Reflections on the Functions of Mass Panic
Laura Bush wants everyone to just relax; and more to the point, she wants the media to aid in the process of nerve-calming by restraining themselves from what she sees as a growing tendency to scare the public with stories of impending cataclysm.
From repetitive coverage of the “orange alert” announced by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, to the airing of extended sections of Osama bin Laden’s latest anti-love letter, the First Lady worries that the children might become overanxious. After all, it’s difficult to explain to nine-year olds why their parents are running around the house, covering doors with plastic and sealing off windows with duct tape.
As Lady Bush explained to an audience in New York recently, “it’s a bit like crying wolf…you know it hasn’t happened yet.”
Quite so, though such a statement begs the obvious if impolite question: namely, who does she think has been feeding information to the press in the first place? Who said we have to launch a “preventative war” with Iraq because to wait might result in “mushroom clouds” over America?
Simply put, were it not for Laura Bush’s husband and his henchmen raising the red flag every time bin Laden farts there would be no news to exaggerate. 24-hour news cycles are a lot easier to fill when you’re getting faxes every half-hour from the Pentagon proclaiming “new evidence” of Saddam Hussein’s bad faith, provided by sources you can’t name, but that the American public should nonetheless trust, or so we’re told.
Perhaps the first maven of literacy–who has apparently forgotten the maxim that “charity begins at home”–should worry less about the media and a bit more about an Office of Homeland Security that puts out warnings based on tips from folks who weren’t even given a polygraph for two weeks, and when they were, failed it. And just how much is this cracker-jack unit costing us again?
Fear isn’t something created by the media, so much as by the political leaders they cover. It is politicians whose stock in trade is conjuring up insecurity among the public; after all, what better way to convince them to support civil liberties restrictions like those in the Patriot Act; what better way to convince them to support a war that might kill–according to UN estimates–a half-million Iraqis?
Most Americans are decent people who don’t relish the thought of such bloodshed. But if told that it’s “them or us,” even the most magnanimous soul can be turned into a reactionary automaton who will countenance mass murder.
Fear is functional. It serves the interests not only of the media, which can pull larger ratings in the face of crisis, but also the interests of elected officials who need public panic to justify their policies.
Indeed, without the fear being generated by this Administration, Laura Bush would be looking at a guaranteed change of residence in two years, seeing as how the economy is in the crapper and her hubby’s plan to rescue it can’t even get the support of a conservative economist like Alan Greenspan. Far from criticizing media scare coverage, she should be welcoming it as the only thing keeping her from those hot Texas summers on the Crawford Ranch.
Fear always serves the interests of elites. Throughout history they have sought to identify dangers from which they insist their subjects must be protected: witches, Jewish financiers, Papists, freemasons, Indians, immigrants, atheists, communists, drug dealers, rebellious slaves, the Mafia, the Black Panthers, jazz, rock and roll and now rap music, the “homosexual lifestyle,” satanic ritual abuse, day care operators who molest children, and now Muslim terrorists.
And in each case, the generation of fear and insecurity does at least two things.
First, it enhances the power of elites by convincing the people to keep them in office. After all, candidates rarely tell the voters all the positive things they hope to do; rather, they focus on how they intend to “protect us” from crime, the “death tax,” their opponents who seek to raid the social security trust fund, the scourge of drugs, or madmen like Saddam Hussein.
Fear sells, and it gets people elected.
Secondly, fear sows mistrust in the population, which reduces the people’s ability to come together for constructive social change; it hampers solidarity in other words. If the public is being encouraged to wonder if their neighbors are commies, sex offenders, sniper wanna-be’s or members of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, then what’s the likelihood that they’ll seek to forge relationships with others, especially strangers?
And what will the lack of community cohesion mean in terms of the public’s ability to confront serious social problems, from crumbling schools, to environmental pollution, to inadequate health care?
When whites flee the cities for “nice, safe” places in the ‘burbs, because they’ve been convinced that their lives are endangered not from other white folks like their bomb-building, drunk driving kids, but rather by black and brown folks in the ‘hood, what are the chances of whites and blacks getting together to deal with their often common economic interests?
Historically we have seen this dozens of times. Consider those labor unions that perpetuated racism and were encouraged to do so by employers who used people of color to break the strikes of white workers. By sowing suspicion of the “outsiders,” elites could divide people with common interests, prevent them from acting in solidarity, and boost their own position as a result.
Likewise, slave owners in the South, who convinced poor whites to fight and perhaps die in a war that, by their own admission, was about protecting the property interests of the elite. And how did they do it? By scaring the masses about what would happen if blacks were free: they would take white jobs, rape white women, and overturn “our way of life.”
Or during the Cold War, during which time we were told that we had to stop the Soviets from making inroads into “our backyard” by invading such imminent threats as Grenada. The perceived threat of communism was used to boost the careers of political elites and justify massive military spending, which in turn was good for economic elites.
In short, fear and insecurity increases the power of the state, encouraging us to trust so-called experts, who we’re told have the specialized knowledge to protect us from the myriad dangers out there. They encourage us to mistrust our own judgment, suspect others of wrongdoing, and become less involved in political life.
When one is afraid, after all, one tends to withdraw, become overwhelmed, and look for safety in the quickest manner possible, which in this case means trusting others who promise to make us safe, even if it means relinquishing certain freedoms and moving further to the authoritarian right of the political spectrum. A population is best controlled when it’s afraid.
Not only controlled, but diverted. If one is worried about Saddam, or Quadaffi, or Khomeini, or Noriega, or Breshnev, or Kruschev, or Castro, then one isn’t likely to pay as much attention to the actions of Enron, or WorldCom or Halliburton or any of a number of more localized dangers to our well-being. Suddenly, forty million people without health care or in poverty are off the front page, and rising unemployment becomes a footnote.
If the public is afraid of becoming another homicide statistic–and indeed about 15,000 people are murdered annually–then they won’t likely notice the 60,000 or more who die every year because of workplace illness, disease or accidents that could have been prevented had corporations not cut corners on workplace safety standards or environmental protection.
If white parents are afraid of affirmative action and feel threatened by so-called racial preferences in places like California, they will go to the polls to ban such policies, while overlooking the erosion of state support for higher education generally, and the fact that in the last twenty years California only built one new four-year campus, while they built more than twenty prisons.
Had the ratio been reversed, all college-eligible kids in the state would have had a good school to attend and affirmative action would have been largely irrelevant. But rather than take action on that simple truth, they turned on their neighbors and fought over the scraps of a pie that none of them owned to begin with.
With the fear of terrorism and Saddam, the gambit is working. Every place I travel I see letters in local papers calling on Americans to “give up some freedoms,” for the sake of security: more camera surveillance, e-mail snooping, infiltration of organizations and mosques, or closing the borders and deporting immigrants.
I hear folks on talk radio saying we should go to war, even if the purpose is to maintain dominance over oil, since “our way of life” depends on the substance. Ironically, these admonitions are often followed by claims that the letter-writer or caller “refuses to live in fear,” because doing so would allow the terrorists to win. This, despite the fact that fear is exactly the condition under which they live, perpetually it seems. It is the fuel that fires their votes, consumer purchases, travel decisions–all of it.
And to help throw more fuel on that fire, we now have a CIA report that claims the odds of Saddam launching an attack on the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction are 59% before the end of March, and that there is only a 6% chance that he will never use such weapons against us. Of course the media reported this announcement, despite the fact that it has all the methodological soundness of a Tarot reading by Miss Clio.
But is the panic generated by such a “revelation” the fault of George Stephanopolous, who asked Tom Ridge about it on national TV, or is it the fault of the CIA itself, which puts out prognostications made up of whole cloth, knowing full well that much of the public will buy what it’s selling? The answers are self-evident.
At the end of the day, when Laura Bush blames the media for stoking public anxiety, I would guess that there is a 91.3% chance that the Lady doth protest too much, and only an 8.7% chance that she really believes what she’s saying. After all, it is 100% certain that fear is what pays her house note.
Tim Wise is an essayist, antiracism activist and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org