Fear Factor

Our hype-driven culture thrives on confusing reality with fantasy
and on making us afraid

by James Squires and Jane Smiley

The American Prospect, April 2004


For a majority of Americans - those who did not vote for George W. Bush the first time-democracy has failed to deliver on its promise that the candidate with the most votes wins. And those who voted for the president-a minority-did not get what they were promised, either. Their candidate, who ran on a platform of plain-truth government, fiscal conservatism, and a safe foreign policy, turned out to be a reckless, aggressive, big-spending president who delivered the largest federal deficit in history and the most controversial war since Vietnam. Now, four years later, it is already clear that the flawed and fraudulent election of 2000 could well be repeated, and perhaps even etched into our politics, permanently altering the character of history's best experiment in self-government.

The one enduring tenet for which American democracy has been known around the world is the faith we place in fair and free elections. But as with other aspects of our image, fairness has always been somewhat of an illusion. Our history is marked by elections gone awry: Voter fraud in Kansas, certified by slave interests in Congress before the Civil War, inflamed abolitionists and convinced many northerners that the South could not be trusted to uphold American institutions of government. Similar travesties occurred with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in 1960 and Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris) four years ago.

The 2004 election could be stolen, too, as many of the weaknesses in the 2000 balloting process have gone uncorrected and some reforms, such as touch-screen and other computer-based election machines, have been shown to be unreliable and easily manipulated. But the real threat is not that Democrats or Republicans will steal a critical state again, or that another president will be appointed by the Supreme Court; it is the possibility that fear is being replaced in the political process by fear-mongering, employed in the high-tech world of instant communications by the skilled and unscrupulous mind manipulators of today's advertising culture.

And the integrity of our political process is evaporating as quickly as the moral principles that once set us apart and made us a model for great nations of the world.

Checks and balances were incorporated into our system by the Founding Fathers to protect the nation from the concentration of power in the hands of a single person, group, or institution (because the Founders had seen the abuse that came from a monarchy). James Madison, perhaps the greatest political theorist among them, envisioned a democracy where critical decisions, such as who occupies the White House and whether to go to war, would be made by educated citizens in a thoughtful debate he called the "public voice." The theory was, ultimately, that a classic, linear reasoning process based on facts-retained from debates and discussions-would yield a consensus. Such a process had produced the great books of world literature, including the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. It also resulted in generally held value definitions and, in America, the political life that gave us the Marshall Plan and the Civil Rights Act, not to mention other policy achievements that elevated our power and status all over the world.

Yet the grim moment when television took over responsibility from schools and parents for creating educated citizens was the day that the economic foundation of democracy-capitalism-became its heart and mind. And, not coincidentally, that may have been the moment when reason and virtue in our political process gave way to dollar signs. Madison and his associates could not have anticipated the public voice ever having to compete with "teaser" headlines- or finding its way to the national agenda only by crawling through sales pitches for impotency cures and low financing rates. Nor, for that matter, could this have been foreseen by Franklin Roosevelt, who as late as World War 11 could still sit down for a fireside chat and reason with his constituents on the radio. It took nearly half a century for entertainment and advertising to overwhelm the institution of the free press, which used to function as America's public voice. And it took about the same length of time for the press's successor in that role-television-to change the process by which the human brain makes decisions.

Recent scientific advances that allow the mapping of brain activity suggest that children who grow up watching television receive and process information differently and more rapidly than their parents who did not. Not unlike muscle development, brain development varies with use, so the more different parts the brain employs, the more efficient it becomes. As a result, the audio-visual communication of information is more efficient when employed by those who have grown up watching television. As more and more people have used audio-visual communication over the years, and as technological sophistication has increased, the structure of capitalism has also changed. When television became the marketplace, people began to gather in front of the screen, ready for their brains to be washed. And no institution in society keeps up with moving targets as well as the American marketing industry.

Members of a well-educated but less hurried society, for example, might reason that a diet of burgers and fries would produce an obese generation short on energy. But watching the thin, young, quick-footed dancers in the "l'm Lovin' It" McDonald's campaign produces a different, more enticing, and distorted picture. Thus does emotion overpower reason. Our political choices, unfortunately, now come in the same misleading packages-and are, not unintentionally, aimed at the most vulnerable among us. There is marketplace for our commerce; it is the marketplace of our ideas. No matter how serious the issue, it is now resolved the same way we buy cars and hamburgers.

America is so addicted to hype that it can no longer tell what is true from what's not. In the recent four-hour telecast of the Super Bowl, CBS ran 54 commercials, each costing more than the total annual revenue of the average small business that once constituted American capitalism. Many of these spots were funny. None of them was true. In one, a horse's flatulence burned the hair off a woman sitting in a sleigh. In another, an ad for a cure to erectile dysfunction implied that the product might produce a four-hour erection

that would require medical attention to arrest. During half-time, a preplanned "wardrobe malfunction" resulted in the baring of Janet Jackson's ample, star-studded breast. And at the end of the game, a team won by just three points.

In that four-hour span, television offered at least three kinds of entertainment: humor, titillation, and athletic competition. And who knows where real ended and unreal began? This is true about television in general, including, sadly, even the news.

When the World Trade Center fell in 2001, it looked like something achieved by movie makers. From television's standpoint, this horrendous event was as successful a piece of programming as could be concocted by the best fiction writers. And had the Super Bowl been scripted, the exposing of the scandal would have been just as lucrative as the event itself- perhaps even more so than Jackson's breast baring. In a culture that elevates stock values above all else, executives are judged only on financial performance, not on how well they educate viewers.

So who cares what is true or not? The public-service mission of the old "free press" has been replaced by the modern media imperative not to bore the audience. Special effects such as those in The Matrix movies are so impressive that human capabilities are underwhelming. That hardly anyone who saw The Matrix can explain what it's about says a lot about a marketplace where even technological wonders, like pictures of Mars taken by a robot, cannot compete with hip-hop sex videos.

Virtually all of this exciting communication is mere commerce for the corporate culture and the preserve of a half-dozen vertically integrated media behemoths. Special effects of The Matrix and news images of Mars are brought to you by the same group of people. And like proverbial giant alligators, they sleep wherever and with whomever they want to; answerable to no one for their behavior.

The media giant Viacom, for instance, owns both CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl, and MTV, the producer of the game's half-time show. No one at either company took responsibility for the Janet Jackson fiasco, which slid all the way downhill to the shoulders of the waning rock star and her barely adult disrober, Justin Timberlake, a skinny kid from Memphis too young to even grow a real beard. And no one was even asked to take the blame for the sleazy commercials-because the one characteristic of the global corporation is the compulsion to close the sale, whether the product is pure gold, equity, or smut.

Historically, the strength of capitalism as an economic underpinning for democracy has been its appeal to the human spirit. Nothing quite satisfies the natural instincts of mankind like achievement and reward. But no individual has ever been as rigid and fanatical about unregulated capitalism as the publicly held corporation. In the last 20 years, buying and selling equity-a form of gambling-has become easier than developing, selling, and servicing a product. But whether marketing widgets, intellectual property, or shares, the selling is accomplished the same way: by creating a favorable impression in the minds of a customer base that has the attention span of a flashbulb.

It is the instant impression, the emotion felt by the receiver of the message, that drives the engine. Television demotes reason and argument to pure irrelevance. Except for C-SPAN, a little-watched cable channel, and some public-television news programming, the public voice now consists of television news and talk radio-two squawk boxes increasingly held to entertainment values and profit expectations by corporations whose allegiance is to monopolization and profit. Once upon a time these corporations were run by people who learned their values the old-fashioned way; now they are run by people for whom television and television values are second nature, who never question priorities or worry about the differences between citizen and consumer. Their only peer pressure comes from fellow profiteers in the world of marketing, where no successful technique of consumer motivation has gone untried or underdeveloped.

And of all the staples of modern television marketing, none is more reliable or often utilized than fear-mongering. Watch a day of commercials and you will see an amazing array of fears being exploited-of being fat, of having the wrong credit card or wireless network or Medicare provider, of drinking beer with no taste, of being unable to control diarrhea or your bladder or your appetite.

With such morally bankrupt commercial entertainment as its forum, political decision making has become a reality show as ripe for exploitation as bachelors and bachelorettes. Over the years, the presidential-election image makers and media "spinners" have successfully raised public hackles with the specter of all sorts of fearsome election outcomes, both real and imagined: the unpredictability of Barry Goldwater's hand on the nuclear button; the racism of George Wallace; the dovishness of George McGovern; a spineless Jimmy Carter under the thumb of the ayatollah; Michael Dukakis setting free rapists, or even disappearing under his tank-driver helmet; Ross Perot going bonkers in the Oval Office. Fear is easy to recognize and exploit. Even something as serious as the response to the September 1 l attacks was orchestrated for grab'em-by-the-nerve television-audience impact.

The Clinton White House was masterful at manipulating the public mind. Bill Clinton himself was a man of words, full of arguments, beliefs, eloquence, and a desire to appeal to reason. Ronald Reagan was a man of words as well, although many of his best ones were written by Peggy Noonan. Unlike Clinton, though, he was never regarded as intellectual or scholarly. Yet he was a man of values formed by linear reasoning. And his rise to political leadership came from his ability to deliver speeches based on principles, not on advertising.

But from the day George W. Bush was created by the Republican Party's right wing as the born-again fundamentalist alternative to an embarrassing Clinton legacy, he has been a nearly perfect advertising image, if a far from perfect president. All presidents spend their first terms running for re-election, but the Bush administration has relied on the principles of advertising unceasingly, almost without recourse to any other mode of communication. And so far that's been its crowning achievement.

Once America was attacked, a president who did not respond quickly and vigorously would have ensured himself only one term in office. So the war in Afghanistan was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, though, retaliation became the emotion that has defined the Bush presidency and has threatened the foundations of our freedom, perhaps more than the acts of the suicide hijackers. Now gearing up for an important election, we are still responding to our own fear-mongering.

The question of whether Saddam Hussein deserved attacking is probably not nearly as important to understanding our future direction as whether the brains around Bush knew what they were doing and why. So far, all the evidence suggests that Iraq was picked as a target for the demonstration of our military might and nation-building expertise primarily because Hussein was so villainous that even the Arabs wouldn't mind him being eliminated. What is new about this kind of White House decision making is that, for the first time, American war planners used instant communications as a weapon of war the way they've long been used in politics.

Not surprisingly, they settled on an ad slogan-"shock and awe"-with "fear" as the target emotion, betting that character assassination of those who disagreed with the war and the firepower would spread the right messages at home and abroad. After all, that kind of fear-based strategy had stopped John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, when his heroism was denigrated and his stability questioned. In fear-based decision making, alliances, standards of conduct, and, indeed, common sense go out the window. Whether the opponent is a congressional candidate or an international terrorist, the idea is shoot him before he shoots you. You'd think people who know so much about guns would understand the problem with hair triggers.

Once a war-or an election-is over, however, such victors don't seem to have a clue what to do. Arrogance and stupidity are self-defeating, eventually. Massive firepower and feelings of omnipotence aside, those quick to war, perhaps responding to their own advertising, have been feebly unable to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. That the illusion of our goodness was lost on the liberated and that some Americans now want a return to reason has left them shocked, if not awed. True, the people of Iraq have been freed from Hussein's prison of tyranny, but America appears hopelessly imprisoned in Hussein's land, caught in the disparity between advertised illusion and chaotic reality.

At least half of all Americans still believe that the Iraq War was a good idea and that somehow the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction and something to do with past and future terrorist attacks. Yet the evidence needed to support such conclusions remains as difficult to find as Osama bin Laden or the truth in a Super Bowl commercial. Whatever reason the Bush administration had for doing what it did, if such a reason exists, has been hopelessly lost in the fear-mongering and drum roll of patriotism. Yes, we have established in the public mind the image of a sincere and involved president rallying his country after an attack. But few TV-educated voters can be counted on to discuss intelligently and coherently the implications of the Bush doctrine of preemption-a radical departure from a bipartisan principle of American foreign policy that had distinguished the United States as a benevolent world citizen.

The notion that we use our might only in our defense was once a cornerstone in our culture. Even in the moral wasteland of television, Marshal Dillon never drew first. Yet the moment that Bush Junior's bombers took flight over the Persian Gulf and tanks began to roll toward Baghdad, this country opened a new chapter in world history. In retrospect, we may realize that it was the final step in the destruction of our finest and most important image, a bold and scary departure in America's foreign policy. Most disturbing, it was a change of immense magnitude made without meaningful debate, shrouded in a catchy advertising slogan, and launched by professional public-relations spinners in a cloud of fear via the miracle of modern communications. And alas, but perhaps not surprisingly, Saddam Hussein did not turn out to be as fearsome as advertised.

Undoubtedly, the best we can expect is more of the same; the questions before the American electorate will sadly be couched in the vernacular of the modern advertising culture. Which should America fear the more, the president we have or the one who might replace him? The competing images are already set in place. In their primaries, the Democrats have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it attempting to set in the American mind an image to fear-that of an incompetent and intellectually incurious president, aloof from the economic concerns of the average person, beholden to the rich special interests and fundamentalist rightwing Christians, recklessly mortgaging the country's future.

And far earlier in the contest than usual, the incumbent's election machinery has already defined its most salable issue: in this case, "national security," aka fear of changing commanders in chief in the middle of war. We are being sold a "wartime president," leading his country not only in the war against Muslim terrorists but also against cultural enemies like gay married couples and other godless liberals of the left. And being a wartime president means never having to explain record budget and trade deficits, or why exporting jobs is good for both corporate America and displaced workers in New Hampshire and Ohio.

Repeated terrorist alerts, new assessments of reinvigorated bin Laden minions, and resumption of the culture war leave little time for dull, irrelevant economic and social truth. So the Republican strategists' idea of the perfect presidential debate would be an image face-off: a doctored photograph of the probable-Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, attending an anti-war rally with Jane Fonda, in contrast to two 15-second film clips of the wartime president, one with him in a flight jacket aboard an aircraft carrier and the other of him leading "NASCAR dads" in prayer at the Daytona 500. The Democratic strategist, of course, prefers another juxtaposition of images: that of young war hero Kerry in combat gear moving through a Vietnam jungle while, to the sound of car-bomb explosions, a smirking Bush challenges terrorists to "bring it on" in Baghdad.

Of course, none of these images approaches the whole truth, which remains as elusive in our system and among our leaders as nobility and statesmanship. But in election 2004, they might be the closest the democracy can come to substantive debate in our current climate of fear. And this is why, back in another time, when images were slower and truth easier to find, an unquestionably great wartime president warned us that of all our enemies, the most real and dangerous is fear itself.


JAMES SQUIRES covered politics for The(Nashville) Tennessean and the Chicago Tribune, and was editor of the Tribune from 1981-90. He is the author of Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers and Secrets of the Hopewell Box. JANE SMILEY is the author of many novels and several nonfiction books. Her novel about the 1980s, Good Faith, is coming out in paperback in May.

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