“Fear: Its Political Uses and Abuses”, Social Research by Arien Mack

Fear needs no definition. It is a primal, and so to speak, subpolitical emotion.”
— Raymond Aron

Early in September 2002 to help jumpstart the campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq, then US National Security Advisor (now Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice infamously mixed metaphors on CNN about the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” President Bush, apparently not one to pass up an inelegant turn of phrase, adopted the mangled locution a month later, using it in a fear-mongering speech in Cincinnati to press his case for preemptive war. Thus began the march down the road to Baghdad from which the nation has yet to return.

In part as a response to the so-called War on Terror but also in response to the Bush Administration’s own scare tactics, the New School Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science in New York City held a two-and-a-half-day conference in February 2004 titled “Fear: Its Political Uses and Abuses.” The proceedings have now been published in Social Research, the New School’s quarterly journal of the social sciences. (Since 1934, Social Research has presented the work of some of the world’s leading philosophers, political theorists, social scientists, historians and commentators; its list of contributors is a who’s who of modern social thought.)

Put together by psychologist and longtime Social Research Editor Arien Mack, the “Fear” issue is packed full of stuff to keep you up into the wee hours of the dark and forbidding night. It features the keynote address delivered by former Vice President Al Gore and over a dozen presentations by the likes of Barry Glassner (whose Culture of Fear is cited in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine), Eric Alterman of The Nation and MSNBC.com and Jessica Stern, terrorism expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

At nearly 400 pages, the “Fear” issue might be better thought of as a book rather than a periodical, and its shelf life both as a collection of significant research and as a historical document will no doubt be longer, too, even though its content is quite timely. Presenting the papers in the same order as they were given and grouped according to panel session, it reflects the forethought Mack and her colleagues put into the conference organization and speaker selection. And because the presentations were originally given before a live audience, the published essays are for the most part free of academic jargon.

Part I consists of the keynote address and a dialogue between Gore and New School President Bob Kerrey (former Democratic Senator from Nebraska who most recently served as a member of the 9/11 Commission). The essays in Part II examine how fear works in terms of neuroscience, culture and human psychology, laying the foundation for the rest of the issue. According to Jacek Debiec and Joseph Ledoux, fear is part of the biological instinct for survival, physically operating deep inside brain whether or not one is conscious of it as rational or irrational. Social psychologist Tom Pyszczynksi’s studies in “terror management theory” reveal how the ever-present fear of death and the sudden appearance of unexpected traumas such as September 11 combine to heighten feelings of nationalism and aggression in individuals and groups. The media narratives and visual symbols used by those in power to manage fear in furthering their political agendas are respectively explored by Glassner and Steven Heller, New York Times senior art director and preeminent design historian.

Part III deals with why fear is useful in the political arena. In his book Bush at War, Bob Woodward reports that on the evening of September 11 the President said not once but twice that the day’s terrible events were in fact “an opportunity.” And according to George Kateb of Princeton, the opportunity that knocked that fateful day was the enemy whose arrival America had been waiting for since the dreaded Commie had been defeated with the end of the Cold War. The wave of panic in the aftermath of September 11 permitted the Bush Administration’s cadre of right-wing ideologues to put into effect strategies of partisan politics, global dominance and domestic control that had been kicked around in conservative think tanks for years. What’s more, it continues to conveniently obscure the real threats to American imperial ambition: the European Union, Russia and China, all of which are vying with the USA for control of the world’s resources and markets.

Every essay in the volume is worth reading, and topics include the effects of fear on civil liberties and human rights both at home and abroad. One of the more sobering is the report by Open Society President Aryeh Neier (former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and ex-National Director of the American Civil Liberties Union) on how far America’s new nationalism has eroded its standing in the international community. And as if to forestall George Santayana’s admonition that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it, there are case studies on McCarthyism, the civil war in Sri Lanka and the US efforts to date in the War on Terror.

The “Fear” issue is marked by its own measure of paranoia, albeit unintentional. The weight of evidence presented and deconstructed by the various researchers could lead the average reader to shrink before the seeming omnipotence of the neoconservative cabal now at the nation’s helm. Plus the lack in the discussion of anyone credibly representing the right threatens to seal the clearly liberal group of intellectuals, however well informed and sincere, in an echo chamber themselves. (Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did appear at the New School not longer after the “Fear” conference, where he was greeted with catcalls and threats from the generally hostile audience, not at all in the spirit of free intellectual exchange.) The emphasis on politics and the scant acknowledgment of the economics driving the process also leaves too many important issues of transnational capitalism unexamined. (An exception is Stanley Hoffman’s essay on fear in global society, which while making reference to global capital still sees the resolution playing itself out in terms of relations between individual nation-states.)

That noted, it’s fitting that the “Fear” issue should come out on the heels of the 70th anniversary of the accreditation of the New School University in Exile, which provided safe harbor in the 1930s for Jewish intellectuals trying to escape the Nazi reign of terror in Europe. And if there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the issue wasn’t out in time for the 2004 presidential election as originally planned, when it might have been useful on the talk-show circuit and to provide some much-needed moral clarity to John Kerry’s floundering campaign. (Publication was evidently postponed a quarter to accommodate a 70th-anniversary issue of Social Research — Academe, like the Roman Catholic Church, operates with a longer view than the American election cycle.)

But with talk of Gore testing the waters for a 2008 presidential campaign bid and the Bush Administration’s fright machine revving up to deliver a mortal blow to the New Deal by privatizing Social Security, the “Fear” issue of Social Research is better late than never and has certainly come not a moment too soon.