Wednesday, March 05, 2008

"In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning"

--F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up

Son and I enjoyed watching the DVD How Art Made the World last week. One of the most fascinating parts included a discussion of the power of images that tap into the the fear of death.

In the DVD, the presenters were talking about very early art--but when I looked further into a research study cited in the documentary, I came across the extensive work of Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg. Although in the film they do not explicitly discuss the manipulation of fear in modern politics, their larger works do.

Their book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror explores the way that terrorism, by tapping into our deep fear of death, destabilizes society in a way far greater than the actual threat itself.

It is because of our anxiety about our own deaths that we reach out to strengthen our relationships with people with like minds. That could be all for the good--but what is far more pronounced than our efforts to create community is our efforts to conceive of people with whom we do not share a world view as our enemies. In a time of peace, we might be able to coexist happily, but in a time where the threat of death looms, we feel we must fight the opposition. And to fight that opposition, we feel we must have a parent-leader whose rule is not challenged.

We've seen how the Bush administration has recruited that natural process in order to support his own ends and his own position of power. Making sure the American people stayed in a state of fear allowed him and his cronies to avoid any significant opposition from his people.

The researchers from the Art documentary looked at campaign rhetoric as well. As one summary of their study said, "In one experiment Greenberg and colleagues ran during the 2004 campaign, volunteers who completed a questionnaire that reminded them about their own inevitable death (how thoughts of their own death made them feel and what they thought would happen to them physically after they died) expressed greater support for Bush than voters of similar leanings who were not reminded of mortality. The researchers also found that subliminal reminders of death increased support for Bush (and decreased support for Kerry) even among liberals."

Even Newsweek knows this stuff. In an article that ran only two months ago, they showed that the manipulation of fear was by far the most effective kind of political rhetoric--and they showed how all candidates were using it, even those who explicitly condemned it. They end their article saying that "a candidate who neglects the fear factor should have a concession speech ready to go."

* * *

As I packed my bags to return to the DC area from NC, I turned on the television. Not having television at home, I am always stunned by the intense images and messages that most people have targeted at them every day. (In yesterday's post about pain, I did not think about how much pain Americans see every day, acted out before them on the screen.)

Hillary Clinton's new ad--about who you want to answer the emergency phone at 3am when your children are sleeping--was playing. As opposed to the old Mondale ad saying exactly the same thing, Clinton's ad adds the deeply emotional overlay of protecting our own personal homes and our families. At home, we have a mother checking on her children. In the White House home, we have a national mother taking care of her symbolic children--us. (I guess I do prefer this image to yet another patriarchal leader--but good grief....)

I am overwhelmed, disappointed in her in a way I never thought I would be. Clinton did not get my vote in the primary, but I've always said I would be quite happy to vote for her and work for her in the general. I would be absolutely thrilled to see her as the next president, if she became the Democratic nominee.

I suppose I still will be, but her abuse of the fear card worries me tremendously. Talking about security is clearly important in this campaign, but what Clinton has done in not straight-forward talk. Instead it is a calculated strategy. She and her handlers must have read that Newsweek article.

What makes me so upset by this ad is that I see it as the first act that will tear down the Democrats. Yes--Clinton and Obama have criticized each other before, have sniped at each other, have done some of the preliminary work for the Republicans in all sorts of little ways. But this feels very different, very large.

I also wonder if the ad will backfire even if Clinton does get the nomination. If McCain were to say the same about her, what would the answer be for most of America? I'm not sure I want to know that answer. (Um... and this tactic didn't work out so well for Mondale...)

Instead, I want a president who will try with all of his or her might to keep that phone from ringing.


* * *

"One of [Bill] Clinton's laws of politics is this: If one candidate's trying to scare you, and the other one's trying to get you to think; if one candidate's appealing to your fears, and the other one's appealing to your hopes; you better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope." --Bill Clinton, 1994

* * *

So that does it. I'm putting Fear on my "Do Not Call" list.

2 comments:

Liz K. said...

I don't lead a TV-free existence. But in the last year, I put myself on a "media diet." One where I refused to watch anything that exploited pain for the sake of entertainment. No shows that feature children in peril, any kind of depravity, no mothers on their death beds. I also have opted out of books or movies about abduction or murder or anything disturbing.

I did this because I was feeling really overwhelmed with fear and anxiety about the world, and being really fearful for my children in an unhealthy way. But worse, I was worrying unnecessarily about small things, and sweating smallish decisions, staying up at night with a weight on my chest, worrying.

I can say that since doing this, my generalized anxiety has all but disappeared. And when I experienced something genuinely anxiety-worthy (a lump in my breast ), I was able to handle the whole thing with much more perspective and control, being concerned without losing sleep or letting my imagination go wild.

It's amazing the change in me since I've opted out of the fear.

Jennifer Jeffrey said...

You absolutely read my mind. For the past few days, I've been working on a post about fear, and some of the same thoughts have come up. I don't want to make decisions motivated by fear, and I don't want to live each day in the shadow of its terrible, hectoring presence.

It is difficult enough simply to deal with reality - but living that cringing existence is not living at all.

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