Posted by Rojas @ 7:15 pm on February 26th 2007

In defense of “fearmongering”

The Democrats (and their syncophantic lickspittles, like Brad and Adam–see posts below) have been having a lot of success with the “Republican fearmongers” meme lately. It is a politically useful label, because fear feels bad, and it is the sentiment of the American public that anything anyone in government does that makes them feel bad is cause for removal from office.

Now, the Democrats are not the only people who’ve ever offered up this line. Bush’s 2000 convention speech tarred Gore with the same brush–the bit about the space program being a “risky rocket scheme” and so forth. But they do seem to be the ones pimping it big time at the moment. It is safe to assume, from their rhetoric, that the Republicans succeed only by reducing the American public to hysterical blindness. Indeed, I myself, as the red state correspondent, type this entry while cringing beneath my computer desk in a puddle of my own urine.

Be that as it may, I cannot quite get myself worked up about the concept of politicians as fearmongers.

First: I have long since gotten past the fear of fear itself. As I tell my debutante public speakers every semester, fear is a chemical response designed to enhance the prospects for human survival. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. It makes us feel bad because, as Ivan Stang puts it, that’s what gets us up off of our asses. We possess this trait because those among our remote ancestors who didn’t have it ended up dead.

Fear is not the enemy. Nor, I think, is the “mongering” of fear the problem. I confess I do not know what “mongering” is, exactly, though I confess that it is a scary word. I mean, look at it, there. Sound it out. The eerieness of “monnnnn”, the sudden violence of “GER!”, the metal-on-metal dagger-resheathing clangor of “inggg”. It even looks like “monster”, kinda. Spooky.

If “fearmongering” is like “ironmongering”, it involves the shaping of a raw product towards a productive end. Well–good for the mongerers. Public sentiments SHOULD be directed towards productive ends. If we are afraid, let us DO SOMETHING with that fear; it doesn’t disappear because we refuse to act on it.

It is, of course, not intrinsically desireable to CREATE fear for the sake of an agenda (as Adam contends the Republicans have done with terror reports); nor is it a good idea to direct that fear towards the WRONG ends (as I’d contend we’ve done in the case of Social Security). But neither of these are objections to political use of fear; they are objections to MISUSE of fear. And neither party has a monopoly on that, as reflexive partisan resistance on issues like entitlement reform, welfare reform, farm subsidies, and affirmative action will attest.

When we call our opponents “fearmongers,” we are making an implicit argument that fear should not be involved as an openly acknowledged factor in our policy decisions. This is unwise for two reasons.

First of all, it’s impossible; fear will always find a way to sneak in around the edges, because we are seriously cowardly organisms. It is better to know what role it played in our decision process than not to know, becuase this enables us to revisit our decisions later and decide whether it played too large or too small a part. Airline deregulation: too large a part. Infrastructure maintenance in New Orleans: too small a part.

Secondly, and more importantly, denying fear a seat at the table actually causes us to overestimate its real importance. We shun that which we fear we cannot control; if we shun fear, then we are saying that we are afraid it will master us. By contrast, when we acknowledge fear, we deny it mastery over us. Considering it as one factor among many does not mean surrendering to it; exactly the opposite. After 9/11, nobody talked about fear; nobody consciously tried to manipulate it; nobody even acknowledged it. But America collectively felt it, and we wound up with the Patriot Act. We would have done better to say, “This was a scary act by scary people. Now let’s be smart about how scared we should be by them, and how much of that fear we’re willing to accept as a cost of going about our lives.”

Let’s set aside the use of “fearmonger” as a term for our enemies, and discuss instead whether fear is warranted and well-applied. FDR was wrong about a lot of things, but never more than when he implied that we ought to be afraid of fear itself.


  1. Of course, if you’re not scared, you’re out of excuses for that puddle of urine.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Fear can lead to paralyzing doubt, and the inability to act in a crisis. Fear can be used by evil people to get us into ridiculous and costly wars. So you’re damned right be ought to be afraid of fear itself.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/26/2007 @ 8:05 pm

  3. I love it when you call me lickspittle, babe.

    More tomorrow.

    Comment by Paint CHiPs — 2/27/2007 @ 12:31 am

  4. No, one need not be afraid of fear itself. One should be afraid of irrational fear. And one should be angry at people playing on irrational fear to get irrational agendas enacted.

    Comment by Talarohk — 2/27/2007 @ 12:56 am

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