teaches us that genes come in three varieties: good, bad, and downright evil. The description of an eternally flawed and sinful self dominates many recognized religions, especially in the West, based on the concept of original sin.

On the other hand, a science rooted in a secular worldview teaches us that consciousness is local and controlled by a physical brain inside an ultimately weak body ravaged by instinct rather than choice. This view is based on the simple presumption of the survival of the fittest. The secular worldview also teaches us that we are a random collection of chemicals. If we could only kill and dissect enough species and grow their now-dead cells in a Petri dish, sooner or later we could actually locate, describe, predict, and control human consciousness, behavior, and morality.

Belief: evil is stronger than good and human nature is fundamentally flawed

In the deepest recesses of our minds, we believe that evil is actually stronger than good and that Satan, the fallen angel exiled and left to his own devices, could ultimately vanquish the good angels unless God and humanity exercise the strictest controls. The body must be constrained and the “other” must be controlled by force, if necessary, or these strong elements will get out of hand and drive us inexorably towards our baser instincts. If control proves difficult or impossible, then we must weed out and annihilate that evil twin before it takes preëmptive action. Furthermore, the good that we tell ourselves we represent must be cloned, evangelizing the world and bringing our particular “good news” to the ignorant.

Because of its locus in weak biology with limited recognition of consciousness and choice, good must often rely on external mechanical tools and military force. I believe this explains, in part, our love for “gadgets:” guns, bombs, and other weapons of localized or mass destruction, psychological experimentation, and technological games. Our natural curiosity offers endless possibilities for nonviolent creativity, but there is something lurking beneath our initially innocent creativity that leans regularly towards tools of dominance. We believe ourselves to be fundamentally weak as a species and thus no match for an evil which in some distorted way symbolizes the epitome of strength in our dominant Western cultural myths.

The Expression and Power of Fear

Free will must be the culprit; choice the leveler. That which purportedly distinguishes humans from beasts actually makes us behave more like our beastly constructs; therefore, we cannot be trusted with unlimited choice.

What makes us not do unto others as we would have them do unto us as individuals and as a nation? For me, the simple answer is fear – an interrelated set of fears that stop us in our tracks every time we attempt to live the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After all, we chose intentionally to add equal access and treatment under the law as we broadened the scope of inclusion for our citizens. When we knew better, we did better, and we can do that again.

Fear of Being Second

When I first began this inquiry I thought that the fear of being second was the most important great American fear, triggered perhaps by my own experience of having been born both the second child and the second sex in my second race family of origin. Eventually, however, my interest turned to the largely male-dominated fascination with sports and war. There are only winners and losers in these domains, and only those who are first can be declared true winners. Those who come in “only” second or farther behind by the slightest margin are losers. Seared into my consciousness from an early age was the phrase from some grade school history lesson in which a Spartan mother admonishes her son to “return with your shield, or on it.”Win or lose, dead or alive, give no quarter to anything less than being first.

Fast forward (and backward) to the macrocosm of America’s place in the world, particularly following World Wars I and II. America must be first on the global stage and American ideals must be dominant.

Nowhere is this obsession with winning and being first more apparent than in sports as the peacetime equivalent of war when there are no external enemies to fight. There may be literally a millisecond between first and second place, or a point on the scoreboard, or a length at the Indy 500 or Kentucky Derby, but the only name remembered and honored is the one that came in first.

What is most remarkable about sports as metaphor for cultural identity is that many of our most revered sports figures are also those who are the most “other” in American society: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American, nonwhite Hispanics, and Eastern Europeans. Even those bastions of Northern European and American sports dominance – tennis, golf, cricket, polo, rugby, and baseball – have crumbled under the weight of crushing defeats by the likes of Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, “A-Rod” Rodriguez. The 1936 Olympic Games rattled the world when Jesse Owens, a black man, defeated the Germans and other “Aryans” in track and field just as they were beginning a putsch for control of white-dominated Europe.

The Fear of Being Defiled

The truth be told (but we dare not say it), the Aryan race is remarkably fragile. Our Scandinavian ancestors and cousins can withstand bitter cold and hostile climates, but mixed with the tiniest amount of non-Aryan genetic material their offspring quickly begin to look more like the subordinate others than like their tall, warrior, patrician blond and blue progenitors who claim to be the country’s primal source. That telltale blush of extra melanin, or fold in the eyelids, or curl in the hair, gives away its secrets even when the nonwhite parent is absent and possibly even unknown.

There are some parents who feel enormous pride in the racial admixture of their children while others are ashamed, regretting their youthful idealism, or even folly. The children know: they can feel the emotion, whether or not those feelings are ever said out loud. The grandparents are even more interesting to watch, as they move about in public with young children who do not look much like them. Accustomed to being unremarkable, suddenly all eyes are on the grandparents as they claim or distance themselves from their own kin. When the grandparents are uncomfortable, embarrassment and shame are palpable; when comfortable, everyone around the little family constellation seems to breathe a sigh of relief.

The Fear of Annihilation

It dawned on me at some point that deeper than the fear of being second lies an all-encompassing fear of annihilation, of having not only failed to win, or having existed in a subordinate position, but of not having existed at all! It is the fear of oblivion: no ruins to be discovered a thousand years later reflecting the natural rise and fall of civilizations; rather – and this is the most frightening of all – no evidence of ever having existed on the planet, let alone ever having exercised dominance over it as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob commanded. Worse than being the disappeared is the never having been.

And so it begins: tackling the Great American Fears. In this introductory moment, I will simply list them and let those thoughts rumble through our collective awareness. Then, bit by bit and musing by musing, I will attempt to deepen my understanding of each fear with compassion rather than judgment. This is a free-wheeling effort, neither doctoral dissertation nor history book: it is meant to be food for thought and thought for growth as the U.S. meets and fulfills its role of national icon and global citizen. I welcome all perspectives and ask for reflection and civil discourse as together we attempt once more what Franklin D. Roosevelt asked of us as a nation in the midst of the Great Depression:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933 Inaugural Address

Here again, then, are the Great American Fears, based on the natural presence and inevitability of contradiction in the deepest recesses of our national consciousness:

  • Being Second
  • Being Defiled
  • Being Seen
  • Being Vulnerable
  • Being Judged
  • Being Punished
  • Being Mortal
  • Being Immortal
  • Being Annihilated

Let us begin to claim these fears, to take the sting out of them. Let us learn to be confident without being arrogant, to embrace our pluralism because it makes us stronger, not weaker. Let us be defenseless in our search for that more perfect union because the journey itself is the ever-present teachable moment. The task is never finished; we are never finished. In this way we remain both mortal and immortal: we exist and our very existence serves the whole and is imbued in the whole. Annihilation is impossible and it is never too late to exercise choice; that is the very nature of reality in my worldview. All that is simply is, ever-present. It is only our focus, our attention that shifts away from one scenario towards another. However challenging the present moment, together we can craft another that is more in line with our individual and collective desires. How fortunate we are that fear need not prevail!

Published by Helen L. Stewart PhD

Endlessly curious, writer, speaker, blogger, intuitive, author, consultant. Retired university academic administrator and faculty member. Citizen of the world. Traveler. Human being. Perhaps in reverse order.

2 thoughts on “The Great American Fears

  1. Thank you, Helen- I loved the line about the compost of arrogance and self loathing! And I think you’re onto something really fundamental here. Learning how to love, care for, and cultivate shadow instead of being enslaved to unconsciously feeding it all its favorite foods (fears!) is no small task. I grapple with the self loathing that comes from my inability to control things- mostly my kids! Knowing that its my job to devise a better way to get through to them, while not falling victim to the toxic emotions that arise when I clearly don’t. Knowing deep down that it is I who need a kind listener to make room the new way I so desire! Also believing that I am worthy of being listened to, safe enough to share, and like I am not “betraying” the shadow which keep me in the same orbit. To your list, I might add Fear of Exile (from family, esteemed peers, job)- which may fall under fear of being punished. Now- for the antidote, please! :)

    1. Hi Melissa! Thank you so much for your thoughtful read and response to this piece on the great American fears. Yes, arrogance and self-loathing appear all too often in the same situation, rendering it toxic.

      I love your addition of the Fear of Exile to the list! I agree with you that exile is fundamental and probably goes along with the fear of being punished. Adam’s exile from the Garden of Eden takes us all the way back to the beginning and intersects with so much that follows, including the emergence of the other fears.

      On a personal level, I experienced the sting of exile in my family of origin and know its power to affect – and even control – behavior at various points in life. For you, acknowledging your basic good intention with regard to your children may help you sort through behaviors that support both you and them equally. You do have a responsibility to listen, but you also have a right to be heard, so don’t sell yourself short as you work tirelessly to avoid these enumerated pitfalls and fears. You are a truly good human being: that is your linchpin, your north star. As you face outward into the world, others will understand you or they won’t, but in facing your shadows and your fears directly, you will have less need for projecting your “stuff” onto others the way I described in the post. You have always been self-aware; keep up good work! Sending hugs to you and your family.

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