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The Politics of Being Afraid

Scared? Don’t be, says Corey Robin, whose new book, Fear: The History of a Political Idea, argues that trepidation is an “instrument of repression.” Robert Kolker talked to the Brooklyn College professor.

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You’re not scared?
No. Fear in politics is theater—on both sides. Al Qaeda is highly attuned to the theatrical elements of what they do. And on our side, they grab you with these crazy headlines, then say, “We don’t know specifics.”

Is Bush manipulating fear?
I would say Bush is governing through fear, which is different. Fear is the dominant, perhaps the only language of public life today. But Bush has help from the Democrats—they can’t imagine a different way of justifying their power. The first thing Kerry does at the convention is salute and say, “I’m reporting for duty.” That’s a reference to the fear that looks to the nation’s enemies and the protection he’ll provide.

So is Michael Moore focusing too much on Bush? Is he fear-mongering himself?
I think the message he’s trying to get at—that powerful people benefit from the war on terrorism—is inarguably true. But he’s missing the big picture. This focus on the Bushes and the Saudi royal family—I don’t know of anybody who believes that’s the driving force behind American policy. Frankly, I find it vaguely racist.

What’s the big picture?
When you no longer believe government is the source of goodness or wisdom, the one argument Thomas Hobbes thought everyone had to agree on was that government protects you. And so you had to educate people to be afraid, because they’re not automatically afraid. It was the job not just of the state but of universities and churches. Today, it’s the media.

What was the most effective use of fear in history?
The fear of communism. And of black people, of black revolt.

Has fear ever backfired for a politician?
Richard Nixon. Rather than generating fear, his actions generated anger.

But this isn’t all theater, right?
Attacks do happen. The question is, how do we interpret the threats? We’ve made ourselves so stupid interpreting Islamic fundamentalism. Take Mohammed Atta. His friends said three things drove him to Al Qaeda—the first Iraq war, the Oslo accords because he’s against Israel, and the Egyptian government’s repressiveness. They’re all political positions and require a political answer. They don’t require heavy breathing over his anxiety about the onset of modernity.

Does anything scare you?
Oh, my God. I’m a walking list of phobias. I’m terrified of flying. I’m terrified of heights. Loud noises easily startle me. I’m also scared of driving. And sports. And exercise.

What about “Shark Week”?
Oh, I love the shark programs. They’re cool.


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