Be Afraid, Please

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The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”– H.L. Mencken

In a world in which everyone is constantly distracted, arguably the most valued currency is your attention. Politicians know it. Journalists know it. As Big Idea professions trying to survive in a post-modernist age, they’re drowning in indifference. Terrorists know it, too.

To wake populations from their reality television-inspired ennui, big gestures are required. Existential and sleep-disrupting threats must be summonsed – threats even more sleep-depriving than the anxiety of who might survive the elimination final of MasterChef.

So here it comes down a YouTube channel near you. Disenfranchised and alienated (yet plugged-in) Muslim youth, latching onto their own bogus Big Idea, grab our limited attention with ghastly acts that hint at a civilisation-ending moment. Politicians and media, frustrated that their own fading sideshows don’t grab audiences anymore, grab the brief moment and milk it, mercilessly.

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Does anyone else not feel a sense of ritualisation in all of this? For sure, the brutal and staged murder of journalists and aid workers in Iraq is as real and reprehensible. But the enthusiasm with which the media and political class have seized upon this story as an existential threat speaks volumes about their calculated desperation.

The wonder is this is such a familiar script. Fear has been used to control populations for hundreds of years. Many who grew up in the early 60s and the shadow of the nuclear bomb can recall the missile scares and “duck and cover” exercises. Politicians exploit the fear and then use it to rationalise an erosion of liberties. A compliant media goes along for the ride, using slogans associated with the terror threat as an entertainment opportunity – a way to attract increasingly fickle audiences.

Of course, non-reflective journalists (who curiously pride themselves on their bullshit detection ability) are so desperate for the story that they allow themselves to be co-opted by the state in robbing people of their freedoms for the sake of a non-specific threat. But, as David Altheide argued in a 2006 study, it is impossible for the media to provide proper perspective around these stories because they are so invested in the fear, as are the politicians they depend on:

“On the one hand, the politics of fear is consistent with entertainment-oriented news and mass media, particularly its resonance with ‘victims’ and victimisation. On the other hand, the politics of fear helps political decision makers as news sources and as political actors define social life as dangerous and requiring formal social control and state intervention.”

This is where journalism is supposed to come into its own, challenging political elites and resisting boiler plate analysis of the boogeymen du jour. Journalists’ role is to exercise scepticism and to put the spin through the bullshit detector. At the moment, most of them are failing in that role, choosing instead to blandly and in docile fashion parrot the hysterical announcements of politicians with a vested interest in fostering fear.

In the meantime, the politicians say we must sacrifice our freedoms to fight the hazy threat of terror that would rob those freedoms.

Something doesn’t add up. But don’t rely on our Failed Estate to be able to count.

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4 thoughts on “Be Afraid, Please

  1. There were nine full pages allotted to the raids and terrorism in the Daily Telegraph one day, I have never seen anything like it. And it is being reported that Abbott has had better polling since the raids. I am worried that the inmates have taken over the asylum.

  2. Well, I just watched Channel 9’s coverage of the recent police stabbing and felt immediately like banging my head against the wall.

    Channel 9 jumped straight on the hyped up “terrorist attack on Australian soil” bandwagon, which sounded like it was straight from the current bi-partisan pulpit. It was certainly a terrible event, but not sure that “terrorist” is a necessary description. Absolutely no critical analysis from Channel 9, just feeding on the fear and doing exactly what the Libs would want. Reminds me of 2001 when fear won an unwinnable election…

  3. Well, I just watched Channel 9’s coverage of the recent police stabbing and felt immediately like banging my head against the wall.

    Channel 9 jumped straight on the hyped up “terrorist attack on Australian soil” bandwagon, which sounded like it was straight from the current bi-partisan pulpit. It was certainly a terrible event, but not sure that “terrorist” is a necessary description. Absolutely no critical analysis from Channel 9, just feeding on the fear and doing exactly what the Libs would want. Reminds me of 2001 when fear won an unwinnable election…

    FYI, love your blog and came here expecting to find this article – well said!

  4. It’s all very predictable, but let’s be not too quick to dismiss the Left. Sadly anything vaguely progressive (read evidence-based and with humanist values) is considered Left, so those in that corner are usually talking more sense than the Right. And let’s not forget the Greens have held the line in opposing the expanded security powers but they’ve received little credit for it.

    We’re still obsessed with Middle East oil, we still support corrupt and misogynist petrostates, and Western governments spruik for the arms industry. I’d like to see journos give us the historical backdrop for what’s going on now in the Middle East and perhaps even – heaven forbid – make the connections between global warming, our reliance on oil and the arms industry. As well as point out that cuts to security payments are occurring at the same time as increases to military spending. Think I’ll be waiting a while ,,,

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