Friday, October 24, 2014

The Politics of Fear

Tonight’s essay is about that most prodigious of contemporary American commodities, fear. Fear is selling extremely well right now, and the American appetite for it shows no signs of abatement. And like all commodities, if someone is buying, someone will be selling.

Republicans tend to do well in atmospheres of national risk, so when those risks are at ebb tide, it is in the GOP’s electoral interests to identify and amplify existing or imaginary threats. We are just such a point right now, and with the midterm elections around the corner, we can anticipate a hysterical elevation of the pounding on the panic button.

When the "super predator" of the early 1990s was the boogieman, the enemy was domestic, visible and best of all, black. In 1989, a white woman was raped and badly beaten in Central Park, and a few days later, five black teenagers were arrested for the crime after their participation in a gang attack of other white victims.

This time, the pack numbered around 30. The Central Park Five were christened, and the word “wilding” became the new social fear’s rallying pole. The “super predator” had been identified; a movement of disaffected black youth that came from fatherless households, stultifying poverty, crack cocaine and a presumed absence of morality or conscience.

The “super predator” was an excellent source of American fear for a few years, but when this cancerous social movement never materialized as a consistent, sustained threat, hysteria subsided to the degree that the Clinton presidency became possible. Gore’s subsequent ineffectual presidential run was flabby enough to have allowed it to be decided by a kangaroo court in the state where his opponent’s brother was governor, and the George W Bush era was in place; but it had no idea where to go.

The GOP had what it wanted, an intellectually average, weak-willed and largely disinterested president who would do exactly what he was told was now ostensibly in charge. What was missing for the wholesale implementation of right wing policy-making was an event that would set the public on its heels and make it welcome a new era of combined colonial imperialism, isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia. What was needed was some fear, and it arrived on America's doorstep with a big red bow on it. I am not a 9/11 inside job theorist in the least, but I do recognize the savage, murderous religious fundamentalism of that day as being some version of Dick Cheney’s ultimate wet dream.

After 9/11, the formerly effective “super predator” domestic fear was now switched over to a foreign enemy, which was ideal. It dressed funny, spoke a language that was unmusical to the Western ear, and worshiped a God we didn't understand (though many religious scholars recognize Islam and Christianity to worship the same God, but through differing prophets, however that is fodder for another essay). The newer, better, stronger fear permitted the Bush administration to invade a country that had nothing to do with the mass murders of September 11, 2001. It fit some strategic interests in terms of ratcheting down more intimate control of a significant oil asset, so the sale was complete, and we were for the most part willingly led into the greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam on falsified evidence, in large part because of a prevailing environment of collective national fear.

The new hobgoblin is Ebola, a fear that eclipses domestic or foreign threats in that it is both foreign and domestic, and also something else altogether: it cannot even be seen. Really, Ebola is the ultimate fear product, and it’s a wonder someone didn’t think of it earlier. Everything is perfect about Ebola. First, its name. It sounds like Obama. You say Obama, I say Ebola, let’s call the whole thing off. Plus, it looks scary. The popular image of the Ebola virus resembles a pipe cleaner that has been used to ream out a festering flesh wound and then twisted into a grisly, poorly tied running bowline.

Anti-immigration sentiment and the invisible pathogen fear have now been bundled in this latest selling job, with the bonus of being able to point to deepest, darkest Africa as its epicenter. This fans the flames of the vast swaths of sub rosa racism across the nation, even maybe tickling memories of the “super predator.” White America’s racial mistrust had been on a decades-long frustratingly low boil for its adherents, and now there was a blasting cap that could blow the top off of it and almost lend credibility to it, very nearly eclipsing its general public unacceptability. Ebola.

The Ebola fear and the credibility that its pump-primed audience lends it is so phenomenally knocked out of balance that even the practically random idea of an overly porous Southern border being a potential source of new Ebola infestations had resonated with some component of the American public. There are African travel ban boosters, and even a few particularly unhinged voices advocating the “humane execution” of new patients and the establishment of the modern practical equivalent of leper colonies. 

To the administration's great discredit, it has done little in terms of adult supervision on this issue in articulating reality to a hysterical public that is apparently unencumbered by the facts. The administration is afraid to tell the public the truth about the insignificance of  Ebola risks in America for the simple fact that it is bad politics. A recent Harvard University poll indicated that half of Americans believe that an Ebola outbreak is likely in the United States. That is some breathtaking ignorance, and also, a stunning testament to the effectiveness of right wing propaganda in America. With the midterm elections in the balance, the administration is hesitant to tell half of America that it is being foolish. I don't mind a bit. 

To the CDC’s great credit, they have remained staunch and unwavering with the facts. The Obama administration should be ashamed of itself for its lack of courage in not adamantly communicating the truth of Ebola's threat, and the American people should be ashamed of itself for being so gullible. The two Ebola cases in the United States were transmitted during hospital care of an infected patient who had traveled to the US from Liberia. That first patient has died. No Ebola cases in the United States exist outside of these two cases. They are both in specialty hospitals and are expected to recover. 

West Africa has an Ebola problem. The United States does not. If the US had an interest in really stopping Ebola, its efforts would be profound in that area of the world. But it isn’t, and it won't, because that would allay some of the fear, and fear is far too precious a political commodity to squander on anything as politically inexpedient as science, medicine, intelligence and compassion.

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