Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Political fear redux

I'm going to do something I've never done before and repost an earlier post. I've seen a number of recent posts on other blogs about fear. This one comes from back in September 2005, a few months after this blog started. One often gives up on or moves past earlier ideas or thoughts, but I stand by this one because it combines two basic characteristics of human nature: finding flatulence to be funny, and finding fear to be, well, scary.

Political Fear

A few years ago and for two years, I was living in DC (as I am now), but commuting to work at New York University (a few days in DC, a few days in NYC). Those were the days of the constant red-alert, orange-alert, Ernie-and-Bert terror warnings from Homeland Security. Absolutely no one I knew believed the alerts were anything other than fear-mongering. We see now that the colors corresponded nearly precisely to the political polling vicissitudes of the administration. Sick people, these fear-mongerers, except that no one believed them. Maybe in the hinterlands, trained in the mushroom clouds of the Cold War 1950s, people went to the basement with a month’s supply of canned baked-beans, but in DC and NYC people did whatever they were going to do anyway regardless of the color code of the day. Go to work, buy a book, sit in a cafe and chat, play violin in the subway.

So, I thought at the time it might be interesting to write a book on the political use of fear and I started to do a bit of research on it. I gave up on the project when I discovered there was already a book on the market on a similar topic (I only read bits and pieces of it for my own purposes of comparison with my own idea and I can’t remember the title — but it was enough to give up on the book idea).

I didn’t want to do a psychoanalytical approach to fear or a study of phobias, but a work on political fear, its uses and abuses. I was convinced as I still am that this administration is expert in frightening and manipulating its citizenry into agreeing with its will without then having to provide an honest explanation for its misadventures. So I saw the project as part political theory and part critique of contemporary politics.

As many researchers do before setting out on a new project of this sort, especially those trained in philosophy, I first cracked open Aristotle. This is what I first learned from Aristotle: "those who are frightened fart." (Problems, Book XXVII.9, 948b26). I’ll let you fill in the jokes, but I imagine Homeland Security to have some serious sewage backups.

Now I love that line of Aristotle, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I looked a bit further at Aristotle. "Anything causes us to feel fear that when it happens to, or threatens, others causes us to feel pity." (Rhetoric, II, 1382b27).

Is this true? This seems like a great theoretical leap from flatulence to moral imagination. We don’t wish others to pity us because we see ourselves in the mirror of those whom we pity? The poor and downtrodden, the strivers who fail miserably, constantly, those who may merit but never receive recognition, the failure, oh, the failure.... Pity is not, then, a form of empathy as we so commonly like to flatter ourselves it is. It is the inverse, a secret smile or smirk at the problems of others. If it is pity that we fear, we do so because it is shameful to our own self-image, to our self-esteem or sense of dignity. Shamefulness is a synonym that completes the circle. We fear pity upon ourselves. But then, rational beings as we are, we also fear the conditions that cause pity. Modernize a moment and then ask why is the most seemingly fearful society the one with the least material worries?

The conditions that cause pity evolve over time as more numbers of people gain the material aspects whose lack causes one type of pity. Pity moves from fearful mockery at lack of material well-being to lack of the ever-reproducing minutiae — the I-Pods and BMWs — of material well-off-ness.

Aristotle also says we don’t fear things that are distant. That seems obviously correct but it providdes us with a clue to our flatulence: we’ve heard quite a bit about mushroom clouds originating in a burned-out, bombed-out and obviously incapacitated land in which we carry out the violent reactions of our fears. And starving people eat grass in Afghanistan, yet we fear them. We fear the situation of not having things others have, but have everything at the same time it seems. Yet, others pity, others who live better, and they are near. Fear (and resentment) is constant comparison. Sartre said, all-so-famously, that hell is others. Fear is others, is perhaps more accurate.

But the genius of political fear is in rendering distant normally unfeared and even unknown things near. Saddam at our doorstep. Iran at our doorstep. Chavez’s socialism at our doorstep and the necessity of his assassination for the highly particularistic televised Christian good of neighborly nearness (and, thank the Lord, abated flatulence). The Mexican mafia or just darker people. Muslims in our midst. Canadian pharmaceuticals. The UN and global governance. Liberals. The gun culture of the US is a result of fear (do they fart more than the average non- gun-owning person? Do they fart when they shoot?). And, yes, the xenophobia of our own "tired and hungry," "welcoming the multitudes" culture.

The regime of fear now extends to the trumping of civil liberties. Why not? When our fear is great enough, we will cause all sorts of havoc to protect against the agents of fart-inducement. US fear is fear of ruined corporate businesses, ruined political power, of competing political and economic powers, of competing opiates of the masses and competing skin colors. And perhaps most commonly it the fear of what one of the greatest and most American of thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, utterly rejoiced in as the effort "to draw new circles," "to forget ourselves," "to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something new without knowing how or why." (Emerson, "Circles"). Such beauty in Emerson, so forgotten for our culture, and so vulgar and utterly embarrassing of me to translate — "be free of Zantac."

Fear can be a genuine response to survival. But fear is also a kind of insanity in which we create a world in response to perceived threats that we otherwise would never imagine wanting to live under. A world reshaped in which lives are increasingly and more persistently reminded of an increasingly vague threat based on increasingly benign features of others (skin, ethnicity, etc.).

Aristotle wondered, "Why do states honour courage more than anything else, though it is not the highest of the excellences? Is it because they are continually either making war or having war made against them, and courage is most useful in both these circumstances? They, therefore, honour not that which is best, but that which is best for themselves." (Problems, XXVII.5, 948a31-4). The state of fear as a political device. A fearful populace believes anything its leaders desire it to believe. Fear is an earner of great benefits for those who instigate, propagate, inflate fear.

Oh, poor Aristotle, it has come to this.... The Bush Administration is the first in which the defining motto is, yes, "freed’m," (and "s’curity"), but a certain kind of ringing freedom: "Let the people fart." Aren't we ourselves the source of the mushroom cloud?

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