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.
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.
- ‘Abbott and Shorten Lead Australia to a Sinister Place’ – Bernard Keane, Crikey
- ‘Terror Scaremongering Threatens Our Democracy’ – Greg Barns, The Age
- ‘Anti-Terror Laws are the Real Danger to Australia’ – Ben Eltham, New Matilda