Fears ‘R us. It makes us easy to rule.

Summary: Look at the hot debates about US public policy and you’ll see most rely on exaggerated threats. Fear has become the primary tool of political advocacy in America. It makes us stupid and easy to rule. We can do better. Understanding this weakness is a first step.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Good advice from Jesus in Matthew 10:16.

Moravian Seal
Doesn’t work well in this world. Moravian Seal, at Rights Chapel at Trinity Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, NC.

Panics are us. At some point in the 1980s our usual rhythm of rare panics and frequent urban legends became a drumbeat of nation-shaking panic attacks. Our reactions to our fears become a barrier to rationally dealing with our problems (worse, sometimes there is no problem, so resources are burnt for nothing). Our easily aroused and disproportionate fears make us easy to rule.

The risk of epidemics became grossly exaggerated. AIDS an existential threat to entire nations (perhaps even humanity). Routine flu epidemics (e.g., swine flu in 2009) into panic mode. A few cases of Ebola sent a nation of 300 million into hysterics.

Both Left and Right have seen our weakness and seek to exploit it. The Left uses scares about chemicals (Alar in 1989,) and climate catastrophe — about scenarios both sooner and more severe than anything considered likely by the IPCC (e.g., methane doom; see the good news). The Right deploys equally fake scares about rising crime, increased Black Mob Violence, and exaggerations about foreign foes.

Our Defense and Homeland Security Departments, and the massive private sector bureaucracies feeding off them, rest on a foundation of exaggerated threats. Fear is their business.


The lion and the sheep.
What happens next is not pretty.

Some subjects are primal and provide especially good fuel for fear-mongers. Such as children, the subject (or more often the “poster children”) for our panics. Sometimes the fears concern imaginary problems, such as the mania about Satanic ritual abuse of children , day-care sexual abuse mania, and recovered memories scam, which sent so many innocent people to jail (and propelled Janet Reno to become Clinton’s attorney general). Sometimes they were exaggerations of real problems, such as the late 1980’s child abduction scare, with “hundreds of thousands” or even “two million” children stolen each year (hence their faces on milk cartons).

More recently, fears about rampant sex on campuses started on the Right (“Sex, Lies, and Moral Panics“, “Some Christian conservatives are comparing colleges to brothels. But don’t withdrawl {sic} your daughter quite yet, it might just be the latest example of a mass moral panic.”). The Left found a way to do so as well (“Moral Panics Won’t End Campus Rape“).

Fears past and present

Michael Krieger: “Is the American public actually the tough guy soldier it pretends to be when cheering overseas military interventions, or is it really a scared, propagandized, coward hiding in one of our nation’s endless cubicle rows?”

American has a long history of such panics. Years of carefully stoking public fears about white slavery (forced prostitution of white women) led to passage of the Mann Act in 1910, giving the Federal government a powerful tool for oppression (e.g., cross-racial liaisons, leftists). The Red Scares after WWI (leading to the Sedition Act of 1918 and State passing laws against criminal syndicalism (powerful limitations on free speech and association) — used in the Palmer Raids.  The 1950’s red scare had even larger effects.

Something changed in the past generation. The news has become almost a constant series of fear barrages. Large numbers of Americans respond to each, providing a platform for government action — actions often not in our interest. So fear has become the primary tools of advocacy by both Left and Right.

Perhaps more importantly, this drumbeat of fear keeps us in a frenzy — unable to clearly see the world, let alone organize to respond to its changes.

We have become easy to manipulate. It makes us easy to rule. But we can change. We were once braver, skeptical of what we were told. We can become so again. It starts with you.

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

— John Adams’ “Thoughts on Government” (April 1776).

For More Information

Some fun, scary histories of moral panic:”The 6 Most Insane Moral Panics in American History“, and “From Rainbow Parties to Butt-Chugging: A Timeline of Moral Panics in the Last Decade“.

See all posts about our out-of-control fears. Here are some of special interest (not including the scores of posts about catastrophe-fear-mongering by the Left):

  1. Well-funded organizations inciting us to hate & fear, again. How gullible are we?
  2. Why are we so fearful? Have we become cowards?
  3. The news as a series of hysteric fits by America. Why? How can we get a grip on ourselves?
  4. Since 9-11 we have less crime but more fear of crime. A win-win for our rulers!
  5. The origin of fears on the Right: Read like a conservative to see the world in a new way!The NRA feeds our fears, the fast track to political power in America. and Stories about a rising tide of black mob violence!
  6. Another fear barrage hits America: thermite is bad for airplanes!

8 thoughts on “Fears ‘R us. It makes us easy to rule.”

  1. We are wired to be fearful. As someone else said, anyone who wasn’t primarily fearful 20,000 years ago did not become our ancestors.

    Our two primary fears are personal safety and need to be accepted by a tribe/group in society (which was the primary basis for our ancestor’s personal safety.)

    Leveraging that wiring is the easiest and most effective marketing there is. (You think people get elected these days on appealing to higher values?)

    Look at any advertisement today for any product, the underlying message is either, ‘You are at a safety risk.” or “You will be out of the group if you don’t buy our product.”

    Companies, the Pentagon, Congressmen, Hospitals, News organizations, everyone is “selling” all the time now and they have all gotten very good, from years of sophisticated, dedicated practice, at exploiting our most primary base reactions.

    Some can say that we have gone “lower”, to a more in-human level of discourse, but I think it is really just a natural progression in getting better at exploitation and knowing where the most productive leverage is. People have been working on this “problem” (how to extract the most possible) for a long time and have gotten very good at it.

  2. Dramatically aggravating this situation is that we are now constantly bombarded by so much noise that our brains don’t have the capacity to think through all the messages we are getting. So we naturally make short cuts in our thinking. Again, those shortcuts are based on fear/survival and don’t come close to be considered reasoning.

    Nuanced messages don’t get through like they did in a less noisy time 50, 100, 200 years ago. People then had time to stop and think. We don’t now. The advertising machines and our technological, always-connected-to-the-next-message-before-thinking-through-the-last-one are a potent combination.

  3. If you think exploitation is an American phenomenon, spend some time in another country. We here just play the war game better so no one else would do that, but they all have their own specialties.

    1. Cadez,

      International comparisons are difficult, but visitors often mention to me how our newspapers are dominated by stories about our fears to a far greater extent than back home.

      Its annec-data.

      I read the UK press — The Guardian, plus looks at the Telegraph. They all have their favorite fear campaigns, but serve a far more varied diet of news than US papers, which feature a main course of fear almost every day. Often quite deranged fears.

      1. I hear you. The problem is that it is so easy to get bogged down in details which are usually cherry-picked and can be refuted with other cherry-picked details. For example, it isn’t very productive to debate specifics on things like the geo- or era-specifics of a universal issue like slavery via a comments section with someone who doesn’t have a grasp of that phenomenon’s extent in global history. But that is just me, I’m interested in the broader, fundamental drivers that explain the situation we are in today (which I can’t think is at all good, nor easily corrected).

        Thanks again for your efforts.

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