Fear and Power

Posted: January 4, 2010 in Uncategorized

Here is a nice article by Glenn Greenwald, “The Degrading Effects of Terrorism Fears”.  Greenwald writes in Salon (January 2, 2010).  He makes a good case for the idea that the American public has been bombarded by repeated inflammatory claims that we should be deathly afraid of a terrorist strike.  This causes us to “beg and plead and demand that our political leaders invade more of our privacy, seize more of our freedom, and radically alter the system of government we were supposed to have.”  These are, of course, some of the first signs of authoritarianism.  I agree with most of his analysis.  But I think he is wrong to claim that “political leaders possess an inherent interest in maximizing fear levels, as that is what maximizes their power.”  While it is true that fear is an important source of power for state leaders, even dictators know that it does not take them very far.  Thus, all dictators try to supplement their coercive power with personal, manipulative, utilitarian, and legitimate power.  They try to get the people to love them, they lie and keep information from them, they offer public goods (like roads, schools, etc.), and they create the illusion of public choice by holding sham elections.  They know that long term power is multi-prong.  Our biggest fear is, thus, not the attempt to use what is a quick and easy, but unstable, power founded on fear.  What is more troubling is the attempt to supplement that with a power that springs from manipulation (media distortions of the terrorist threat) as well as from personality and passions.  Do we hear Sarah Palin anyone?

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