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Nothing to fear but the politicians who are using fear

by Montini Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 at 1:09 PM

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

Halloween came early this year. Scary signs have sprung up on street corners all over the Valley. They're attached to fences and planted in empty lots. They're on street corners and in front yards everywhere, placed there by political ghosts and goblins trying to frighten you into voting for them. There are even TV commercials. The message (sometimes hidden or implied) is almost always the same: Be afraid. Be very afraid . . . and vote for me.

"There's no doubt that politicians are finding it very effective to promote fear in order to further a political and/or military agenda," said David L. Altheide, a regents professor at Arizona State University and the author of a book called Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.

"As a tool for social control, fear works very well. Over the past few years, look at all we've given up in terms of surveillance and individual rights when it comes to things like bank records or phone calls. And look at how those who challenge fear tactics are demonized. Fearful people do what you want."

It seems quaint, these days, but there was a time when American politicians actually encouraged people to be brave.

Remember from history class what President Franklin Roosevelt said about the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

Not anymore.

Now, we have plenty of things to fear, about which politicians constantly remind us.

There are the terrorists, of course. We must be very afraid of them. But that's far from it. We also are encouraged to fear the impoverished Mexicans who cross our border. And the gay men and women who want to honor their commitment to one another with marriage.

We are told to be afraid of liberals who don't want to "stay the course" and to be afraid of neoconservatives who do.

And, of course, we should be afraid of the media. Unless it happens to be a media outlet with which you already agree.

"One of the things I've tried to do in my work is to explore how this tactic and this attitude begins to affect everyday life," Altheide said. "We alter our expectations. Our baselines change. Control efforts are really rituals. Social psychologists call them 'degradation rituals.' It has an effect in the short term. But over time it can be like the boy who cried wolf. It can get you into trouble when you really need people to cooperate."

For now, however, our elected officials would be most happy to have you cooperate by voting for them.

Those looking to get re-elected suggest that we need to be afraid of what an opponent may do. Those looking to oust incumbents suggest that we need to be afraid of what they've already done.

"We're in danger now of fear becoming institutionalized," Altheide said.

That prospect doesn't scare me. For one thing, I'm not afraid of people with whom I don't share a skin color, religion or sexual orientation. And I'm not afraid of people or politicians with whom I disagree.

I'm not afraid of big business or big labor, of environmental activists or oil companies. I'm not frightened by the National Rifle Association, the National Organization for Women, the ACLU or the CIA.

And I'm not afraid of the politicians who try to frighten us into voting for them because it seems obvious to me that keeping us safe runs a distant second to keeping their jobs.

As Professor Altheide points out, however, fear works as a political strategy. Voters fall for it. Now, that scares me.

Reach Montini at (602) 444-8978 or Read his blog at

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interesting analysis Sheepdog Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 at 1:56 PM

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