Jul 8, 2006

Power of Nightmares

My latest Toronto Star column is out; Public Discourse is Dominated by Fear, in which I argue that the public is being manipulated by fear. I've already received critical email saying that I'm being "unrealistic" and

With all due respect to those who believe in the peaceful teachings of Buddha, Christ, et al., such teachings have done little to stem the violence over the centuries - Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Ill Sung, Osama bin Laden, and many others were stopped by firm and powerful military action.
One reply to this would be historical; the only 20th century war in which the western democracies were involved that can even remotely be seen as a war to stop an evil tyranny is WW2 and even that case is problematic. After all, the war was started by Britain and France in 1939 to save Poland, but the end result was that Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe passed from Nazi to Soviet tyranny. And, as I've argued before, the time to stop Hitler peacefully was 1919. Given the excessively punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany was bound to come under some kind of extremist government sooner or later. You cannot destroy the economy and infrastructure of an advanced industrial society and not expect political dysfunction.

Which brings us to Iraq. The lead up to that war was a classic case of fear propaganda. Remember the mobile anthrax vans, the secret nukes ready-to-launch in 45 minutes and all the rest of the male bovine excretement?

Of course there's nothing new in this, except maybe Colin Powell's Power-Point show at the UN. Hitler used similar methods. Getting back to 1939, the German press was full of scare stories about the "Polish threat" and even blood-curdling accounts of Polish terrorism against peaceable German civilians in East Prussia. Most Germans were probably taken in. After all, in 1939 the Volkische Beobachter was the "mainstream media."

If you want a good overview of the use of the cynical use of terror by politicians, you couldn't do better than checking out the three-part BBC documentary; Power of Nightmares. This is an excellent historical overview of the parallel rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and Neo-Conservatism, strange shadows of each other. The neo-cons, who are powerful in the Bush and Blair regimes, are followers of an eccentric academic philosopher, Leo Strauss, who taught at the U. of Chicago back in the 40's and 50's. As portrayed in the documentary, he basically taught (like Plato) that elites have a duty to lie to the masses for their own good, otherwise they will just get lost in idleness and won't be motivated for civilization advancing projects. There was a small cabal of these neo-cons powerful in the Reagan whitehouse who pushed the myth of a devastatingly powerful Soviet war-machine, at a time when the real Soviet Union was barely held together with baling wire.

The same group is even more powerful in the Bush administration, and without even a putative Soviet boogeyman to fuel the industrial-military complex they had to come up with something. That's where the world-wide Islamic terror conspiracy comes in. Except, according to the documentary, it doesn't.

Al Quaeda is a myth, according to the video. There is no world-wide co-ordinated conspiracy, just disconnected groups of disaffected individuals. The video doesn't get into the back-story of 9/11 much, but there is more and more reason to suspect that what you read in the Times ain't necessarily so either. And let's not forget this image, could be straight out of a James Bond movie, but instead by very soberly promoted by Donald Rumsfeld on national TV. (In the video you can see him saying, "and there isn't just one of these, there's dozens of these.")

So we're all being scared into giving up our civil liberties and send our soldiers off to fight wars of occupation here there and elsewhere. But then, Oceania was always at war with Eastasia, wasn't it?


Lauri said...

Wow, I hadn't even considered that the media had done such a number on me about Al Quaeda. Your description reminds me of the anti-Semitism in WW2 and after that posited the Articles of Zion which was a fictitious plot by "the Jews" (of which I'm one) to create a snake hold on Europe. The Articles were written, circulated (including by the Ford family in the glove compartment of every new Ford car) and quoted to incite fear in Gentiles to manufacture support for Hitler’s (and later others') "holy war" against the Jews. There are clearly differences as, at the time, I'm not aware that there were Jews actively aggressing anyone or killing others in the name of Zion but I can't help but be struck by the similarities. Hmmm

Lauri said...

I just did some fact checking I should have done earlier. It was the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” that I was remembering from early in grad school. For a good description of Ford's involvement with it and his use of anti-Semitism to incite fear toward his own ends see: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/ford1.html

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

Interesting factoid; the original version of the Protocols wasn't about the Jews at all, it was written in French, I think in the reign of Louis-Phillipe and was directed against the Freemasons. Who, given Louis-Phillipe's proclivities, were pretty powerful in France at the time.

It was the Russian Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana who reworked the original and changed the villains to a world conspiracy of Jews. This is another good example of the political use of defilements (hate and fear.) I guess the thinking was better to have the peasants blame their crappy life on the Jews than on the regime.

Lauri said...

Oy, I didn't know the Protocols had another target originally.

My understanding of the history of anti-Semitism pre-WW2 is pretty shaky but I think historically Jews have always played a precarious role in the countries they've tried to live in (post Diaspora). They end up forced in to being the public face for the oppressor usually as bankers or bill collectors because in Christian countries Gentiles were not allowed to be involved in usury or certain forms of money handling. Then when the peasants were about to stage a revolt against the kings, government etc. the regime would blame the Jews who were conveniently in middleman or scapegoat positions. Fairly simplistic and there are Jewish scholars cringing but that’s my recollection of it. I remember about a decade ago Lewis Farrakhan was speaking at the campus my grad work at and his main message was a conspiracy theory that the Jews were running the US government and Hollywood and that they were essentially the enemy of the Black man. That meant of course that two differently targeted “minorities” were fighting amongst themselves thereby letting the real power brokers off the hook. Funny how history repeats itself.

What a scholar of History you are Bhante. Thanks for this exchange.