Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fear, Inc.

On February 15, 1898 the U.S. Navy's dreadnought battleship U.S.S. Maine sustained a huge explosion and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba with the loss of nearly 3/4 of the 364 man crew.  Shortly thereafter a photographer dispatched by William Randolph Hearst to take pictures of the 'war' complained to his boss that there was no conflict to photograph.  Hearst shot back this famous telegram:  'You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war.'

In the 1920's the press dubbed a gangland cooperative created by the National Crime Syndicate; Murder, Incorporated.  The NCS itself was a Board of Directors of sorts comprised of crime gang leaders from New York and New Jersey and served as a clearing house for airing grievances, settling turf wars, establishing a coordinated approach to dealing with law enforcers, and in the case of Murder, Inc., enforcing discipline.

Employees were paid a regular salary, got 'bonuses' of $1,000 to $5,000 for each killing, had a health care plan, the best lawyers money could buy and assurances their families would be taken care of should some harm befall them.  1 to 5 K may not sound like much now, but in the Roaring '20's, 5,000 bucks was enough to buy two Packard automobiles.  In modern terms, two Cadillac Escalades.  A thug could make a pretty good living fulfilling 'contracts'.  This, by the way, is when the term 'contract' first appeared in the context of murder.

In the 1950's, following WWII and concurrent with the Korean War, the Red Menace became the public veneer of a Godless empire with evil intentions growing as a cancerous  malignancy to blight the world.  Or so it was told by breathless commentators.  Suspected commies were rooted out by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was led by a self-aggrandizing pol with barely a nodding acquaintance to truthfulness, born on a farm in Grand Chute, Wisconsin as Joseph Raymond McCarthy.  His Chief Legal Counsel was a Duke law school grad from Yorba Linda, California named Richard Nixon.

In the 1960's there was George Wallace....well, you get the point.  There is always someone willing to use fear to manipulate circumstances to benefit their personal agenda.  Whether it is a complicit press seeking larger circulation (or I suppose, ratings or website hits, these days), a middling politician or union organizer with a taste for greater power and luxury,  a crusader led astray by fanaticism, or worst of all, a cynic just grubbing for money, someone always steps up to the plate.  So long as their has been human organization the powerful, or those aspiring to become so have unleashed fear as a primary weapon in their arsenals of aggression, or suppression.

But something has changed in the last twenty years accelerating the process and that something is technology.  Specifically, communications technology.  Vietnam was reported on film stock, edited and delivered days later.  Radio was faster but less visceral.  Newspapers got wire photos and reports from United Press International, Associated Press and Reuters, usually in time for same day publication.  Reactions to these images and stories were written and mailed, or telephoned.  Time elapsed between event and reaction.  War was distant but the threat was made ever present to suit the needs of the powerful or ambitious.

Today wars are waged in real time.  Depending on where you lived in the U.S. it was possible to watch Baghdad being bombed while eating your morning corn flakes before you went to work.  It also meant you could watch people die in real time.  Not a movie, though it seemed like it; real people--good guys and bad--died during my breakfast.  I could respond in real time as well.  If I was technologically savvy I could fax, phone or even email within seconds of seeing the event.  Time to think no longer stood between event and reaction.

I was told by those in power that it was the right thing to do.  They showed me evidence that evil doers needed to be rooted out, and indeed, following the horrifying images of the carnage at the World Trade Center (watched with incredulous disbelief as it was happening) it seemed clear enough they were correct.  I supported the effort to wreak vengeance on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  I was convinced, along with the U.N.,  by the Secretary of State that Saddam was in league with these killers.  I was afraid.  I was schooled to be afraid.  Buy duct tape and plastic sheeting and gas masks.  It was the cold war gone hot.  Duck and cover all over again, and I fell for it.

I'm nearly a decade older now, and more wary of scary.  Finally I am on to the tactics, and the rationales behinds these assaults.  I look more deeply; don't take things at face value when presented to me as frightening attacks on my freedoms, health care, gun rights, Christian values, Medicare, dot-dot-dot ad infinitum.  I get it now, fear is a commodity.

Fear as a commodity is a new concept for me.  I understood the manipulative qualities, and to my personal shame have used them myself from time to time.  But it is only recently that I stumbled upon the quantifiable monetizing of fear.  The packaging and sales of fear explains what seemed so inexplicable to me.  It illuminates the success of talk media, both from the left and the right.  The right tells me to fear the left.  They're Socialistas seeking to steal your liberty bit by bit.  They want to kill your babies in the womb and loose rapists amongst your daughters, raise your taxes and kill businesses.  Oil your guns, lay in ammo and supplies, get ready to go the hills to survive.  Could you donate $25 or more for the fight to preserve your heritage?

The left enjoins me to abjure my conservative roots.  Those rednecks want to impose their reactionary Christian Taliban views on us all.  They want the poor to perish in the streets, to be swept away with the rest of the rubbish.  They want to make diversity a foreign word and lock up all the fags and atheists.  They want Big Business left unfettered to pillage the citizenry.  Print up more posters, march on Washington, sit in somewhere.  Sing 'We Shall Overcome".  Click here to donate $25 or more now to defend against this onslaught to your liberty.

Fear has a price.  It is traded on the major exchanges.  Fox News, MSNBC, the EIB Network, Air America all profit from fear as a commodity.  Limbaugh, Olbermann, Beck, Maddow and a long list of grander and lesser players all derive their incomes (and tidy ones they are) from the packaging and sales of paranoia.  They are spectacularly successful and market the resulting no-time-t0-think frenzy as 'news' in a self-renewing cycle of profitability.  They play clips of each other with commentary designed to enrage without enlightening and then deftly slip in the fear mongering just before the commercial break.  Each has its cadre of experts, politicians hungry for media time, and pundits raking in a few bucks on the side by beefing up 'analysis' with their own opining.

But I'm on to you now, I see how and what you do.  What used to be healthy skepticism on my part has been transmogrified into vigilant cynicism.  I'll admit to losing my innocence long ago, now perhaps finally I bid adieu to my gullibility as well.  This is what Fear, Incorporated has sold me.  It makes me sad, a little, to lose that piece of wonder and nescience that every soul should retain.  It makes me angry too, with the perpetrators for their mischief and myself for my personal credulousness.  I don't want to become just another angry old white guy.

Yet now, that is what I fear.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, Bob. And while the packaging of fear as a political tool is as old as politics itself, it is the merging of said politics with the 24-hour news cycle that has created this particular Frankenstein's monster.

    Fear and sensationalism, after all, is what has always sold the news, from Hearst's newspapers to Murdoch's brand of "journalism". If it bleeds, it leads - now just add the political angle and you have left and right talking points.

    Maybe we could learn a lesson from Peter Finch in Network. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

    (Brought to you by veriword: pallin.)