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The Politics of Fear

Deep, dark currents of fear

"In politics, what begins in fear usually ends up in folly.' Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Fear is not a positive motivating force; in fact it can be quite corrosive and paralysing. As Baz Lurhman has Fran say in Strictly Ballroom, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived”,  or Janet Napolitano, "you cannot live free if you live in fear".

   If you have nothing to hide, are not a journalist, a whistle - blower, or just someone we don’t like, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Goebbels/Orwell or likely Upton Sinclair.

"When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.  Thomas Jefferson

Nietzsche also argued that 'Fear is the mother of morality'.

"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.

An Australian Liberal party strategist asked how they kept winning elections declared:

“It’s simple; a message of fear beats a message of hope every time”


In a time of crisis when nationalism is invoked to unify a country, the outsider can often be “other” – the bogeyman, a threat to our society and therefore used by rabble-rousing politicians to stoke our fears.  John Howard exploited the asylum seeker issue brilliantly as a form of a bait-and-switch -- he took a tough line on asylum seekers, while massively cranking up permanent and temporary immigration, as the economy demanded. He convinced One Nation voters he was one of them, while doing the very thing that they were most aggrieved about, in the interests of good economic policy. It was one of Howard's political masterstrokes.

 The bag of tricks of John Howard, who would rhetorically embrace populist positions full well knowing the ensuing fury from the Left would sustain the issue on the national agenda for days at a time.  This is also known as “Dog Whistle Politics” or  “Wedging your opponents”  so they have no where to run.

Fear is the most powerful enemy of reason. Both fear and reason are essential to human survival, but the relationship between them is unbalanced. Reason may sometimes dissipate fear, but fear frequently shuts down reason. As Edmund Burke wrote in England twenty years before the American Revolution, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/053007_gore_excerpt.pdf

Our reactions to change are often affected by anxiety – not positivity; even when change is self-imposed.  Fear is a natural response to the unknown; the fight or flight instinct that stymies our rational thought processes.  We prefer certainty, to a lack of control.

A demagogue /ˈdɛməɡɒɡ/ or rabble-rouser is a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness. Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.  Wikipedia

Tyrannical politicians (as will religious zealots) use fear to control and manipulate the electorate, hoping to suspend their rational judgements.  They then assure us that they alone can protect us.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.   H. L. Mencken

Adam Bandt warns, ”unscrupulous governments use people’s legitimate fears to illegitimately take away their freedoms”.

Those who are willing to sacrifice an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither”.  Benjamin Franklin.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  Franklin D. Roosevelt

An Australian Liberal party strategist asked how they kept winning elections declared:

“It’s simple; a message of fear beats a message of hope every time”

In a time of crisis when nationalism (as opposed to building a society) is invoked to unify a country, the outsider can often be “other” – the bogeyman, a threat to our society and therefore used by rabble-rousing politicians to stoke our fears.  John Howard exploited the asylum seeker issue brilliantly as a form of a bait-and-switch -- he took a tough line on asylum seekers, while massively cranking up permanent and temporary immigration, as the economy demanded. He convinced One Nation voters he was one of them, while doing the very thing that they were most aggrieved about, in the interests of good economic policy. It was one of Howard's political masterstrokes.

 The bag of tricks of John Howard, who would rhetorically embrace populist positions full well knowing the ensuing fury from the Left would sustain the issue on the national agenda for days at a time.  This is also known as “Dog Whistle Politics” or  “Wedging your opponents”  so they have no where to run.

David Marr provides this example:

Politicians who deal in panic wear out their welcome. The grubby business of terrifying the electorate over and over again takes its toll. Howard was the most professional politician I expect to see at work in my lifetime, and nothing was more professional than his manipulation of Australia's fears.

But a decade of this left him rather shop-worn. So many scares had come and gone, failing to deliver on their bleak promises. His last days in office caught the disenchantment perfectly. Sydney was locked down for a gathering of G20 world leaders – and into this great security panic drove a team of comedians in Arab dress. Howard looked foolish. Australia laughed all the way to the polls. Panic can't take a joke.    From Panic, Marr, 2011.

The Demagogue’s Ruse    (How mass persuasion techniques manufacture consent)

Patriotism may indeed be, as Dr. Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” but it’s also the tyrant’s first resort.  People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated.

The warrior caste, supposedly society’s protectors, often become protection racketeers. In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security.  The more elusive or imaginary the foe, the better for manufacturing consent.

The Inquisition did a roaring trade against the Devil and the twentieth century’s struggle between capitalism and communism had all the hallmarks of the old religious wars. Was defending either system really worth the risk of blowing up the world?

Now we are losing hard-won freedoms on the pretext of a worldwide “war on terror,” as if terrorism were something new. (Those who think it is should read The Secret Agent, a novel in which anarchist suicide bombers prowl London wearing explosives; it was written by Joseph Conrad a hundred years ago.)

The Muslim fanatic is proving a worthy replacement for the heretic, the anarchist, and especially the Red Menace so helpful to military budgets throughout the Cold War. From Ronald Wright’s  A Short History of Progress  2004 Massey Lecture Series  (Canada)

The Assault on Reason

Al Gore takes aim at the forces that limit ideas and debate in America.

The wilful, exploitative linking of the attacks of September 11 to Saddam in this context becomes a springboard into the deepest recesses of fear, with these fears overwhelming our ability to reason collectively together. "If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears," Gore writes, "or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished."

Failure to disclose information to the public supports the assertion that governments manipulate events as cynical exercises in wedge politics. Further it would support the assertion that state-sponsored "terrorism" in this country is acceptable to the government if it appears to provide some political advantage.

Perhaps even more telling is the common observation that, by overreacting to the threat and by employing over-the-top rhetoric, the West has made the danger posed by terrorism worse since September 11, 2001, despite the enormous treasure and blood expended to counter Islamic extremism.

There is no shortage of critics who say governments and the media are dangerously stoking fear out of naked self-interest.

But security experts such as Bruce Schneier say "there is also something deep in the human psyche that leads people to respond irrationally to threats such as terrorism".

"Why is it that, when food poisoning kills 5000 per year [in the US] and the 9/11 terrorists killed 2973 people in one year, we are spending billions per year on terrorism defence and almost never thinking about food poisoning?" Schneier asks.

The answer, at least in part, lies in psychology, "something inherent in how our brain works", he says.

Over millions of years of evolution, the brain has developed two systems to evaluate risk. First, there's the amygdala, an old part of the brain that is "faster than consciousness" and governs base emotions from sensory inputs, things such as the fight-or-flight reflex.

Then there is the neo-cortex, the more recently developed and advanced part of the brain, used to analyse risk and make nuanced trade-offs that can override instinctive reactions. The problem, Schneier says, is that the brain finds it very difficult to contradict the amygdala.

Psychologists have long documented the types of threats the human brain tends to overestimate: the spectacular, the uncommon, the horrific and the inexplicable.

All of these types of terrorism play on our deepest, most irrational fears. Perhaps most crucially of all, the effect of these spectacular and horrific acts is supercharged by the mass media.

Truly, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Tony Kevin writes on Asylum seekers:  Crikey.com

Bradley Manning did not "err". As his revealed email to Lamo makes clear, assuming it is authentic which is yet to be proven, he seems to have made a moral judgement that he knew great evils -- crimes against humanity -- were being routinely committed in Iraq by the organisation of which he was a part, the US Army, and he felt morally obliged to make those great evils public whatever the cost to him. If so, this is a heroic act of individual self-sacrifice for the greater public good, not an error.

This is the same moral judgement written about approvingly by Benjamin Franklin, a founder of the US Republic, in 1792:

"...a nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society."

Martin Luther King made the same point in his struggle: "Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about things that matter."

And Julian Assange has made a similar point on his website -- that “if we ignore state evil, we become part of it”. I believe it too, which is why I wrote my book on SIEV X, despite some (really very minor, compared to the horrors Manning is going through now) risks and costs to myself.

What must now terrify Manning’s torturers is that he will stay sane and brave enough to have the strength to say such things in his court-martial , in which case he will become a human rights martyr. They would rather drive him insane or break his spirit, so that he cannot say them. I pray for him that he will find the strength to face as a hero a death that, if it then comes to him, will not have been in vain. And I wonder how much longer Australia can in good conscience stay closely allied to a nation that could do such terrible things to its own citizens.

Bernard of Clairveaux: Instruction & upbringing

To Robert, a monk, I know your heart, I know that you can be led more easily by love than driven by fear. . .

For those superiors[monastic teachers] who wish always to inspire fear in their communities and rarely promote their welfare. Learn that you must be mothers to those in your care, not lords; make an effort to arouse the response of love, not of fear; Show affection as a mother would.

Be gentle, avoid harshness, do not resort to blows, expose your breasts: let your bosoms expand with milk not swell with passion. 

Sermon on The Song of Songs

Perhaps the best historical example of motivating people positively is the Crimean War,1854 -56, where about 80,000 French, British and Turkish troops  faced an army 300,000 Russian mainly serf fighters on their own turf.  After their defeat, the Russians realised that while the serfs did as they were ordered, they lacked the esprit de corps of the invaders, which ultimately led to the emancipation of the serfs.

By ABC's Barrie Cassidy - Posted Fri 24 Oct 2014, 6:46am

 Fear is the currency of both sides of politics, and not just fear of terrorism.

As disturbing as the events in Ottawa were we are entitled to ask whether the political response here in Australia, on the other side of the world, was helpful or merely exploitative, writes Barrie Cassidy.

The threat of terrorism is real, but is it exaggerated?

The need to be vigilant is obvious, but do we have to live in fear?

Every time someone goes berserk overseas, do we have to behave as if it happened around the corner?

Why in 2014 is every act by a crazed gunman immediately interpreted as an act of terrorism?

And when does the rhetoric of politicians cross the boundaries from sensible public safety and security warnings to fear for the sake of it?

As disturbing as the events in Ottawa were, they could have been the actions of a "lone wolf" with a criminal history. Even if it turns out he was part of some sort of organised global terror attack - what the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, described in the Parliament as part of Islamic State's "war on the world" - we are still entitled to ask whether the response here in Australia, on the other side of the world, was helpful or merely exploitative.

The politicians rushed to the microphones to draw the links with Australia, to underline the similarities between the two countries, and to emphasise how the same thing could so easily happen here.

The presiding officers of almost every parliament in the country put out statements on security. Tony Abbott gave an interview and followed up with a statement to the Parliament. The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten fell in behind. There was a minute's silence. How often does that happen when a soldier in another country dies at the hands of a gunman?

Of course Australian authorities charged with the safety of the public should be impacted and instructed by the shootings in Ottawa. Of course everybody is disturbed and alarmed when these shootings happen.

But even so, why did the politicians on both sides of the aisle feel the need to see to it that every Australian shared the fear that they were so ready to express? What are we supposed to do?

Why did the politicians tell us that threats of a 17-year-old Year 10 student should leave us "chilled?" The Courier Mail, by contrast, ran a headline: "ISIS Aussie terror threat backfires. He's just a very naughty boy." A "naughty boy" that one senator - David Leyonhjelm - dismissed as "an absolute dickhead."

Eminent social researcher Hugh Mackay in a 2007 speech entitled "Be Afraid" said:

Fear is a complex emotion but it comes in two main forms. There's anticipatory fear where we perceive a threat, know what to do about it, and take the necessary evasive action.

That happens when you see a dangerous situation looming on the road, or someone threatens you with violence.

Then there's inhibitory fear, where the threat is too great, too amorphous or too appalling for us to know how to deal with it. Because there's no way to discharge the fear through action, we are inhibited rather than energised. The term 'paralysed by fear' is a good description of inhibitory fear at work.

Terrorism is an inhibitory fear, and yet that never seems to guide the rhetoric of the politicians.

It's no wonder we are afraid and unfocused in our fear. We're jumpy about everything because we can't quite get a handle on what is going on, what will happen next, or even what should happen next.

And that's the point. The politicians ram this home to the public at every opportunity, and yet the safety mechanisms, the essential responses, are not a matter for them. Indeed, quite often after they've been told how serious is the risk, they are then told to go about their lives as normal.

Fear sells, and certainly anxiety wins support for anti-terrorism laws no matter how much they infringe on civil liberties.

Fear is the currency of both sides of politics, and not just fear of terrorism.

Helen Razer on Fear:

It is not that all interpretations of fears have an equal or a verifiable value. Some analyses, to be frank, are plain batty. It is, however, that each interpretation of a fear serves an identical purpose. And that is to assuage our complex social fear by means of simple cultural criticism.

That reality, as we currently experience it, provokes a great deal more confusion than it has in previous eras is hardly a controversial claim. All selves are subject to a historically unprecedented range and tangle of anxieties. In a time where the end of the world is not a supernatural fear but a technological possibility, we live with a naturalised sense of crisis. And this foundation of fear is hardly fortified by concerns for our politicians' indifference, our health and natural or economic disaster.

The easy answer to all of these real fears is to kill the real by interpreting it, to take one concern -- like, say, the national reaction to the revelation a famous former athlete is homosexual -- and analyse it with such non-stop brutality that by the end of the week, the “real” thing about which we might have been talking is nothing more than a corpse in the morgue of meaning.


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