We Need a Little Fear … The voters have spoken. So, what now? How will our still divided government deal with our mounting threats and challenges? Shared fear can help … A Bedouin proverb says, "Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers." Human beings are pretty good at uniting to fight at whatever level is most important at a given moment. This is why every story about a team of warriors or superheroes features an internal rivalry, but all hatchets are buried just before the climactic final battle in which the team vanquishes the external enemy. – New York Times OpEd
Dominant Social Theme: We must unite by any means necessary.
Free-Market Analysis: Sometimes in this business of meme tracking an article comes along that is so obvious and blunt it hardly needs scrutiny. This is one of those articles.
But its candor does not exempt it from analysis. It is a kind of "best of breed" and worth commenting on if only to reinforce the relevance of our message.
The author is Jonathan Haidt, "a professor of business ethics at the New York University Stern School of Business" and author, most recently, of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
We've never heard of him but he certainly seems sure of himself and the validity of his solutions. Here's more from the article:
A national election focuses our attention on a single level of competition — political party versus political party. Let's call that "me and my brother against our cousin." But after that, it's time for our national team to come together to fight the many threats and enemies that confront us. Let's unite with our cousins to fight the stranger!
… Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams to develop competing visions for voters to choose among. But when so many of our leaders can't even occasionally place national interest before party interest, we've crossed over into hyperpartisanship. And that's a very bad thing, because it amplifies other problems like the debt crisis, the absence of a rational immigration policy and our aging infrastructure.
We the people bear some of the blame for what's happened in Congress, for we, too, have become more angrily partisan. So what can we do to pull ourselves up to that higher level? How can we unite not just with our brothers and sisters, but with our cousins?
One way is to focus on common threats, rather than on common ground, just as the Bedouin proverb suggests. It's only the threat of the stranger that brings the extended family together. A physical attack by outsiders — like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 — binds people together like nothing else. But what if there is no such attack? Can trade competition with China do it? What about a threat we created ourselves?
Well, that depends. A basic principle of moral psychology is that "morality binds and blinds." In many pre-agricultural societies, groups achieved trust and unity by circling around sacred objects. In modern societies, much larger groups bind themselves together by treating certain books, flags, leaders or ideals as sacred and by symbolically circling around them.
Such rhetoric as this leaves us almost speechless. This educated man seems to be saying in a prestigious mainstream journal that the larger US population needs to band together behind a "threat" – no matter whether the threat is valid or not.
He lists "rising temperatures" as one threat. Another is "rising entitlements." A third is "rising inequality" and a fourth is "rising births to unmarried women." This last point is actually a good one, as in 2010 almost 40 percent of births were by unmarried women. (That's not the point, though.)
The author completes this astonishing article with an equally astonishing conclusion. He points out that one threat is not enough. "When we focus only on the one asteroid that most frightens us, we feel anger at the partisans on the other side. We curse their blindness without recognizing our own."
What he wants is a myriad of perceived threats. "If we can look up into the sky and see a whole fleet of asteroids heading for us, we lose our tunnel vision and experience a healthy form of panic. We're in big trouble, and anyone who does that hyperpartisan stuff now should be ashamed — or kicked out of office."
Did you catch that? "A healthy form of panic." This is surely a first. Not a dominant social theme so much as a DEFENSE of the promotion of dominant social themes.
And what would be the subdominant social theme? Why, the idea that such propaganda is justified because it "brings us together." The clear implication, again, is that the threat doesn't really matter and that the more scared we are the better it is for society.
We don't know if this statement in the New York Times marks the beginning of another battle for the demos's share-of-mind but it certainly could. The article seems to be a deliberate justification for the kinds of fear-based memes that the power elite promotes on a regular basis.
In other words, as the idea of this sort of control has been made obvious via the Internet (by us, among others) the elites may have realized it is useless to try to deny the obvious. And so, instead, they have decided to try to justify it! Fear-based manipulations are not only practical, the author seems to be saying, but they are necessary …
To this, we can only reply, "We told you so."