Monday, October 05, 2009

The landscape of fear

Lions . . . and tigers . . . and Republican politicians?

In last week’s NYT, in Olivia Judson’s piece Where Tasty Morsels Fear to Tread, she describes how predators control, or at least influence, every aspect of the behavior - and even the thought processes – of their prey species. Spot especially liked Judson’s turn of the phrase “the landscape of fear”:

It’s not just that they kill. They also change what their potential victims get up [in the morning] to. In short, they create a landscape of fear.

Judson also observes this about prey species:

However, the landscape of fear not only changes what animals do. It also changes where they go. Vervet monkeys — small African monkeys — will, if they're not careful, find themselves being caught and feasted on by any of several predators, including baboons, leopards and eagles. Thus, the monkeys tend to stay away from places where baboons or leopards are known to dwell, even if there's good food there. (Eagles don't affect the monkeys' whereabouts, probably because they don't live locally, but rather, fly in from afar.) Indeed, one recent study found that the risk of meeting a baboon or a leopard is more important than food in determining where the monkeys hang out.

Now, if the vervet monkeys don’t sound a little like the Republican faithful to you, boys and girls, you just aren’t paying attention.

Jeepers, Spot, that’s not very nice.

No insult intended, grasshopper; just noting a comparison of fear states. As with all generalizations, that one is not universally true, but fear is the most important implement in the conservative political toolbox. Here’s John Cory in Truthout:

Everything old is new again.

It may be 2009 but the rhetoric is strictly 1950 when a man held up a sheet of paper and declared, "I have here in my hand a list of names ..."

Glenn Beck is not original, nor was Joe McCarthy. The "red scare" of McCarthyism was merely the recycled red scare of the 1920's, when Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and his right-hand assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, conducted warrantless raids on union halls and labor organizations deemed socialists or communists for their suspected anti-American, anti-corporate beliefs.

Each time the "red scare" gets trotted out, new laws are passed that ever so gently and ever so patriotically encroach on the integrity of freedom and individual liberties of our citizens. They bear great names like the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Espionage Act, loyalty oaths and investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Patriot Act. Each labels "the enemies of the state" and warns that our government, our very way of life, is in jeopardy of utter collapse unless we act immediately and act strongly against the influences of liberalism corrupting the very fabric of American life. The Constitution is hanging by a thread.

Here’s a little more from the same op-ed piece:

Where Franklin Roosevelt took America into his confidence and told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, the GOP whispers in the dark, "Be very afraid."

Where JFK inspired us to ask what we could do for America, the GOP warns us that government must be feared.

Where Edward R. Murrow exhorted us to not walk in fear of one another, the GOP promotes suspicion.

Where Dr. King gave us a dream of diversity, the GOP rips us apart with fear of equal belonging.

Everything old is new again.

The GOP clutches fear in its tiny fists because it is all it has. It is the touchstone. It is not even original. Darkness never is.

What gave these articles resonance for Spot are words from a new book he read recently:

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death offers one explanation for the popular appeal of [John] Hagee and [Tim] LaHaye’s apocalypticism. Published in 1970 and heavily influenced by the work of Erich Fromm, whom Becker credited with offering “the authentic line of cumulative critical thought on the human condition,” Denial is premised on Becker’s theory that the fear of death is the greatest source of human anxiety. To transcend the terror of mortality, people may seek to follow great leaders or dissolve themselves into causes greater than themselves, especially those that literally promise the heavens. As Becker wrote, “The more you fear death and the emptier you are, the more you people your world with omnipotent father-figures, extra-magical helpers.” When fearful converts become convinced that outside forces threaten their new cultural sanctuary or its leader, they react with belligerent rage. This symbiosis of submissive and aggressive behavior, first identified by Fromm as the “sadomasochistic trend,” is the hallmark of certain right-wing cults.

Blumenthal, Max, Republican Gomorrah (Nation Books 2009), pp. 268-9.

A group of psychologists tested and confirmed Becker’s theory:

After studying Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszcynski’s experiments, journalist John Judis of The New Republic concluded that the surprising breadth of Republican success during the Bush era could be attributed to a single tactic: mortality reminders. “Mortality reminders not only enhanced the appeal of Bush’s political style,” Judis wrote, “but also deepened and broadened the appeal of the conservative social positions that Republicans had been running on.”

Ibid. pp. 269-70.

frightened_eyes The tactic is not to scare people to death, but rather to scare them of death; it works surprising well and for a range of control purposes in both political and religious settings, and it is especially effective when the settings are combined. You see it in evangelical Christianity, radical Islam, and Messianic Judaism as well.

It was an explicit mortality reminder when then Vice President Dick Cheney said that terrorism was an “existential threat” to the United States. He could have gotten a better response in his target audience had he chosen a word that would more likely have been understood than “existential,” but the concept was text book.

Visons of lakes of fire and bodies exploding during the tribulation are enormously satisfying to evangelicals, justifying their own faith and providing a deliciously grusome dénouement for the Other.

The people with whom these arguments have traction represent the Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Steve King wing of the party, and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are their agitators. Sadly, for the Republican Party, they’re about all that’s left.

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