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, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
Perhaps the most truthful words ever spoken by FDR.
Feardom: How Politicians Exploit Your Emotions and What You Can Do to Stop Them, by Connor Boyack.
The Enemy Within, The Weapon, Witch Hunt, and Freeze, lyrics by Neil Peart (my choice for the musically most beautiful and creative of these, Freeze, is here; the story behind this four-part trilogy is also worth a read).
And the things that we fear are a weapon to be held against us…
Connor Boyack’s book describes fear: the fear that drives us, the fear that politicians exploit to control us, the fear that causes us to rabidly support all manners of abuse and exploitation – abuse and exploitation both of us and of others.
Things crawl in the darkness
That imagination spins
From Boyack, citing H.L. Mencken: “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, most of them imaginary.”
From the earliest days of the republic to today, the value of fear for establishing control has been well known:
As John Adams himself once wrote, “Fear is the foundation of most governments.”
Rahm Emanuel, then White House Chief of Staff, stated in a 2008 interview, “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”
Creating fear isn’t an accident:
As the sociologist David Altheide has explained, “Fear does not just happen; it is socially constructed and then manipulated by those who seek to benefit.”
In short, anybody seeking power over another person finds fear a useful tool, and it is for that very reason that politicians stand to gain so much through its use.
Boyack lists a few of the more infamous episodes of irrational hysteria: swine flu – with 26 dead (25 of which in Mexico and the 26th a person who recently travelled from Mexico), when compared to about 36,000 deaths annually from the flu; Y2K – coming and going with no major incident.
The occasional deadly attack in a school by someone using a gun is always an opportunity to press for further restrictions on gun ownership. Such news is widely reported – with live coverage by every major news network. But what of the news that virtually every day “millions of gun owners around the country carried their firearms all day today, and nobody got hurt!”
I recall a most recent example, the hysteria regarding the Ebola virus. Even some of the most jaded political observers fell victim to the fear mongering, calling for government to do something, anything. I was run over with the certainty of a hundred thousand cases on US shores within months. We are still waiting.
With an iron fist in a velvet glove
We are sheltered under the gun
The killer app for this generation was, of course, 911:
Since that fateful day, Americans have been scared incessantly by those in power, who have dominated the airwaves to repeatedly suggest the impending threat of more terrorism.
Citing Glenn Greenwald: “Our very survival is at risk, we are told. We face an enemy unlike any we have seen before, more powerful than anything we have previously encountered…We have to invade and occupy Iraq because the terrorists will kill us all if we do not.”
Greenwald goes on, but you get the point.
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves
Fear leads to enslavement, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fear always springs from ignorance.”
Cheney, when called to explain the government’s eavesdropping program in 2006, spent his time explaining the continuing risk:
“I think there will be another attack,” he said. “And the next time, I think it’s going to be far deadlier than the last one. Imagine what would happen if somebody could smuggle a nuclear device, put it on a shipping container, and drive it down the beltway outside Washington, D.C.”
A scary proposition, however I must invoke my Miranda Rights and not make any comment regarding this possibility. But I can imagine!
You’ll note, of course, that he did not respond to the criticisms against the eavesdropping program, nor did he provide any rational basis for its use. All he did was play on the fears of Americans to justify the violation of the law.
We’ve got nothing to fear…but fear itself?
Not the faulty units in this mad machinery?
Speaking of faulty units, Condoleezza Rice was not one to be outdone, on the subject of invading Iraq in 2003:
“There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [they] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
The righteous rise
With burning eyes
Of hatred and ill-will
Madmen fed on fear and lies
To beat and burn and kill
George Bush added his weight to the message:
“What this government has done is to take steps necessary to protect you and your family… We’re at war. This is people that want to come and kill your families… This isn’t make-believe.”
Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…
Virtually none of this fear is based on personal experience:
Christopher Guzelian, a legal theorist, posits that politicians are so successful in their use of fear because of “risk information (whether correct or false) that is communicated to society.” In other words, we fear the hobgoblin we can’t see solely on the basis that we’re told he exists and is coming after us. Guzelian concludes that it is “risk communication, not personal experience, [that] causes most fear these days.”
Often, it is not that we are sold a lie; it is that we are not told the truth:
Aldous Huxley, a writer best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World, once wrote that “The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.” Ignorance, then, is fear’s greatest catalyst; politicians prefer a blindfolded people who can neither see nor respond to what’s actually around them.
Coiled for the spring
Or caught like a creature in the headlights
Into a desperate panic
Or a tempest of blind fury
One can consider this constant fear-mongering a form of terrorism:
It would be more accurate to say that terrorism includes not only the use of violence to instill fear in people, but also the reference to threats of potential violent acts.
Maybe the politicians are right – the people of the United States have reason to be fearful of a terrorist attack every day, brought to you by CNN and MSNBC (and Fox and CNBC and the NY Times)!
Fear is a tool of control, according to one of the more popular pioneers of propaganda, Edward Bernays – who called his work “engineering consent”:
“Is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”
If Bernays, confidant of Woodrow Wilson, felt somehow limited, I don’t know what more he might have wanted to gain than throwing the United States into the Great War.
We are not created to cower; instead we are called to live:
“A ship in harbor is safe,” wrote the American author John Shed, “but that is not what ships are built for.”
Where is the context to these supposed risks? Boyack, citing a political commentator for the National Review who identifies the risk to each American if we had a 911-level attack, with 3,000 deaths, every year: “Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year.” Those who beg to be kept safe from such miniscule, if not non-existent, threats are “weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city.”
In 2011, 17 US citizens were killed worldwide as a result of terrorism, this compared to 4600 who were killed while working at their jobs, 6000 who died by falling down, 7600 from HIV, over 32,000 from motor vehicle accidents, 80,000 from excessive use of alcohol, hundreds of thousands from complications due to obesity, and an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 who die due to avoidable medical errors.
According to the National Counterterrorism Center in a 2011 Report on Terrorism:
Americans are statistically just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by a terrorist.
Blood running cold
Mind going down into a dark night
Of a desperate panic
Or a tempest of blind fury
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, but the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
Yet, it is from a children’s tale that one can learn the true nature of the monster on the other side of the hill.
And the knowledge that they fear is a weapon to be used against them…
We are constantly hammered with the false tradeoff: the need to balance freedom against security. Roderick Long addresses this quite succinctly:
In the wake of the recent NSA revelations, there’s increased talk about the need to “balance” freedom against security. I even see people recycling Larry Niven’s law that freedom + security = a constant.
Nonsense. What we want is not to be attacked or coercively interfered with – by anyone, be they our own government, other nations’ governments, or private actors. Would you call that freedom? or would you call it security?
You can’t trade off freedom against security because they’re exactly the same thing.
What does Boyack suggest is to be done about this? Focus on yourself:
1) Develop a healthy skepticism of those in power.
2) Extend trust cautiously, only to those who have proven themselves worthy of it.
3) Consume a large amount of information.
4) Tell others.
5) Internalize the golden rule (although I prefer the silver rule).
I’m not giving in to security under pressure
I’m not missing out on the promise of adventure
“We need not be ignorant of real threats to our safety,” wrote former Congressman Ron Paul, “against which we must remain vigilant. We need only to banish to the ash heap of history the notion that we ought to be ruled by our fears and those who use them to enhance their own power.”
Roosevelt was right – not entirely, as he was speaking of the fear of even more government interventions; behind his words were a desire for even more aggressive government action.
Applied to each of us as individuals, however, Roosevelt never spoke truer words.