Fear Itself


Waiting in the airport for my plane back to LA, I heard one of the CNN bloviators describe the last four days as a “Reign of Terror”. The mind boggles. I don’t mean to discount Boston’s tragedy and obviously these two crazy kids managed to kill four people and wound quite a few others, but by what measure was the 60 hours after the original bomb blast a “Reign of Terror”? Only by the measure of a fear obsessed 24/7 media culture that has taken the old, “if it bleeds, it leads” adage of the tabloids to its natural conclusion.

Lets step back and think about the quality of “terrorist” that has menaced America post 9/11. As incompetent a collection of losers and Osama wannabes as one could imagine. The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, and now these two confused Chechens. Here is my assumption about the Boston Bombers. The older brother, having been denied US citizenship because he beat up his girlfriend, becomes alienated and starts hanging out on Islamist web sites. Meanwhile the younger brother, already an American citizen is almost preternaturally assimilated into US youth culture. He’s handsome, smokes pot, has lots of girl friends and dresses like a typical hip hopster. The older brother comes back from a trip to Chechnya talking Jihad and the younger brother is too stoned to resist the manic appeal of his beloved brother to participate in the planting of the bombs, which the older brother has manufactured off of Islamist website recipes.

But they are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They are clueless to the fact that any big city in America has almost complete surveillance coverage of its streets. They don’t even think of trying to escape! The little brother goes out and gets stoned with his friends the night after the Marathon. It’s only the next morning when he realizes that he might need his car, which is in the shop getting repaired. By the time both their pictures are on TV, they are in a state of complete panic. You can almost hear the younger brother pleading with his sibling, “what the fuck did you get me into?”

When the inevitable happens and they are cornered by the cops, they comically try to throw one of their IED’s at the cops, only to have it bounce 20 feet in front of them, explode and fill their own legs full of shrapnel.

But if you were to tune into Cable news on Thursday or Friday, you would have not heard about this Opera Bouffe, but rather be confronted with all the post 9/11 Terror in our Cities graphic packages, complete with scary music. A whole city shut down for 24 hours over what should have been treated as a high level SWAT operation. Was there anyone who even dared to ask if this was really the appropriate reaction?

As I have been saying for a while, the default setting for American media and finance culture for at least the last 12 years has been FEAR. It has forced us to overreact in almost every sector. It forced us into two unnecessary wars. It forced us to bail out the big banks at the public expense. It has kept Americas great companies from investing in our future, preferring to hold $trillions in cash on their balance sheets for what they are assured is the coming shitstorm where they will no longer be able to borrow. And few realize that most of the Great Wall Street fortunes made in this period have been by taking advantage of the fear culture. The whole hedge fund economy is based on taking a short position (betting on failure) and then “talking your book” so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. How did John Paulson accumulate one of the great fortunes of our time? By designing a securitized bundle of mortgages that HE KNEW WOULD FAIL, taking the short side of the trade and then getting some suckers (fooled by the AAA rating) to take the long side.

Nothing productive has come out of this fear culture. Despite the constant barrage of bad news, the world has actually gotten better in the last 12 years. Millions have been lifted out of poverty. Life expectancies have improved. More women and minorities  are being educated and are taking positions of power. Cars are getting more efficient and less polluting. But for a tabloidized media culture, these are not interesting stories. And for speculative capitalism, good news does not bring instant windfalls like a great short play.

As a society we have to realize that Franklin Roosevelt was right when he said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” America’s innovation culture was not built by being risk averse, just the opposite. Just how the media and the stock speculators could heed Roosevelt’s advice is of course the much larger question.

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18 Responses to Fear Itself

  1. Hugo St. Victor says:

    We’re so fortunate in this Keystone way, agreed. Probably we’d be foolish to bank on this particular Interegnum, though. Let me ask something sad: the FEAR-driven media aside, is it plausible that adult educators also have some soul-searching to do? Still more forbidden is the question of the limits of diversity celebrated vs. assimilation/acculturation expected. Tizzies for faculty senates, but so what. Come-to-Jesus Time for old Movement nostalgiacs like me. We may have gone too far and wide.

    Finally, while I admire your integrity in blaming the prevalent fears on the Media, a lot of the fear is felt by business owners who have little time to keep abreast of the Nieuwz before or after a working day trying to come to grips with uncertainties, such as the Affordable Healthcare Act, entirely imposed by government, not the Media octopussy.

    Trust me: I trust you, per three years ago, that everything is changing. Probably necessarily so. I just have no feel right now for how much change The People can absorb across the board at once. The depth and variety are pretty sweeping. But then anthropology, especially historical anthro, naturally is slower than economics and sociology, and is relegated as merely tangential to politics. That, I will assert, is just foolish, but I sorta like it that way.

    In spite of all of which, Jon, this may be as good a time as any for all hands to muster on deck, blow past the hype, and get on with it. I am so glad that Len for one is back in service.

  2. Rick Turner says:

    The media also seems universally to think that explosives=training in a remote Al Quaida or Taliban camp; they seem to forget that the Internet has made instructions for building killing and maiming devices universal. Hell, a friend of mine and I made electrically ignited pipe bombs for fun in 1960 as teenagers, and we didn’t need anything more than double capped 2″ pipe, a pile of safety match heads, and some thin copper wire from lamp cord. 100 feet of zip cord and a six volt lantern battery, and we had quite a “whoomp” and shattered iron flying in the air. We blew up stacks of rocks well away from civilization, but if we did that today, we’d be found and jailed as terrorists. Must have been my radical Unitarian upbringing…

    The point is that the technologies for dealing death, maiming, and instilling big time paranoia and fear are right there at our fingertips…and in fact have been for a long time, but it’s easier than ever for marginal personalities to act out and mess big time with a lot of people. You don’t need a fully automatic weapon if you’ve got a semi-auto and nobody shooting back…you can take out a couple of dozen people…kids…in a matter of a couple of minutes, and you could do it with a six shot revolver with a quick loading rig. You don’t need Semtex plastic explosives to blow shit up. Ammonia nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel…or black powder…or, yes, match heads will do the trick. Hell, just go looking for more of those under-examined fertilizer factories. The body count was a lot higher in Texas than in Boston…I wonder who will take the blame there?

    And obviously, one or two people can hold a whole city hostage now. It doesn’t take a Osama Bin Laden, though his body count was astounding and horrifying. And yes, the media really went for it, but who knew in the beginning that it was two pissed off kids? Well, one kid and one only slightly older. It could have signified a full-on assault of the Boston area.

    The guys were idiots, though…it was for the likes of them that the phrase “hoist on his own petard” was coined, a “petard” being a bomb used by early sappers to take down castle walls.

    But we’re surrounded by pissed of idiots who have access to the Internet and explosives. ‘Tis the way of the modern world. May we walk more lightly on it’s surface and hopefully see ethical behavior catch up with technology some day.

  3. barbara says:

    I can’t believe that anyone remembers and can quote Herbert Marcuse!

  4. JTMcPhee says:

    This is the kind of stuff that makes Futilitarians like me just get all warm and fuzzy and want to rub our little mean-spirited hands together in anticipation of what the next bit of mass or Sneaky Pete idiocy will be.

    We could do so much better. Read the comments to any of the stories in any of the media about this to see why we won’t. Mutual vulnerability, known to a few who figure out to take advantage of it, opaque to the rest of us who surf the consuming exhilarating crest of “innovation,” unaware or unconcerned that energy is bleeding out and the reef is coming up to meet us, all coral fangs and bacterial infections unamenable to antibiotic treatment, thanks to all the rest of it… http://boingboing.net/2013/04/22/inside-a-mile-deep-open-pit-co.html

    (Looked to me, by the way, that the Odd Boys’ cookware bomb thing was maybe about the same oomph as your basic M67 fragmentation grenade, of which Our Troops have thrown hundreds of thousands in one bit of fearful fun or another, and nothing compared to the AGM-114 Hellfire blast/fragmentation warhead, of which quite a number have been fired into dangerous Taliban Wedding Parties, and stuff… but who’s counting?)

  5. Alex Bowles says:

    @Hugo St. Victor

    I just have no feel right now for how much change The People can absorb across the board at once.

    Quite a lot, if it’s going in their direction. Not so much if it adds up to another screwing.

  6. Brian says:

    Pulp for money. Too young for Annie Oakley, I remember newsstand crime magazines, a forerunner demographic spurring Hugh Hefner perhaps. It’s easy money. We’re wired to dream it all out. For example, the ilk of Murdoch is a revolving Randolph Hearst; terror his commie, Iran his Cuba. [Golly I’m aging.]

    If we would learn to keep up with hucksters, voir la vie, Peace On Earth, oops… Let’s Party!

    What I really want to say is Screw These Sociopaths. Thank you for relentlessly and studiously reminding us.

  7. JTMcPhee says:

    @len and anybody else, other stuff still goes on…


    But then you already know that.

  8. Brian says:

    JTMcPhee :

    Nice. A perfectly posted repast to the soul, Mr. McPhee.

  9. len says:

    Thanks JTMc.

    Lost job. Got new job. New job has much smarter boss and opportunity to advance with newer technology. Lots to learn. No drama. More money. Nicer eggs to share the bag.

    You know, you never know. You know?

    So to the fear meisters: PFFFFFTTT!!! Trust God and breathe.

  10. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Jon’s so right about the bogus “reign of terror” but man I’m so hung up tonight to see my prediction come true, that the Boston mayhem was cultivated in a public university where this kind of stuff is a game, a sporting diversion from studies. It shouldn’t shame Jon, but it does me. Also it makes me angrier than ever.

  11. len says:

    The cure for viral marketing is inoculation. Terrorism is marketed like movies and unlike men’s underwear. The customer is buying a culture or buying the defense of a culture.

    Society is on the cusp of the realization that the web as a purely open environment is inimical to life as we have lived it. A cloud is a fuzzy event where the edges can take the shape of anything near the forefront of conscious thought so in one view it is Fonzie the bear and in the next an erect penis.

    If you work in a security environment and you haven’t turned off all of the services that are turned on by default when you buy commercial software, you are broadcasting your secrets every time you enter a term into a spreadsheet. In short, the culture of the web is actively and directly working against your security. Your adversary isn’t Facebook; it’s Excel.

    We aren’t allowing terrorists to invade; we are breeding them with very large scale cognitive dissonance that they try to resolve with action. This is particularly true of the young in the universities for whom action to breed, to assert mastery of life is an organic imperative. If the basis of your culture has become predatory from the movies you watch to the bankers you can no longer trust to the image of the president as a weak kneed appeaser of the elites, you have to expect they will exploit every alleyway. If your communications culture of innovation has been subtly directed toward openness as a means to observe the same, you have created the perfect environment for the perfect storm of chaotic violence in a sea of strange attractors.

    Let those who have ears, yadda.

  12. JTMcPhee says:

    One can always simplify and disconnect, can’t one? Oh — maybe not…

    I shall lift up mine eyes unto the hills!

    Whence cometh my help?

    My help cometh from the Lord!

    Who by most evidence ain’t interested, no matter what Pat Robertson has to offer… or those folks who will send you Precious Personally Blessed 10-Gram Bottles of Pure Spikenard Oil Guaranteed To Ensure Sex and Success and All That, for just three love-and-seed gifts of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) and for only $4.95 more, Personally Blessed CDs of the All-Time Great Sermons of Pastor BillyJoeBob….

    So maybe I’ll just sit here and pet my little dogs, who grumble and slumber and dream all oblivious to the rest of it. Bless the beasts, and the children until they are given their tablets…

    One wonders if our host is silent so long in the face of some accelerating appearance of What’s Really Going On In BosWash, and more uncloaking of The Real Obama (Administration.) Maybe it’s just a wise retreat into a comfortable and defensible position, though of course the guerrilla groups are forming up under their warlords, all unknown, as we sleep…

  13. len says:

    What can I say, JTMc? Five weeks after being laid off from Qinetiq and getting another job, Bloomberg reveals the Chinese hacked Q and stole pretty much everything we were working on…. which was a lot of stuff. Talk about getting on the last lifeboat…

    God plays with my head but continues to save my ass. My life is an old roller coaster at a county fair: the scary creaking turns are real and the thrills are priceless. I look to the hills from which laughter peels with a hearty YAHOO!

    Best not mess with the kid. I’m an essay question on a dharma pop quiz. :)

  14. JTMcPhee says:

    len, may you and the rest always have soft landings. Looks like the Interregnum is officially over: Rich Folks, + $6 trillion, up about $1.7 million per “family”; the rest of us, -$700 billion, about $6,000 down per family. MIC is blanketing the planet with operations and “responsibilities.” CO2 is 400 ppm. Species depleting, dozens a day. Monsanto owns agriculture. Fish stocks down. InTrade is even out of business and in debt, at least they are pretending that they may pay off their existing little wagers. Don’t even talk about Wall Street, and “the foreclosure mess,” and worgon and that other guy getting what they so devoutly wish for with the victory of Galtism. It seems to me our host knows where his bread is buttered, and any residual feelings about fairness and all that are settled by the comfortable settling in of the Security State and enough stupid people to go along with it that the Other Thing that has happened to kleptocracies in the past looks pretty unlikely. This Futilitarian kind of was hoping for the Cataclysm, but hey, at the scale we stand at in the universe, that ain’t even a fart in a hurricane, even if it could happen, it would not level the playing field what a fucked-up meme that is, and I have family I still sort of care about who may like the little rodents be able to dance out of the way of the elephants’ feet and jackals’ jaws. Winners take all. May they choke on it. Though that’s not likely, now is it?

  15. len says:

    jtmc, it helps to de-telescope my concerns and stay local. Being yet another frog in a swamp is easier if I focus on the lily instead of the pad. I take my wife on long drives and we stop if we find a new place to eat that isn’t normal. It seems cruisin’ is still the best date when conversation and a change of view is all we need.

    CNN just broke the news that three women were found years after disappearing in Cleveland and my first thought was “Is Betty White holding hostages?” I’m a prisoner of media guantanamo… or m-guano.

    We’re burbling, Jon. Time for a new topic.

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