Tuesday, March 30, 2004

"Of All Our Enemies, the Most Real and Dangerous is Fear Itself."

There is a good essay  in The American Prospect, by Jane Smiley and James Squires, publication date 4/1/2004.  Go ahead and read the entire thing if you want; I am just going to point a few excerpts to make a point.

Fear Factor
Our hype-driven culture thrives on confusing reality with fantasy and on making us afraid

[...] The 2004 election could be stolen, too, as many of the weaknesses in the 2000 balloting process have gone uncorrected and some reforms, such as touch-screen and other computer-based election machines, have been shown to be unreliable and easily manipulated. But the real threat is not that Democrats or Republicans will steal a critical state again, or that another president will be appointed by the Supreme Court; it is the possibility that fear is being replaced in the political process by fear-mongering, employed in the high-tech world of instant communications by the skilled and unscrupulous mind manipulators of today's advertising culture. And the integrity of our political process is evaporating as quickly as the moral principles that once set us apart and made us a model for great nations of the world.

[...] It took nearly half a century for entertainment and advertising to overwhelm the institution of the free press, which used to function as America's public voice. And it took about the same length of time for the press's successor in that role -- television -- to change the process by which the human brain makes decisions.

Recent scientific advances that allow the mapping of brain activity suggest that children who grow up watching television receive and process information differently and more rapidly than their parents who did not. Not unlike muscle development, brain development varies with use, so the more different parts the brain employs, the more efficient it becomes. As a result, the audio-visual communication of information is more efficient when employed by those who have grown up watching television. As more and more people have used audio-visual communication over the years, and as technological sophistication has increased, the structure of capitalism has also changed. When television became the marketplace, people began to gather in front of the screen, ready for their brains to be washed. And no institution in society keeps up with moving targets as well as the American marketing industry.

[...] All presidents spend their first terms running for re-election, but the Bush administration has relied on the principles of advertising unceasingly, almost without recourse to any other mode of communication. And so far that's been its crowning achievement.

[...] Repeated terrorist alerts, new assessments of reinvigorated bin Laden minions, and resumption of the culture war leave little time for dull, irrelevant economic and social truth. So the Republican strategists' idea of the perfect presidential debate would be an image face-off: a doctored photograph of the probable-Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, attending an anti-war rally with Jane Fonda, in contrast to two 15-second film clips of the wartime president, one with him in a flight jacket aboard an aircraft carrier and the other of him leading "NASCAR dads" in prayer at the Daytona 500. The Democratic strategist, of course, prefers another juxtaposition of images: that of young war hero Kerry in combat gear moving through a Vietnam jungle while, to the sound of car-bomb explosions, a smirking Bush challenges terrorists to "bring it on" in Baghdad.

Of course, none of these images approaches the whole truth, which remains as elusive in our system and among our leaders as nobility and statesmanship. But in election 2004, they might be the closest the democracy can come to substantive debate in our current climate of fear. And this is why, back in another time, when images were slower and truth easier to find, an unquestionably great wartime president warned us that of all our enemies, the most real and dangerous is fear itself.

The essay makes a number of points, and in the process, bashes politicians left and right.  The point I would like to emphasize is in their concluding paragraph: "of all our enemies, the most real and dangerous is fear itself."

Why is this so?  Because fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, has the potential to derail a logical thought process.  It is hard to think clearly when you are fearful.  People who are afraid are easier to manipulate, because their capacity for logic fails them.  This happens to have been the topic of my first  and second  posts.