Scare tactics

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By Harry van Versendaal

Fear — whether it’s fear of darkness, mice, aliens, death or any other phobia — is at the core of the human condition, prompting us to do things, or not do things. It comes as no surprise that this powerful motivator has found use in politics, as an instrument to influence, and sometimes directly manipulate, public behavior. Governments have often stoked fear to scare people into embracing decisions and policies that they might otherwise reject – a habit that, Corey Robin suggests, is not exclusive to the Mubaraks and Gadhafis of this world.

Robin, a professor in political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has produced an elaborative analysis of fear, that stretches all the way from the ideas of Hobbes, Tocqueville or Arendt to a critical review of scare tactics in politics and the modern-day cubicle-bound world-space.

Oxford University Press aptly released “Fear: The History of a Political Idea” in the middle of the 2004 US presidential campaign – a period marked by accusations of extensive Republican scaremongering over Islamic terrorism and national security. The author of the daunting volume, which was recently made available in Greek by Alexandria press, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the shifting dynamics of fear as seen in the pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, about the global economic crisis, and what people can do to beat their most feared bogeymen.

Do recent pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and other countries in the region signify a shift in the balance of fear, meaning that the powerful are getting afraid of the less powerful; or could it be that people are becoming aware of their actual power and potential?

I hate to comment on something I only know about from the papers, but in most cases of popular uprising like this, there is very much a change in power relations, whereby the wielders of fear become terrified of the people they’ve been wielding fear over. In fact, they probably always were terrified — that’s why, in part, they wielded fear themselves. And they had reasons to be terrified: when you brutalize and oppress a people for so long, you can’t believe in any rational way that given the chance those people won’t strike back at you. So you double your efforts at coercion and repression. It’s a very old story. And on the side of the people, part of the way fear works is that it convinces you that you don’t have power — and in convincing you of that, you enhance the power of those who are wielding power (and fear) over you. Hobbes said “reputation of power, is power.” In other words, if you’re afraid of a government, and you withdraw or retreat from them, you help enhance their reputation for power — so much so that they don’t even have to do anything fearsome in order for you to be frightened. Your actions in other words have aggrandized their power. What happens in a revolutionary situation as in Egypt is that people come to realize this — and they see that if they no longer retreat but advance the power of the government begins to diminish.

Has the economic crisis brought about a paradigm shift in terms of fear in the West – away from the fear of terror and toward the fear of unemployment and financial insecurity?

That remains to be seen. It’s too early to tell. I’ve been arguing since 9/11 that there are deeper issues to be addressed beyond terrorism, with the economy being paramount. But just because there are issues that need to be addressed doesn’t guarantee that they’ll become the lead items of public debate and public policy. What we’ve seen so far with the financial crisis is that the very real fears people have of unemployment and the rest don’t necessarily translate into political action. And that’s because the politics of fear doesn’t track popular anxiety nearly as much as it tracks elite values and principles and interests. If political and economic elites don’t want to deal with this, the fact that ordinary men and women are afraid of it doesn’t really matter. Unless of course those ordinary men and women can force their way into the discussion.

You have said that collective action, such as the formation of trade unions, is the best form of defense against tactics of fear. In Greece, however, which is currently under economic supervision by the EU and the IMF, the country’s “pampered” unions are widely portrayed as one of the main obstacles to structural reforms needed to save it from bankruptcy.

I can’t really speak of the Greek situation, since I know almost nothing about it beyond what I read in the papers. I can tell you in that in the US, a similar argument is being made — that the unions are in fact the source of all of our problems — and it’s almost 100 percent false. The financial collapse was not brought about by unions. Government spending is not primarily driven by union wages. And, if anything, unions are the one thing that have prevented this disaster from being far worse than it might have been — they have pushed for extended unemployment benefits, more stimulus spending and the like.

Do you see the media playing a role in disseminating fear?

Their role primarily is to transmit elite — both government and non-government — perceptions of public life and, in the case of fear, to help determine what the primary objects of public fear will be (terrorism as opposed to economic insecurity, for example); how to understand those objects of fear (to see terrorism, for example, not through a political lens but through a cultural or psychological lens) and how to respond to those objects (through war and other so-called “strong” measures).

Can fear sometimes have a positive effect, like in helping keep a nation together or united behind a common purpose?

This idea — that fear can bind a nation with a common purpose — is one of the oldest ideas of modern political thought. It’s one of the ideas I really examine — and criticize — in my book. It arises precisely at that moment when modern thinkers and political actors no longer believe we have common purposes. So, the argument goes, in the absence of a common purpose, it will be fear of some terrible evil that will unite us. We don’t have a sense of the common good, in other words, but we do have a sense of a common bad. But what I say in the book is that that never works. If we are truly united behind the fear of some common bad, it’s not the fear that’s actually uniting us; it’s the vision of the common good that’s uniting us. So I think the notion that fear can have a positive effect along the lines of what you suggest is in fact an illusion.

What can we do to overcome fear?

I don’t know that we can. Fear reflects the very real fact that we are men and women who value certain things in life — not only life but the good things that life can bring — and that those things are not always secure, that they can be threatened. What we can do, however, is to see that political fear is not like my response to a lion that is about to attack me: that is, it’s not an unmediated biological uncontrollable response. It’s like everything in politics — it’s mediated by ideology and interests, by elite power and popular mobilization. We can, in other words, be smarter in how we think about fear — and thereby, I hope, less susceptible to its manipulations and effects.

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