The Politics of Fear

The same message is clear everywhere you look: be afraid, be very, very afraid. Whether it is about terrorism, jobs, or who to vote for, fear is a powerful weapon, economically and politically, in the hands of the ruling class. Fear is divisive, it is incapacitating, and ultimately immobilizes the working class and everyone struggling for social change.

The power of fear is that it shuts down. It shuts down debate, it shuts down dialogue, it shuts down meaningful action. Whether or not the fear is rational is largely irrelevant. Many people fear many things with very little, if any, rational explanation for the fear. According to a public survey, Iran was ranked as the biggest threat to world peace in the U.S. and Canada. Why? Iran hasn’t attacked another country since 1798. On the flip side, Iran has been attacked on many occasions by the U.S.-NATO alliance. The U.S. and Britain overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 on behalf of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, BP’s predecessor, ushering in a reign of terror by a brutal monarch. The U.S. supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons to attack the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War, the very same weapons the U.S. illegally occupied and destroyed Iraq for allegedly possessing. In 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down a civilian airliner, Iran Air flight 655, killing all 290 people on board, while the plane was over Iranian territory, in Iranian airspace, traveling the plane’s standard flight path. There is no basis to any claim that Iran is a threat to world peace, but there is overwhelming evidence the U.S. and its allies are.

Fear is far more powerful than logic, however, something the ruling class understands, and the reason is physiological. Humans have evolved two important mechanisms for survival. First, there is the “fight-or-flight” response caused by the deactivation of the Prefrontal cortex by the Limbic system. The Prefrontal cortex, located near the forehead, controls executive function, rational thought, and social moderation. The Limbic system, located in the centre of the brain beneath the cerebrum, controls emotions. The activation of one of these leads to the deactivation of the other on a continuum; the more threatened (or stressed) you feel, the less is your capacity for rational thought. This is the essence of the “flight-or-fight” response, a relic of a time when fleeing a predator was critical for survival. “By threatening somebody,” says psychologist Nicole Currivan, “whether it’s real or perceived, you can completely disable people’s… ability to think straight…The level of stress will influence the amount of rational thought vs. emotion that’s available and it’s totally subjective to the perceived experience of stress.” Secondly, the Limbic system is responsible for long-term memory. The more threatened we feel, the stronger and longer-lasting are the memories of that experience. Again, this is a relic of a time when remembering the smallest details of an experience could assist in recognizing, and thereby avoiding, any similar experience.

Today this means that any perceived threat, and any policies arising therefrom, whether rational or not, will leave a much stronger impression on people’s brains than a hundred logical arguments. There is no rational reason to perceive Iran as the biggest threat to world peace, or think that ISIS will ever establish a caliphate outside the Middle East, or that North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) will lob a nuclear missile at the U.S, or that the impact of two commercial airliners could collapse three high-rise skyscrapers in New York, or think that raising the minimum wage will cause any dramatic decrease in employment, or that immigrants are stealing our low-wage, precarious jobs.

Some writers have said it is not the media’s fault for this atmosphere of fear, they are simply reporting on what happens around the world. On the contrary, the media, in choosing what to report, how to report it, and who to quote or source as an authority on a subject, has a critical role in instilling fear into the minds of millions of people. According to David Swanson, in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, approximately 3% of U.S. sources were anti-war. The rest were either current or former members of the U.S. military, i.e., pro-war. Moreover, the mainstream media outlets repeatedly have spread misleading or completely false information. The BBC showed a photo showing victims of the Iraq war, taken March 27th, 2003, claiming it was a photo of a massacre in Syria. Shocked, the photographer of the photo said, “What is amazing is that a news organization has a picture proving a massacre that happened yesterday in Syria and instead it’s a picture that was taken in 2003 of a totally different massacre. Someone is using someone else’s picture for propaganda on purpose.” It has become the modus operandi of the mainstream media to spread fake photos and videos, or at least deliberately misattribute them to wrong countries and events, for propaganda purposes.

State and security services also contribute to an atmosphere of fear. Multiple would-be terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been facilitated by the FBI. A 23-year-old student was provided with a van full of chemically inactive material in barrells, driven by an undercover FBI agent, and then charged with terrorism. A B.C. judge found that the RCMP, through “trickery, deceit and veiled threats,” engineered a foiled terrorist attack.

The reality is that the ruling class wants workers to be afraid, be divided, and follow orders obediently. It is therefore important to understand what processes are at work when one is experiencing fear, and learn more effective ways to recognize this in both ourselves and others.

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