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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Any Excuse to Panic is a Good One

frightened peopleIt's a study that conservatives would rather have everyone forget. In September of 2008, a study published in the journal Science found that there was a major physical difference between conservatives and liberals -- conservatives were more prone to be fearful. Subjects in an experiment were shown a "series of images that included a bloody face, maggots in a wound, and a spider on a frightened face" and their physical responses were recorded.

"Compared with staunch liberals, people with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful after factoring out the effects of gender, age, income and education, which can all affect political attitudes," reported the LA Times.

This study was widely reported as being proof that liberals and conservatives are "born that way." Liberals can be pro-gun control, for example, because they aren't afraid of being attacked and see no need to be armed. On the other hand, conservatives are anti-abortion because photos of aborted fetuses really freak them out. I don't think many who aren't conservative would argue that the conservative movement hasn't historically been paranoid. From the Red Scare to Saddam's non-existent WMD, conservatives have always been in a hurry to eliminate threats that don't actually exist.

But I don't think that liberals and conservatives are born, not made. I think the fearful drift toward conservatism because the right has learned to exploit fear. Joe McCarthy wasn't afraid of communists in our midst, mostly because he knew he'd made it all up. But he convinced others to be afraid and used that fear to become more powerful. George W. Bush knew or suspected that there weren't any WMD in Iraq -- he certainly knew there were no ties to al Qaeda -- but he exploited fears of mideast terrorism to invade Iraq. In both of these cases, the message from the exploiter was clear, "be afraid." Is it any wonder that the fearful would be drawn to those who promise to protect them from threats -- real or BS?

But what happens when the right is told to be afraid of the right? We're finding that out right now, in an unintended experiment. The answer is that the right becomes incoherent, inconsistent, and hypocritical. At least, more so than usual.

Step one -- "You have nothing to fear but right wing crazies":

Associated Press:

Homeland Security officials are warning that right-wing extremists could use the bad state of the U.S. economy and the election of the country's first black president to recruit members to their cause.

In an intelligence assessment issued to law enforcement last week, Homeland Security officials said there was no specific information about an attack in the works by right-wing extremists.

...In this report, the agency warns that imposing new restrictions on firearms and returning military veterans who have difficulties assimilating back into their communities could lead to terror groups or individuals attempting to carry out attacks. The returning war veterans have skills and experience that are appealing to right-wing groups looking to carry out an attack, according to the report.

The agency cites the April 4 killings of three Pittsburgh police officers as an example of a the type of violence spurred by right-wing rhetoric.

Step two -- Observe the reaction from conservative media:

Glenn Greenwald, Salon:

Conservatives have responded to this disclosure as though they're on the train to FEMA camps. The Right's leading political philosopher and intellectual historian, Jonah Goldberg, invokes fellow right-wing giant Ronald Reagan and says: "Here we go Again," protesting that "this seems so nakedly ideological." Michelle Malkin, who spent the last eight years cheering on every domestic surveillance and police state program she could find, announces that it's "Confirmed: The Obama DHS hit job on conservatives is real!" Lead-War-on-Terror-cheerleader Glenn Reynolds warns that DHS -- as a result of this report (but not, apparently, anything that happened over the last eight years) -- now considers the Constitution to be a "subversive manifesto." Super Tough Guy Civilization-Warrior Mark Steyn has already concocted an elaborate, detailed martyr fantasy in which his house is surrounded by Obama-dispatched, bomb-wielding federal agents. Malkin's Hot Air stomps its feet about all "the smears listed in the new DHS warning about 'right-wing extremism.'"

It'll get crazier as time goes on and more right wingers get a chance to get their own terrified licks in. The report itself warns of "right wing extremism," like white power groups and survivalist militia Timothy McVeigh-types. So you kind of wonder why these supposedly mainstream conservatives feel that they belong in this group. Newsflash: no one's watching Michelle Malkin's or Jonah Goldberg's house to see if they're plotting some kind of terrorist attack. For one thing, they've both lacked the courage to go fight in the Iraq war they were convinced was vital to the future of mankind. Cowards who refuse to fight overseas aren't likely to pick a fight here. I have absolutely no fear that they're going to take up arms against the government -- and not just because I'm a less than fearful liberal.

It's fitting that these were the people who were cool with wiretapping and rendition and torture. The argument went that if you weren't doing anything wrong, you didn't have anything to worry about. You wonder why they no longer believe this -- that is, until you give it a second's thought. It wasn't the people who weren't doing anything wrong who had nothing to worry about, it was the people who were doing all the fearmongering that had nothing to fear. No one suspected Malkin of Goldberg of being terrorist sympathizers. They were safe.

And they're probably still safe. The DHS report is a warning -- and a pretty common sense and obvious one at that -- not a declaration of war against right wing extremism. But leave it to the fearmongers to fearmonger this. We've got a warning that right wing extremists may pose a threat -- mostly due to the propaganda coming out of the right wing media -- and the right wing media reacts by telling right wing extremists to freak out.

Maybe it's just me, but that seems just a tiny bit counterproductive.

Unless you're in the business of exploiting fear, then it's just good marketing.


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1 comment:

vet said...

You're right, but...

The DHS report does say, in so many words, that the DHS is watching people who are not suspected of planning any kind of terrorist activity, just because of their political views.

Is that good? Sauce for the goose, you might retort - they've been watching radical Muslims for years, and Communists for decades, regardless of the lack of any immediate "threat". But is that justified? How many people should be permanently under surveillance, just because of their beliefs?