The Fear of Liberalism (part 1)

Those of us to the left of whatever we call the middle these days bemoan the President's obvious resort to fear as a campaign weapon. When the incumbent can't point to his own successes as his campaign platform, but is instead reduced to poking holes in his challenger's character, it's ugly enough.

But when the Vice President personally and publicly says that voting for the challenger increases the danger of terrorist attack—that's a level we haven't seen recently. I'm reminded of the Nixon era, Christmas bombings, “Peace is at hand”, and all that.

The polls are regularly interpreted to mean that Bush owns a reliable majority on only one issue: security, and that in the abstract. Even about security in the practical sense, arising from actions in Iraq, Bush is no better than even with Kerry. But trust him to defend the homeland, that kind of thing, Bush wins. Despite the fact that he was on watch and, according to several credible reports, ignoring the signs of impending attack in the days before 9/11, he's leading in several polls, though often by less than the margin of error.

How to interpret the dichotomy between security in the abstract and that in the physical world of consensus reality?

One theory is that the buttons for fear and hate are easier to push than those for respect and compassion. Fear and hate appeal to deeper, more subconscious urges, while respect and compassion appeal to loftier goals, and require greater understanding and tolerance.

As a group, a polis, Presidential campaigns push more of our buttons than anything else, and it's hard to get a fix on things when there's so much coming at us that's all designed with our buttons in mind. As Greider says,

The presidential pageant has now risen full in the sky and is blocking out the sun. Until November, we dwell in a weird half-light, stumbling into spooky shadows but shielded from the harsh glare of the nation's actual circumstances. Down is up, fiction is truth, momentous realities are made to disappear from the public mind.

In such a situation, the mind struggles to find guideposts, and motivations are unclear. The relative importance of emotions like fear naturally increases as information becomes sketchier and confidence in world-view decreases. The fear button sticks up above the rest, and it's the button that sticks up that gets pushed down.

In What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank talks about how taking economic issues off the table leaves only principles as a means of making distinctions between candidates. Folks are left thinking,

"If there's no difference between the parties on the economic issues that matter to me, I'm going to vote my conscience on moral issues."

The thing about moral issues is, positions on them are untestable propositions. One can take a position without having a clear metric for success, with no need to demonstrate the viability of one's commitment. You could, for example, run for office on the slogan I'll Keep You Safe after initiating a dishonest war that the experts agree made me less so. The contradiction does not disprove the proposition; you may not have kept me safe, but you will.

The backlashers, to use a Frank-related term, have found some issues of principle on which they know they cannot prevail. Flag burning, abortion, and gay rights, for example, are issues on which the majority opinion has clearly been against the backlashers for a long time. Few people are likely to announce their support for flag-burning, but any Boy Scout knows you can't outlaw burning a flag; it's the only proper way to dispose of a flag whose fabric has become unusably worn. Few people are for abortion, but few people are against saving the mother's life. And so on. The backlashers just can't win, and they love it.

Here's a set of buttons of the type that return to the original position after being pushed. Thus, they're available to be pushed again. Fear of the unknown, for example with respect to political opinion or sexual practice, is a powerful force that the conscious mind overcomes only with experience. Gathering that experience involves an act of will; it usually doesn't happen by itself.

Frank's descriptions of the backlashers of Kansas remind me of the people I grew up around in the hills of Appalachia. Now that I no longer live there, it seems to me a place one goes to avoid the sort of broadening experiences that lead to a more confidant world view. Another Boy Scout lesson is that of triangulation. In making a map of the campsite, you use a compass to determine the direction of a landmark from two vantage points whose distance you know. Measuring one length and two angles, you use geometry to calculate the distance to the landmark. Of course this is not what “Third Way” politicians like Clinton and Blair mean by “triangulation”. That appears to mean continually splitting the difference with the landmark, while it sits still.

But the idea that you can learn more about a distant object by looking at it from another viewpoint is provocative. One road from there leads to the proposition that our opinions differ because we start from a different set of facts. We look at the same landmark from different directions, so we don't see precisely the same thing. We base our opinions about the present and our prescriptions for the future on interpretations of the facts as we see them.

An unknown but possibly large percentage of the difference in our opinions is thus due to the difference in our fact sets. Like chessplayers, we're aware that we're failing to collect all the available data; but time is limited, and we can't take every viewpoint into account. We know we don't know enough to decide, but we have to decide anyway. Buttons are asking to be pushed.

So here come the candidates with button-pushing fingers at the ready. Bush's constituents have “bin Laden” buttons; Kerry's constituents have “Bush” buttons. Also “Nader”. Nader constituents are developing “Gore” buttons. It's getting ugly.

None of these fears or hatreds are completely irrational—bin Laden really is dangerous, and so on. But at a fever pitch, fear causes disorientation; it's like a pilot who flies into a cloud. The fear that arises from disorientation must be put to the side; there's no time or effort to spare on it now. The pilot must depend on instruments to keep the plane straight and level. This, as Leo McGarrity puts it, is the big leagues.

Playing on the fear factor, Vice President Dick Cheney suggested in a campaign speech there might be another terrorist attack on the United States if John Kerry were in the White House. President Bush's opponents' [sic] are raising their own worst fears, including the potential for more wars during a second Bush term.

The rhetoric continued during the weekend. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., speaking at a Saturday night fund-raiser in DeKalb, Ill., said his opinion is that the al-Qaida terror network could operate better with Kerry in the White House instead of Bush. Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, issued a statement Sunday accusing Hastert of using the "politics of fear," which Edwards said is a "clear sign of weakness and failed leadership."

With fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq far from over, a Pew Research Center Poll found that 51 percent of voters surveyed said they do worry that Bush, if re-elected, would lead the country into another war.

The politics of fear. We're so used to the existence of such a thing that we don't always notice its corrosive effects. We see the fears that drive the other side wild, but we miss our own. I'm tempted to call upon Robert Anton Wilson (from his introduction, “The Spaghetti Theory of Conspiracy”, to Donald Holmes's Illuminati Conspiracy):
In blunt language, nearly 300 years after the Age of Reason was prematurely announced, most people in most nations most of the time are mentally in total bondage to religious leaders who operate on sheer bluff, i.e. on the basis of claims that cannot be proven and appear clearly insane to everybody who hasn't been raised within their frameworks.

He continues the religious metaphor to humorous effect; but there's no reason to limit the metaphor to religion, it works for the closely related field of politics as well.

I'm trying to establish two points here. The first is that the differences in our opinions are largely due to our fact sets being different. In situations where immediate self-interest is not involved, if our fact sets are the same, our opinions are likely to be very similar.

The second point is that everyone has fears, hatreds, vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Perhaps the Buddha transcended such human vices, but most of us haven't. So there are marketers who target people we think are wrong on the issues, and there are marketers who target us. Fear strikes wherever it can.

(To be continued…)

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