The Chronicle Review


August 07, 2011

In Edward Bellamy's classic 19th-century novel, Looking Backward, a young man named Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and awakens in 2000.

The great fears of Bellamy's day—class warfare, financial crisis, poverty, exploitation—have been eliminated. Work is organized cooperatively; all receive a fair share of society's wealth (via national credit cards!), and nobody faces destitution. Human relationships can develop on the basis of trust and cooperation, not suspicion and conflict. Bellamy's argument is simple: Overcoming fear allows us to emancipate our better natures, awaken new human possibilities, even recreate society.

Bellamy's story was supposed to be the plot of the past decade. Eliminate our greatest fear, terrorism, and we would be set free. Yet bin Laden is dead, and little has changed. There is no new dawn, no rebirth, no cleansing of the Augean stables of our collective mind. Instead we face a less grandiose but no less meaningful set of fears about the stability and fairness of our basic social and economic institutions. And our lives are palpably the same, if not worse. Cultural and political stagnation presses painfully. What is missing from our story?

One major element is that we do not even know what to reach for, what it is that our fears prevent us from achieving. In Looking Backward, the utopian vision of America in 2000 had a foothold in the real. There was in Bellamy's time a universal yearning, buried by the crushing poverty and extremes of industrial capitalism, for something like the shared purpose and human freedom that the book portrayed. A society based on free and equal relationships and cooperative ideals seemed possible.

We, on the other hand, have trouble imagining that kind of society. We're told that utopia leads to dystopia; that we should fear our hopes. Fear itself has changed, from an obstacle to a diversion. For Bellamy, fear was repressive, because it prevented the expression and realization of higher ideals. In the war on terror, eliminating fear has become an end in itself. Of course, we can all agree we want to be safe. But that is a dodge, a way of avoiding the harder discussion about what it means to live free and equal lives.

The great lie of the war on terror is not that we can sacrifice a little liberty for greater security. It is that fear can be eliminated, and that all we need to do to improve our society is defeat terrorism, rather than look at the other causes of our social, economic, and political anxiety. That is the great seduction of fear: It allows us to do nothing. It is easier to find new threats than new possibilities.

A decade after 9/11, we look backward and find ourselves in all-too-familiar surroundings. We have, in fact, accomplished very little. We have yet to do any of the serious thinking that might carry us beyond the banal, stifling quest for security. That kind of thinking would require us to have a different relationship to fear: a willingness to accept it, even cause it.

Radical demands for justice are dangerous—they inspire fear in those committed to the injustices of the present.

Alex Gourevitch is a postdoctoral research associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. He is an editor of Current Moment, a blog.


Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan R. Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.