Politics of Fear

But administration allies were striking the theme just the same. Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, warned that if no action was taken, “the disaster could be on our doorstep.”

Fear.  The physical reactions to fear are familiar to most people.  First you sweat, your mouth gets dry, and your heart rate increases.   Adrenaline hits, and it feels like the first time cigarette smoke hits your lungs after three days of not smoking, your body feels fuzzy and hyper aware.

It’s not overly difficult to conceptualize the necessity of these biological reactions.  Sure, having sweaty armpits may not be particularly helpful in today’s modern society, but in the primitive conditions in which these biological functions were evolved, it makes sense, all a part of the fight or flight response that your body prepares itself for in the face of certain danger.

You sweat in order to preemptively get your cooling system going, heart rate increases to increase oxygen flow to muscles, adrenaline improves reaction time, short term bursts of strength, and speed.  Very handy for when you’re being chased by a cheetah, but not so much handy when heading into the voting booth.

The effects of fear are not solely physical, of course.  Seeing as how the emotion is hardwired into your brain, it’s only fitting that much of the effect is mental as well as physical.  As explained in Assault On Reason, by Al Gore, certain images and movements bypass that part of your brain that focuses on reason, striking directly into parts of the brain that trigger more primal responses.

Again, this makes sense, it’s like a safety bypass on the brain.  Decisions based on emotion and not reason are quicker, or as the analogy in the book puts it, those cavement that didn’t look when the leaves moved “are not our ancestors”.

When a predator is bearing down on you, you don’t have the time to think out a reasoned response, so you react.

Further, as I have oft explained in the past, fear has the tendancy to trigger what is referred to as Terror Management Theory.  In a way it’s like projecting your own mortality and fears and defense mechanisms onto a broader macroscopic social scale.  You are now worried about protecting not just your own life but your culture, your society.

It’s almost as though, upon realizing you will die, you at least want to make sure that your way of life will continue on after your death.  While this may all sound well and good, this does not, however, have a net benefit effect; TMT dictates that we grow an affinity for those who are not necessarily problem solvers, but instead we attach ourselves to those whose very presence reestablishes our world view.

In other words, in the moment of truth as a society, if we are scared enough, we choose a symbol as opposed to an effective tool.

Which brings us to where we are today.  Bush may be a tool, but he’s not an effective one, as all except a very small minority will attest, which brings me to the crux of the matter.

Rudy Giuliani said if a Democrat is elected president in 2008, America will be at risk for another terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001.

Simply put, fear makes us stupid.  That’s to say, fear essentially bypasses reason based on an in the wild scenario where you only have time to act, or you end up being the dinner for some wild fanged beast.

But there are two things that must be understood before moving on.  For one, today’s society is not, for the most part, this in the wild scenario.  In truth, many of our fear responses are unnecessary, especially when put into the context of many things that actually instill fear in us today.

An adrenaline boost is, for the most part, highly unnecessary when making a large presentation to a room of investors, and as any teenage boy will eagerly tell you, the massive sweating that occurs as a result of fear is a blatant deterrent when trying to ask a girl out to the dance.

The second thing that must be understood was that it was not these fear responses that have allowed us to advance to where we are today as a species.  Fear did not put us here, reason did. 

We are, compared to most predators and even most prey, pretty pathetic.  With absolutely no tools we are slow, comparably weak, and woefully unprotected from both the elements and from attack.  Living as strict animals in most habitats, without the ability think we would most likely die out.

It is our brains and the special ways in which we can use them that has given us the edge.  Our ability to react is poor, but our ability to predict far outstrips that of any predator or pray in the wild.  Other animals set traps, but these traps are based on instinct, and are hard coded into the animal’s construct, for instance, like a spider’s web.

We, on the other hand, innovate contrary to our instinctual tendancies.  It’s not hardcoded into our heads to construct a web, and indeed, if we were to try to do so as the spider does, it wouldn’t work, and would smell very bad, but by manipulating vines or treebark, we are able to construct our own little webs, or nets, which we could use to great effect.

This is learned behavior, and our capacity for learned behavior is what puts us on top of the evolutionary ladder.

Still, that doesn’t prevent politicians from appealing to the instinctual side of our nature.  We are, after all, still animals, and it will be many thousands of years before our instincts are evolved into a more minor role in our psychological and physiological make up:

As I said earlier, fear makes us stupid.  It seeks for us to take not the most reasoned path, just the quickest path to some outcome; it’s better to do something than not at all.

But our world is far too complex for that kind of behavior.  The problems we face today require logically thought out strategies based on the best empirical data available.  The unique challenges that face us, even the most primally terrifying ones like terrorism, are best solved not by knee jerk reactions but by innovation.

The storyline fed to us primarily by Republicans is that there are terrorists in the world, they want to kill us, and so we must take military action in order to prevent them.  There is a very simple process.  There are aggressors, we must attack.  The narrative doesn’t even get particularly specific on either point, nor does it need one.

In employing TMT, the necessity of the aggressors serves two basic functions.  The first is that aggressors threaten our existence.  The second is that they, by contrasting with us, enhance our own cultural make up.  A clear boundary is drawn between us and them, and the “them” part of the equation is seeking to eradicate the “us” part.

As for attacking, that is the part that reinforces our world view.  As much as I hate to say it, we have to a degree become part of that industrial military complex.  Since at least World War II, and our victory in that war on two fronts,it has become ingrained in our culture the military might of the US.  When we picture ourselves on the world stage as a nation, we see tanks and bomber planes, and men in fatigues bravely storming a beach.

Our nation’s military serves as a whole with valor and honor, and they represent in many ways the very best of us.  With the exception of our national attitude during and following the Vietnam War, we rightfully take pride in our military.

But in the role of the narrative constructed by those who have fallen into this politics of fear pattern, the military is little more than a rhetorical tool, a symbol.  They are our cultural avatar in the world, and when threatened, it is the usage of them against anyone outside of our specific sphere that reinforces the image of US that is necessitated by the threat of THEM.

In Des Moines, Cheney went beyond previous restraints to suggest that the country would be more vulnerable to attack under Kerry. “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again,” the vice president said, “that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we’ll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war.”

We know now that the politics of fear wins elections.  It breaks into submission legislative bodies and it turns normally intelligent people into unreasoning echo chambers.  What the politics of fear fails to do, however, is protect us.

In 2005, terror attacks increased worldwide by a factor of four.  In February of this year, a report hit the UK  proclaiming that terrorist threats were the worst since 9/11, months before a botched terror attempt hit.

And yes, al Qaeda’s still around, and apparently in America.

The question to be asking is why?

The answer is simple.  Because the politics of fear have been used to solidify the power base of those who seek not to act under a rationalized response to establish an effective anti-terrorism program, but instead a knee-jerk emotion-based response that is counter intuitive to how humans progress.  It’s as if the politics of fear has progressed from demagoguery to actual policy.  These people aren’t using it merely as a means of winning elections, they’re actually acting on it.

Which brings me back to our nature analogy.  While Bush and the rest of the neocons are content to show you the image of the wolves, what they neglect to do is fill in the rest of the narrative.  Yes, there are wolves at the door, and we are trying to take them out by punching them.

That’s not what we’re made for, and if we try and play that game, we will get ravaged without mercy.  Our ascension to the most evolved life form on this planet is in lock step with logic, reason, rationalization, and deduction.  We don’t outrun or out strong our prey, we out think it.

It’s time to stop the politics and policies of fear, and actually do what we do best.  We need to start out thinking our prey.  We need to realistically look at what empowers and enables terrorists.  We need to understand and undermine recruitment.  And we need to realistically analyze how terrorists are provoked, and come to an accord on not compromising our own American way, while at the same time avoiding provocation.

But the important thing right now, is we need to cut the bullshit, quit treating terrorism like it’s a political football, and start treating Americans with some  modicum of intellectual respect.

After all, as President Roosevelt once said:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 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. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory

NOTE: Huge thanks to Cernig for linking in.

2 Responses to “Politics of Fear”

  1. I would boil this down to one sentence:

    I fear, therefore I am…voting Republican in ’08.

    Great post Kyle.

  2. I have submitted this to Digg and Reddit for you.


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