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The culture of fear

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                The culture of fear is evident in many ways, especially in politics.  The fear of a group of people can be exploited mercilessly, as can be seen in Al Gore’s article, “The Politics of Fear”, Cass R. Sunstein’s article, “Fear and Liberty”, the play The Crucible, and the film, On the Waterfront.  Most often, one will exploit a group’s fears to drive their own agendas, as is seen in all of the mentioned sources.  These fears might all be different, but the exploitation and results of that exploitation are the same in every case.

                Al Gore’s article, “The Politics of Fear” (2004), paints a disturbing picture of the Bush Administration and the issue of terrorism and the war in Iraq.  Gore claims that the Bush Administration told the American people that Iraq was the enemy, responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  The administration depicted a reason to be fearful; if the American people were not careful, a travesty like September 11th would happen again, so the public’s best option was to support the Bush Administration’s agenda for “security.”  This “security” included going to war with Iraq, a sovereign nation that could not be linked to the attacks on September 11th.

                The Bush Administration resorted to using fear to get their agendas done.  They had no regard for the public interest or the truth.  An example of this that Gore gave is how the administration used September 11th to heighten and distort the public’s fear of terrorism in order to have an excuse to go to war with Iraq.  In actuality, the Bush Administration was planning on going to war with Iraq before September 11th happened.  The attacks just happened to give the administration a reason that the American public would accept.

                In the article, “Fear and Liberty” (2004), by Cass R. Sunstein, it is suggested that public fear might produce “unjustified intrusions on civil liberties.”  (Sunstein, 2004, p. 967)  Sunstein claims that there are two potential sources of error that create fear: the “availability heuristic” and “probability neglect.”  Availability heuristic is when incidents happen that make people think that a risk is more serious than it actually is, and probability neglect is when people focus on the “worst-case scenario” and prepare for that.  An example of availability heuristic would be September 11th, as Gore had talked about.  An example of probability neglect would be when the American public was afraid of nuclear war in the 1950’s and every family had a bomb shelter.

                These sources can occur on the individual level, or on the group level.  People talk about everything, especially what is happening in their country.  When a threat is posed, stories and examples of the threat spread quickly, especially by the media.  For instance, this happened in the 2001 anthrax attacks and the 2002 Washington sniper attacks.  People all over the United States watched and listened to the news in awe and dread as these attacks were described in gripping detail.  Soon, people across the country were keeping an eye out for snipers at gas stations and wearing rubber gloves to open their mail.  The truth was that there was a very low probability that someone would receive an anthrax-laced letter or that someone in Indiana would be shot by a random sniper shooting at a gas station.  However, the proposed risk frightened the American public, and everyone was staying alert to their surroundings.

                It is well known that news programs get the most ratings, therefore the most money, from stories that frighten people.  The public wants to tune in to a gruesome story to find out how to protect themselves.  This was evident with the recent Swine Flu scare.  However, these news programs fail to represent the odds of anything terrible happening to the everyday person.  The media has their own agenda, and that is to make money.

                The film On the Waterfront (1954) is also an example of fear and society.  This film is the story of Terry Malloy, a dock worker under corrupt dockers union boss Johnny Friendly.  When Terry witnesses a murder by Johnny’s thugs and much abuse of the dock workers, however, Terry does not betray Johnny.

                Before Johnny is put on trial for abuse and murder at his docks, Terry has a change of heart after meeting the murdered man’s sister and a priest, and decides to speak of the heinous acts at the docks.  When Terry’s brother is murdered by Johnny’s thugs, Terry decides to testify in court against Johnny.  After this, out of work, Terry decides to confront Johnny.  However, Johnny proceeds to beat Terry in front of the rest of the dock workers.  Once the dock workers see this, they refuse to work unless Terry is allowed to.  There is then a fresh understanding between the workers and the dock bosses.  Terry and the other workers became intolerant of the abuse the received form the dock bosses.

                This film tells a story of fear; fear of the boss and what might happen if anyone revealed anything.  In a way, the government does the same.  The government tells the public to be afraid of something, and the public begins to fear it, just like Johnny Friendly “told” the workers to be afraid of him, therefore they feared him.

                Everyone can relate to this film in one way or another.  It shows a fundamental element to human existence, the fear of authority.  The American government tells their public what to be afraid of, parents teach their children to fear them so the children behave, and employees fear their bosses because the employees want to keep their jobs.

                Individuals with power have been telling the public what to be afraid of for many years.  In 1941 when Alger Hiss was convicted of being a Soviet spy, then first-term congressman Richard Nixon suggested several recommendations for dealing with the threat of communism, including implementing and educational program against communism and supporting the FBI.  Dean Acheson, Hiss’s friend and associate as well as Secretary of State, vowed that he would never turn his back on Hiss.  Nixon’s first reaction was to say that Acheson’s statement was “disgusting.”  This led to Nixon’s ideas for dealing with communism.

                Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, speaking at Lincoln Day in West Virginia, said he had a list of 205 communists still working for Acheson in the Department of State.  The Department of State held their own investigation into this claim, and reported that there were no communists employed at that time, but it was too late.  The public had heard McCarthy’s statement and became fearful of the possibility of communism in the government.  (Whitfield, 1996)  This was the beginning of McCarthyism.

                When McCarthy was made chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, he had the opportunity to investigate communism in the government.  McCarthy’s committee questioned a large number of people in various government departments about their political past.  Originally, McCarthy targeted Democrats associated with the New Deal policies. Some of these people even lost their jobs when they found to having been a member of communism, either falsely or legitimately, and were blacklisted from potential jobs in the future.  McCarthy stated that the only way to prove that these people had abandoned their left-wing views would be to name others of the Communist party.  (Simkin, 1997)

                This episode of anti-communist hysteria can be likened to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  This notion was portrayed in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953/2003)  When Betty and Abigail dabble with the occult, led by Tituba, Abigail’s uncle’s slave, Betty becomes unconscious.  Fearing that others would find out what she and Betty were up to, Abigail accuses Tituba of being a witch when Reverend John Hale is called upon to investigate the situation.  Tituba then accuses Goodwives Good and Osborne of witchcraft, afraid of being hanged.  Betty wakes, and she and Abigail claim to have been bewitched and name others who they claim to have been seen with the Devil.  This is when the witch-hunts begin that leads to the Salem Witch Trials.

                This play was Arthur Miller’s response to McCarthyism.  Miller likened McCarthyism to the Salem Witch Trials because that is exactly what some believed McCarthyism was, a witch-hunt.  During the McCarthyism era, communists took the place of witches and the individuals of Hollywood took the place of Salem citizens.  It seems that the Salem Witch Trials paved the way for the persecution of perhaps innocent citizens.  Both were cases of mass hysteria, one old-fashioned and one contemporary.

                As in the Salem Witch Trials, evidence and facts during the McCarthyism era were forgotten.  People were not put to death like they were during the witch trials, however, a fate worse than death occurred.  Individuals accused of being communists were blacklisted by the government that cause these people to have a difficult time finding a job and furthering their careers.  One cannot imagine today being blacklisted for having left-wing views; most American citizens have left-wing views.  Today’s America is made up of all different views, both right-wing and left-wing.

                The Crucible was written at a time when the public feared a group of people because one man of authority told them to fear that particular group.  Not to say that the public does not have minds of their own, but they followed along blindly, doing what they were told.  They feared that their government would be overthrown.

                No matter the motive for such agendas, many individuals, involved with politics or not, want to scare the people beneath them to benefit themselves.  This was at the foundation of McCarthyism in the 1950’s, the terrorism beginning in 2001, the film On the Waterfront, and the play The Crucible.  Society responds to fear.  Society obeys individuals who promise safety and happiness from groups such as communists and terrorists, or as ridiculous as it sounds, witches, even when those individuals who promise safety and happiness do not have the facts to back up their claims.  These are all examples of a corrupt society, and this will continue for generations to come.

    –  Gore, Al.  (2004, Winter).  The Politics of Fear.  Social Research,  71(4),  pp. 782.

    –  Kazan, Elia (Director).  (1954).  On the Waterfront.  [Motion Picture].  Horizon Pictures.

    –  Miller, Arthur.  (1953/2003).  The Crucible.  New York: Penguin Group Inc.

    –  Simkin, John.  (1997).  McCarthyism.  Spartacus Educational.  11 May 2009.

    –  Sunstein, Cass R.  (2004, Winter).  Fear and Liberty.  Social Research,  71(4),  pp. 967-975.

    –  Whitfield, Stephen J.  (1996).  The Culture of the Cold War, 2nd ed.  Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press.  pp. 28-29.


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