With the United States on Code Orange, now is a great time to consider the role that fear plays in public policy.
You could argue that it doesn’t. There are, after all, no laws against spiders, ninjas or clowns. If nobody has outlawed clowns, the scariest of all God’s blunders, then where does fear come into play?
The answer, unfortunately, is everywhere. Foreign policy, prison sentences, gun control, segregation, unions, environmentalism, nuclear energy – you name it; fear has a huge part in forming the law. And this is due to a fundamental truth of democracy: ideas are power. If you can convince enough of the electorate to think as you do, then you get elected. In a perfect world, we would have the brightest individuals in the country articulating convincing ideas and putting them into law. Recent elections have made itpainfully obvious that this is not a perfect world. Some of the people who get elected can’t be bothered to read about policy, let alone create it. Instead of outlawing our clowns, we’re putting them into office.
How does this happen? I place a lot of the blame on fear. Because ideas are power, an entire industry has arisen to manipulate our thoughts. Propagandists have known for a long time that emotions work much better than reason, and that fear is the strongest of these emotions. They get paid to try and scare us into voting with our instincts instead of our heads.
For instance, our fear of crime tends to favor candidates who eliminate rehabilitation programs and extend prison sentences. This would be brilliant if rehab programs weren’t so damned effective. Participants in Kansas’ Program for Inmates were less than half as likely to return to prison as other inmates. We should also consider the massive cost of longer sentences. That money could be much better spent on important services like education, child poverty reduction or more tax cuts for the ultrawealthy.
Though that’s just one example, you could literally fill a book with the misperceptions that fear has put into most of our heads. Barry Glassner did exactly that. His book, The Culture of Fear, was the best thing I read this summer that wasn’t written by Dr. Seuss.
Even if you don’t read it, keep in mind that some of America’s most shameful acts were the direct result of its cowardice. McCarthyism and the Vietnam War both stemmed from a fear of communism. Lynchings and segregation were motivated, in part, by fear. It was once a widespread belief that blacks were savages who needed to be kept out of civilized society for fear that they would destroy it. Though we have since learned that Christian evangelists are the only real threat to civilization, those fears were once pretty powerful.
With all the harm that our fears can do, it’s clear that a War on Terror is exactly what we need. Whatever you’re afraid of, get over it, or at least set it aside when you vote. Unless you’re afraid of clowns. You can never be too careful around them.
Loren Williams is a senior computer science major.