The Pornography of Political Fear

In most respects, despite the media hoopla, yesterday was an ordinary day. Amid brisk January weather, one of the world’s large nations marked the installation of a new chief executive with the usual round of ceremonies and celebrations. The transition was orderly to the point of dullness; the retiring president and his replacement had coffee together in the White House before the ceremony, and afterwards walked together with every evidence of cordiality to the helicopter that would ferry one of them back into private life.

I am not sure how many people noticed that the clatter of rotor blades as that helicopter took off put a period at the end of some of the most extravagant rhetoric of the Bush era. For the past eight years, a great many voices had insisted that the weary Texan who left the White House yesterday was about to declare martial law, suspend the Constitution, cancel all future elections, order dissidents to be rounded up and interned in concentration camps built by Halliburton, and a great deal more of the same kind. If, dear reader, you were one of the people who spent George W. Bush’s presidential terms insisting that these things were about to happen, grab a beer from the fridge and have a seat, because we need to talk.

The rumors I’ve just described were very nearly an article of faith across large sectors of the American left in the years just past. Hundreds of websites and a sizable number of talk radio programs presented them as matters of simple fact, and vied with one another to accuse the Bush administration of the most diabolical intentions. Those who pointed out that the purveyors of these ideas never quite got around to offering the least scrap of evidence to back them tended to be dismissed with scorn. Yet the fact remains that all those claims were quite simply wrong.

It’s a bit uncomfortable to be the one who points this out, because I am no fan of George W. Bush. I voted against him in two elections, and have never regretted either vote. He and the neoconservative movement that used him as its sock puppet did a great deal to damage the country I love. Yet it’s always seemed to me that a person should be criticized for the things he does, not the intentions that his worst enemies impute to him. Bush was certainly a bad president; he may even, as many of those enemies have claimed, be a bad person. Somehow, though, it seems to have been forgotten that these points do not justify telling lies about him.

The enthusiasm with which those rumors were minted and spread is all the more ironic, in that some of the people who participated most eagerly were among those who complained bitterly when right-wing pundits and websites meted out the same treatment to Bill Clinton during the latter’s two terms. I think most of us who were around at that time heard more than our fill about UN troop convoys rolling down American highways, black helicopters crisscrossing the skies, and Clinton’s personal plan to put America under the yoke of a tyrannical world government that would send gun owners and evangelical Christians to concentration camps. Those stories were just as unsupported by evidence and disproven by events as the equivalent claims about Bush, or the flurry of similar stories already beginning to circulate about President Obama.

The last two decades, in fact, have seen the rise of what might best be called a pornography of political fear in America’s collective discourse. Like other forms of pornography, it flattens the rich complexity of human interaction into a one-dimensional world in which abstract shapes and motions stimulate unthinking reactions from the brainstem levels of its viewers. It thus debases what it claims to describe, even as it pursues whatever raw sensation it evokes further and further away from any human reality. The payoff of the pornography of political fear is different from the one experienced by those who have their hands down inside some less metaphorical pair of shorts, but it is every bit as reflexive, and its results can be just as messy.

The nature of that payoff deserves some discussion here. Hate in contemporary America has much the same status given to some other words with four letters in earlier times: a great many people affect to despise it, and condemn those who practice it publicly, while thirsting for the chance to engage in it themselves. The pornography of political fear appeals precisely because it provides a culturally sanctioned opportunity to indulge in the forbidden pleasures of unrestrained hate. The intoxication of feeling justified, and even virtuous, while wallowing in hatred for an irredeemably evil Other is a potent force in today’s culture – and it may yet become an equally powerful factor in tomorrow’s politics, with disastrous results.

An earlier post on this blog explored the way that terms such as “fascist” have been stripped of their contexts and turned into all-purpose epithets with no other meaning beyond “I hate you.” This common pattern of rhetoric makes it difficult to draw any useful lesson from the bitter history of 20th century totalitarian governments, but the effort needs to be made, because certain features of contemporary culture display unwelcome similarities to the conditions that helped those earlier nightmares claw their way into waking life.

One of them is precisely this habit of allowing pornographic fantasies of political evil to pass unchallenged as reasonable discourse. In the decades leading up to the rise of European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, rhetoric no more heated than today’s torrents of partisan vilification spread through all sides of the political controversies of the day. This did much to create an atmosphere of collective hatred in which it no longer seemed unreasonable, to far too many people, to single out one group within society as the source of all its problems – and set out to remove those problems by exterminating their supposed source.

More than two thousand years ago, much the same process was mapped out in precise detail by a long line of Greek philosophers, who explored the ways that the republics of the classical world gave way to tyranny. The key to the process, according to many of these ancient witnesses, was the rise of bitter factional struggles over wealth and power that spun so far out of hand that the machinery of civil government broke apart and the rule of a tyrant became the only alternative to chaos and civil war. In a nation where a noticeable number of members of either party don’t seem to be able to walk past a picture of the other party’s candidate without screaming obscenities at it, we are closer to that outcome than most people realize.

Such habits flourish these days because representative democracy has always been an easy target for its critics. Abuses of power and displays of rank incompetence happen in democracies and closed societies alike, but in democracies they are more likely to become public knowledge and can be denounced in comparative safety – those people who fling the word “fascist” at today’s democracies, for example, can do so without having to worry in the least about being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night by armed men in jackboots and hauled away to a prison camp. Since politics in a representative democracy requires a constant process of compromise among competing pressure groups and power centers, furthermore, it’s rare for any side to get everything it wants, and this breeds dissatisfaction with the system.

That in itself is no vice – reasoned dissent is the lifeblood of a republic – but when dissatisfaction festers into the insistence that one’s own side ought always to get everything it wants, and the habit of demonizing the other side for standing up for its own interests and hopes for the future, something has gone terribly wrong. It may be one of the bitterest ironies of the next few decades that those who label their political enemies as fascists, by that very act, are helping to build a climate of political hatred, and contempt for flawed but functioning democracies, that could make something like fascism inevitable in today’s America – and a future totalitarian state, it bears remembering, could as easily arise from today’s political left wing as from the right.

It may already be too late to avoid that experience. Still, the effort is worth making, and one place to start is a principled rejection of the pornography of political fear. So, dear reader, when somebody tells you that Barack Obama is personally plotting to enslave you – and you will hear that claim in the near future, if you have not heard it already – I suggest that at the very least, you ask for some evidence more convincing than the splutterings of a fringe media personality or a conspiracy theory website that made exactly the same claims about Clinton and Bush. If we are going to get through the unraveling of industrial civilization with anything like a functioning society, the bad habits of rejecting the claims of a common humanity, demonizing political disagreement, and projecting the shadows of our own frustrations and failures onto the faces of our political enemies, are luxuries we can no longer afford.