Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fear For Sale

We have nothing to fear but fear itself – Franklin Roosevelt

I love my country and I fear for it – Glenn Beck

Once upon a time Americans were inspired to face their fears and go boldly into a new world. Fear was a bad thing that could be overcome.

Now fear seems to be the dominant emotion in today’s social and political arenas. Fear is exploited and encouraged. Why is that?

There is one reason: Fear sells. Americans pay big money to be afraid and have their fears confirmed and have the next Great Guru of Fright promise a way out, a way to not be afraid anymore.

I recently read Will Bunch’s book The Backlash. Throughout the book, Bunch traverses the country interviewing various Tea Party members. His goal was to truly understand them and their motives. After reading the book it seemed that fear was the common thread among all of the various movements across the country.

Where does this fear come from? It mostly comes from the media. Political pundits have become fear mongers, selling Americans on the idea that the country is in deep trouble. Terrorists will attack. Religion will be abolished. Guns will be grabbed. Taxes will send us all into poverty. Illegal aliens will spend all of our tax dollars. These things won't happen if the right politicians are in office of course.

This is only going to happen if we continue to allow Barack Obama to be our president, and if we continue to allow Democrats to be in Congress. Only one-party rule can save us - and that party is not only Republican, but it must also be Republicans of the Tea Party variety.

(Oddly enough, none of these folks find the idea of the rule of one party and one ideology frightening, but that's neither here nor there.)

Why is this fear perpetuated? Why are there so many public figures trying so hard to make us afraid? Why do we buy into it?

The reason is that fear sells. There is a huge profit to be made off of fear in both small ways and large. Fear is also a useful tool for controlling people. The government and the corporations pulling government strings can wield a lot of power by creating fear.

What are Americans afraid of, and who profits from it, and how?

I believe the Tea Party fears, the ones they try to push onto all of us, can be divided into a few types.

1. Fear of Totalitarianism - I was initially going to say that it's a fear of communism, but it's not really about communism. It's about communism as interpreted by the Soviet Union. As the Cold War began, we saw the brutal reign of Josef Stalin and the pain he caused his people. Like most empires, the only way to hold together such fast amounts of territory and many diverse peoples is through an absolute dictatorship. While no one can deny communism is an inefficient and awkward system to employ over large amounts of territory, Americans took it a step further. It became synonymous with dictatorships, repressiveness, and just plain evil.

Americans love a good slippery slope argument. If we let the government do A, it will automatically feel free to do Y and Z. The next thing you know, we're living in the new Soviet Union. Religion will be outlawed. Our guns will be taken away. Speaking out against the government will land us in prison.

This fear was exploited to the max during the Reagan era. Reagan wielded fear like a weapon over the American people. The Soviet Union was living in an almost medieval setup prior to 1917. It became a superpower through military might alone with little attention to its own economic growth (and hence its ultimate failure). Their weapons capabilities were often highly exaggerated by both our intelligence and theirs.

Ah, but that threat was useful to Reagan. As long he told us that they were ready to attack us at any moment, that we were in danger, then we would be too afraid to defy him. No one would question his extravagant spending and massive deficit as long as we were being told it was being done for our protection. The protection was being invested in military contracts, enriching some of the biggest corporations in the world. Using fear the president was able to take enormous power and rape the treasury, making a select few very wealthy.

2. Fear of Poverty - I was going to call this "fear of taxes", but it goes deeper than that. Taxes are just a convenient proxy for all of our fears about having no control over our finances.

For years the right has used the scare tactic that liberals will raise taxes. Liberals will make the government seize your hard-earned money and hand it out to people who don't deserve it - the "Handout People". The government is draining money from your pockets and there is nothing you can do about it unless you vote Republican.

It's a bogus argument really. How many people reading this can honestly say that their taxes improved dramatically during any particular administration. One of the most honest things I ever heard a politician say was during the 1988 presidential debate when Michael Dukakis said, "No matter who wins, your taxes will go up." Taxes will rise with inflation. They will rise according to the needs of the country. Like it or not, if you want your government to do anything for you, whether it's fund your military, repair your roads, provide your kids with education, or provide your meds in your old age, you are going to have to pay for it. No government is going to let you off the hook for this, no matter what the political party.

Do you know whose taxes are significantly cut during particular administrations? It's the top 1% of the wealth holders in this country. These are the owners of at least 90% of the wealth. We're not talking about those liberal Hollywood elite whom right wing pundits enjoying picking on. We're not talking about these millionaire right-wing pundits themselves. We're not even talking popular billionaires like Bill Gates. Those folks are small potatoes. We're talking about the true top, the tiny minority, the heads of the biggest multinationals in industries like defense, agribusiness, finance and energy. The very word "taxes" sends middle class and upper middle class screaming about how hard they work for their money and how taxing hard-working people is unfair. So many of them have no idea what tax inequality really is.

The theory has always been that as long as those at the top make money unencumbered, they would reinvest it into the economy, creating jobs, and providing cheaper services overall. This "trickle down" theory hasn't proven to be true. Untaxed and unregulated our top 1% has simply used the opportunity to take a bigger piece of the pie. They have downsized the workforce or else outsourced jobs to countries where they are not obligated to pay living wages or provide safe work environments. The agribusinesses also hire illegal aliens as another way of getting around compensation and safety regulations (and you think the immigration problem stems from the folks who hire a couple of Mexicans to mow their lawns or babysit their kids).

The right has been known to talk a good talk about our greedy financial institutions, but they refuse to see how their unregulated operations and unmitigated greed has caused economic collapse. To say that we need regulation would be to unlock the fear of totalitarianism. Bank regulations are a step toward communism for sure!

So the right wing pundits and politicians throw up the smoke screen of taxes and make scapegoats out of the less fortunate who have had the nerve to ask the government for help. What is ironic about this is that many Teabaggers are older retirees and veterans who are likely receiving government benefits such as Social Security, disability, veteran's benefits, and Medicare. So many of these people have had a very rough decade. They have been downsized out of jobs, forced into early retirement, been screwed out of their pensions, and been ignored by a seemingly uncaring bureaucracy. There is plenty of blame to go around for this, but the blame is so often misplaced.

Unfortunately, thanks to the fear of communism/totalitarianism they vote against their own interests, believing that the problem lies not with lack of regulation, but with the folks (the other folks - not them) who are receiving governments assistance (a pittance compared to the benefits multinational corporations receive). It is undeserving lazy people who are stealing money from our pockets.

The truth is most of us don't know how many paychecks we are away from losing our homes or heading to the breadlines. We don't know if a devastating health problem would ruin us. We don't know what lies ahead in our old age. Every single one of us pays taxes of some kind or another. That means every single one of us is entitled to the same "handouts" that those lazy, good-for-nothing poor people have. We all pay into it and we can all potentially benefit from it. If you're too proud to ask for it, then it's your own fault. Don't blame those who aren't too proud for taking your money.

3. Fear of Being a Minority - This video is very telling about how threatened white Christians feel about "The Other". Although the focus here is on Muslims, the statistics for the US count Latino immigration separately when considering US birth rates. To some Americans, culture must be fixed and unchanging.

Sadly, it's hard to keep the culture the same when European-descended whites are destined to become a minority in the US in 40 years. When one considers just how badly European Americans have been to non-whites, I would say that it has not been a pretty picture. We killed off millions of Native Americans, put Asians in concentration camps, enslaved blacks and then spent decades segregating them. Now Latino immigrants are harassed and potentially being denied citizenship rights. Once Euro-Americans are a minority, can they hold their power? If they can't, how will they be treated by these scary brown people?

The election of a half-African president is one of the scariest things yet to these people. Yes, they shall overcome. What is next? The popular TV show The West Wing had a Latino actor playing the president. We are also coming to realize that just because the majority of Americans idenitfy as Christian, we are granting legitimacy and tolerance of other beliefs. People who may not look exactly like us are gaining power every day. They're becoming successful, making money, making new rules, and changing the face of America. Some people find that terrifying.

It's not a coincidence how these Christian fertility cults have been given so much attention lately. Sure other religions have been known to breed copiously such as Catholics (unfortunately there is a heavy Latino element) and Hasidic Jews (white, but not Christian and not exactly in the mainstream culture). Now the happy, plastic automaton Duggars seem to make the morning news or People magazine almost on a weekly basis and seem to have a big fan cult around them. It's not just about following some Biblical mandate. These folks want to breed more Christians - more white Christians. They are desperately trying to make themselves into the dominant culture.

As long as we struggle to make certain groups second class citizens, the current frightened majority won't stand up for them if they are exploited.

4. Fear of Social Change - This is a big one. So many Teabaggers and other assorted right wingers are products of the social changes often associated with the 60s. They are overwhelmingly white (as mentioned above) and tend to be older, often retirees or semi-retirees. They grew up watching the world change rapidly and felt left behind by the movements that have defined our culture for the past 50 years. They see the world before the revolution as idyllic, because they are looking through the imperfect eye of childhood (didn't we all think the world was better when we were kids) and memory.

They see a world now that is more secular. Americans are questioning their God. They see more families seeming to fall apart (even if the divorce rate has remained steady, and even declined slightly over the years.) They see gays demanding - and sometimes receiving - equal treatment and acceptance. Despite 22 years of Republicans dominating the White House and 12 years of Republicans dominating Congress, no one has managed to overturn Roe V. Wade, or even introduce the legislation to do so, and the majority of the American people are happy with that. In his book, Bunch asserts that many on the right had believed that the election of Reagan would bring in a new era of morality. The Reagan years were merely a small blip, a last hurrah. Most of us have progressed beyond the nebulous "family values" that were supposed to define the new world order since Reagan was elected. Teabaggers are terrified.

The young people involved with the movement see the past through the imperfect eye of television. They want to live in a 50s sitcom world. They never knew how hard life was under segregation and institutionalized sexism and homophobia. They only know the seemingly more messed up world we live in now. Sure many issues came to a head in the 60s, but the changes were brewing for decades and decades before that. Children of divorced parents sometimes long for a world where feminism never would have given women other choices than to stay married. They're looking for a perfect world that never existed.

There is enormous profit to be made in this desire to bring back a different social order. This piece is an excellent explanation of how religious extremists are using this fear for profit. There is a war going on people. The nasty liberals are committing crimes against us. They're waging war against Christians and against the most sacred of American holidays. You must arm yourselves people. Arm yourselves with everything you can. Then arm yourselves some more.

No one has explained to me exactly what will happen if all Americans don't follow the same moral codes (within what is allowed by law). If we start trying to enforce one standard of morality across all citizens, then I would think we'd be heading in Taliban direction - but then again, by saying that, I'm just another fear monger.

5. Fear of Loss of Rights - This ties into the social change fear as well as the totalitarianism fear.

Thanks to the near-instantaneous delivery of messages today via Internet and 24-hour news, means it's very easy for someone to create a buzz when he says the wrong thing. If a talk radio host makes a racist remark, he is sure to be criticized all over the Internet. The next thing you know, the angry host is declaring that those nasty liberals are taking away his right to free speech. Never mind that the liberals who are complaining aren't censoring him. They're just exercising their own right to free speech. It's not censorship. Free speech goes both ways.

The fear of religious rights being taken away are also exploited for all they are worth. I remember during the 2004 elections a crazed right-wing group began sending out pamphlets to voters claiming liberals would "ban the Bible". It was a very silly assumption. Which liberals would be banning it (certainly not People for the American Way). What would they be banning it from? Schools? Libraries? All schools, libraries and bookstores? Despite this absolutely ridiculous and unrealistic warning, I still saw a promo for Sean Hannity's show where he said, "Coming up tonight: Will liberals ban the Bible?" Can you imagine how a mere 10-second promo spot could have members of the religious right shaking in their boots?

Has the government ever tried to force a church to close? Is Christianity illegal? One of the biggest religious right bugaboos is prayer in school, claiming that it's illegal for a child to pray in school. Of course it's not illegal at all. It's only illegal for the school to sponsor it. Children are welcome to pray of their own accord if it's not disrupting the class. Your average citizen does not welcome public proselytizing, but that's only a government issue if the proselytizer is a public nuisance or is trying to do so at a government sponsored event (as the government is not supposed to endorse any one particular religion as a way of promoting religious freedom).

Then there is the gun issue. Teabaggers are convinced the Obama wants to take away their guns. They beliece this administration is made up of gun grabbers who want to overturn the Second amendment. Not once during his campaign did Obama advocate for gun control (not that I ever heard and you can correct me if I'm wrong). Since he has taken office he has enacted no gun control legislation and has even allowed existing pieces of gun control legislation to expire. In other words, right wingers are actually looking for and making up things to fear. That just blows my mind.

Profits, profits, profits. There are profits to be made everywhere. At Tea Party rallies you can buy all sorts of stuff from hats and t-shirts made in China to high-end teabag jewelry. If you're a speaker at these rallies, you can command thousands for every performance. I suspect the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck make more money in a single appearance than most members of the rallies make in a year.

They claim it's a grass roots movement, but it's nothing of the sort. The Tea Party is being funded by some of the wealthiest, most powerful people in the country. David Koch, one of the wealthiest oil barons around has funded millions into convincing a disenfranchised group to vote against their own interests and promote his own. Make them fear a tyrannical government who will take away your hard-earned money in taxes, take away your guns, take away your right to speak out, take away your right to be Christian, and give the profits to illegal immigrants, and they will gladly hand their money over to you. The wealthiest in America know that the peasants can revolt with a vote, so it's best to use whatever tactics possible to make sure they vote in your favor, and see you as the savior and not the enemy.

America, let's stop the fear and let's vote to move this country forward and take it back not from the godless socialists, but from those who are taking all of our power and money away from us.

Addendum: I know that this blog has a very anti-regressive slant, but in the interest of fairness (and knowing someone will likely call me out on it) I will point out that fear profiteering is not only in the domain of regressives. I believe in global warming, but I won't deny that Al Gore isn't making big bucks keeping us in fear of the consequences. Christian wingnuts may be scaring other Christian wingnuts with their "The Liberals Are Coming to Get Us" books, but there are also plenty of reasonable progressives who also want to scare other reasonable progressives with books about how wingnut Christians are trying to take over the country, complete with conspiracy theories.

No one is exempt. Fear sells.

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