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Paris, November 2007

You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear

Americans fear of “terrorism” has been shamelessly exploited by the Bush administration to much more easily fabricate profoundly unjust and dangerous domestic, environmental, and foreign policies

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Ref.: Frances Moore Lappe’ and Jeffrey Perkins, New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2005

Languages: English

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The power of fear

For several decades now the pervasive but largely unrecognized cynicism in much of the Western world, especially in the United States, has also been a powerful buttress of the status quo, discouraging countless individuals who would like to see a more just and decent world from working toward that end. I have long believed that this cynicism is not merely at the very heart of our failure to effectively resolve so many of our most pressing problems, but is itself the cardinal problem that we must acknowledge and address. Since September 11 2001 however, we have been witnessing another, perhaps even more debilitating phenomenon militating against the possibilities of forging more just and sane foreign and domestic policies: fear.

The american’s fear of terrorism

With lamentably little resistance from our ostensible “opposition” party, Americans’ fear of “terrorism” has been shamelessly exploited by the Bush administration to much more easily fabricate profoundly unjust and dangerous domestic, environmental, and foreign policies. As Corey Robin underscores in his incisive Fear: The History of a Political Idea, “our fear of terrorism, orchestrated and manipulated by the powerful, is being used to reorganize the structure of power in American society, giving more to those who already have much and taking away from those who have little.” Even as the lives of those on the bottom are made ever more difficult, the lives of all of us are in many ways becoming less secure, the staggering monies being squandered in our misguided “War on Terrorism” notwithstanding.

Lappe’ and Perkins argue convincingly that we are actually hardwired to cooperate with each other and to care, something we easily forget in a hypercompetitive culture that works overtime to bring out the worst in us. Reducing “human nature” itself to the most pathetic and sleazy examples of human venality regularly featured in the mass media especially television, we remain oblivious to all of those courageous individuals who have chosen to dedicate major portions of their lives to serving others.

You Have the Power is a wise, inspiring, practical—indeed indispensable—handbook for all those who lament the state of their nation, and the planet, but have not been able to summon the courage and hope necesary to help chart a more just and sustainable future.


Courage in a Culture of Fear

You Have the Power : Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear could serve as an effective antidote to both our cynicism and fear. It was back in the mid-seventies that I first became aware of how our eating choices can have a major impact on those who have far fewer choices than we do about what they eat—when they are fortunate enough to find anything to eat at all. Frances Moore Lappe’’s Diet for a Small Planet, and similar writings since then, have provided us with invaluable insights on how modifying our eating habits can help to ameliorate world hunger. Long “associated with a call to choose thoughtfully what we put into our mouths”, Lappe’ more recently has begun to see that maybe even more critical is what we put into our minds, in part because these choices ultimately determine what we put into our mouths. In our increasingly fear-driven world, maybe we consciously need to choose a ‘hope diet.’ This does not mean a blithe, mindless optimism unmindful of the sacri-fices and commitment required in the struggle for social justice. Championing not “wishful thinking but honest hope”, Lappe’ and coauthor Jeffrey Perkins accentuate that “it’s impossible to find hope; we can only become it (emphasis in original). Of particular value in You Have the Power are the inspiring examples of very ordinary individuals who have done precisely that by evincing real leadership and courage in their lives. Fortunately we do not have to have a genetic predisposition for activism, or be a special kind of person, to emulate them. Moved by the tenacity and courage of Diane Wilson, who refused to be intimidated even after her boat was twice sabotaged and her life endan-gered, other shrimpers eventually joined her crusade against corporate polluters, engendering agreements that serve as a national model for environ-mental protection. Speaking at an annual gathering of Bioneers, Wilson concluded her talk by paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw: “Look where reason has got us. A reasonable woman adapts to the world, an unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her. What this world needs is more unrea-sonable women!”

the role of Women Strike for Peace

No less instructive and inspiring for activists today is the role that Women Strike for Peace played in ending above-ground nuclear testing. Journalist Rebecca Solnit recalls one middle-aged member of Women Strike for Peace “feeling utterly ‘foolish and futile’ as she stood in the rain one morning, sign in hand, protesting at the Kennedy White House.” Little did Women Strike for Peace know that their “futile” efforts would be the turning point that galvanized none other than Benjamin Spock to commit himself to the cessation of nuclear testing. “It’s always too early to calculate effect”, Solnit reminds us. We live in a culture where most of us are terribly impatient and obsessed with immediate results. But who is to say that doing the right thing in the right way for the right reasons will not have some positive effect on our world, however futile our actions might seem at the moment? Or, in more religious terms, if we were more concerned with being “faithful” rather than “successful,” the tangible victories we yearn for might appear much more frequently. Lappe’ and Perkins suggest again and again that the “tipping point” phenomenon popularized by Malcolm Gladwell can also work for “positive” change. But if we are to use the power that we do have, we must first jettison the widely held view that power necessarily corrupts. Used nonviolently on behalf of others rather than coercively, exercising power can be a profoundly ethical act. What is necessarily corrupting is powerlessness, that is choosing not to use whatever power that is available to us. Only by abandoning this false notion of “innocence” can we minimize our complicity in the great evils of our time. Here too we must overcome our fear. “Courage is not the absence of fear”, Ambrose Redmoon reminds us, “but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” It was Edmund Burke who remarked that “no one ever made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Lappe’ and Perkins cite a similar admonition from Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: “A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignifi-cant, or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.”