This book consists of two parts. In the first, Robin traces the intellectual history of fear and terror, and the role these concepts play and have plaThis book consists of two parts. In the first, Robin traces the intellectual history of fear and terror, and the role these concepts play and have played in political thought, culminating in a very interesting discussion of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In the second, he talks about the role fear plays in American politics and civil society, paying special attention to the problem of ‘civil society repression.’ I found it a very interesting book, among other reasons because it explained to me why I find Michael Walzer and Richard Rorty’s arguments about recognition/relativism/politics/morality so lacking.
Robin starts out by drawing an analogy between the story of Genesis 2, and 9/11. He points out that prior to eating the apple Adam and Eve had basically been ‘coasting’ while enjoying eternal life, and that it was only after being told that they would suffer hardship and die that they experienced their first emotion – fear. Reactionaries, he argues, view 9/11 in the same way: as the moment that punctured the happy-go-lucky mood that was so characteristic of (the) 1990s (view spoiler)[(reporting, in any case; a lot was going on already on the 'hollowing-out-the-middle-class'-front, but since this was only reported on as "the unavoidable consequence of globalization", with reporters themselves – and here we should focus especially those who breathe in east coast elite air, as they are the ones who produce all the feckless/narcissistic blather that is otherwise known as "the national conversation" – were doing just fine, while socio-economic reporting was way too political) (hide spoiler)], and that put fear back into American hearts, forcing everyone to acknowledge that life truly is "nasty, brutish and short". As Robin points out, even though the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon were certainly terrible, there is nothing natural or necessary about the political and societal consequences of the attacks, and the fear and confusion they caused. So just as McCarthy used fear of a “communist conspiracy” to cow leftists into submission and push back against the New Deal, so the Bush administration and political commentators generally used the fear of a “repeat” to start two wars, the building of an enormous surveillance apparatus, and to generally distract from the further hollowing-out of the middle class. The takeaway points, here, are that "national threats" are generally identified by people with agendas, and that the more nebulous a threat is – a communist conspiracy, terrorists lurking on every corner, “being turned into Sweden” – the easier it is for the people running the country (and its security apparatus) to justify their actions as “necessary”. Because if you control the executive and legislative branches, you have the institutional means to keep alive – via constant and invasive TSA checks, alert level changes, the repeated training and “folding” of terrorist groups, and whatever other institutional means you can come up with – fears of terrorists lurking everywhere. Building on Quentin Skinner’s work, Robin argues that Hobbes was the first to argue that choosing national threats, and using the institutional capacities of the state (and the media) in order to make the dangers posed by “threats” real and visible, were justifiable, and things that should be done consciously.
The other thing Hobbes premiered was the thought that morality (especially insofar as guaranteed by the state, but also in the broader sense) could be founded on fear. The next person to make this move does so coming out of the experience of WWII: starting with Judith Shklar, many 20th-century liberals (e.g. Walzer, Rorty) have started from some variation on the argument that since experiences of suffering (physical and psychological) are 'easily recognizable' by anyone regardless of culture, we should just justify our behavior by reference to a perceived duty or desire to stop and prevent it. Robin calls this the ‘liberalism of terror’, and notes that liberals hoped it would provide them with an argument for intervention that was almost impossible to deny, trivialize or ignore the validity of both at home and abroad, thus giving them an answer to conservative accusations of ‘lack of willpower’. He points out that this line of argument became especially popular after the 1980s, and that it was intellectually preceded and accompanied by a stance Robin refers to as the ‘liberalism of anxiety’, which he describes as turning on worries about the consequences of 1960s and ‘70s leftist political activism for civil institutions and social roles. Worried that people would no longer experience sufficient pushback in their formative years, many liberals believed that people should be discouraged from engaging in political activism, and be encouraged to engage instead in civil activity (which tends to not disturb the institutional and political status quo). Meanwhile, any excess political fervor should be channeled towards foreign human rights abuses, while experimentation with democracy should similarly happen abroad. I found this chapter quite interesting, because I’d never quite realized that Rorty’s arguments (and here, think especially of Contingency, Irony, and SolidarityContingency, Irony and Solidarity) that moral claims are legitimated by the subjective experiences of suffering that inspire them, had been so widely shared. The problem with this is obvious: without a yardstick against which to check whether the experience of suffering is reasonable, you may well end up supporting people whose suffering is caused by their no longer being allowed to beat their wives, keep slaves, or to emotionally abuse and fire their employees whenever they feel like it.
A second line of argument worth mentioning here concerns the interaction between fear, social status and economic security. His starting point for this discussion is Arendt’s Eichmann. By way of opener, consider Robin’s observation that the work contains one of our only sustained study of the role played by careerism in sustaining and developing regimes of fear (for an example of what this entails, see Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man).
In the second part of the book, called “Fear, American Style”, Robin elaborates on this by looking at and connecting a number of things and events that he deems especially relevant if we want to understand the role fear plays in American society. Appropriately, he starts this part with an analysis of McCarthyism, in which he looks at the role played by political (especially interesting here are his discussions of how separation of powers, the rule of law, and federalism can be put to work in order to distribute state repression, with the added advantage – from the perspective of repressors – that the distributed model makes organizing a defense against the repression more difficult) and civil institutions. Robin pays a lot of attention to the question which role civil society institutions -- particularly employers, including the media and Hollywood – on the one hand, and (partly legitimate) worries over social/economic security by employees -- worries about being blacklisted if you didn’t cooperate with the congressional investigation, which required you to promise to never associate with other members of the communist party again, to become an active “anti-communist,” and to name all of the other members of the Party that you knew, or risk being thrown in jail after a lengthy trial – on the other. He points out that even though only very few people were actually convicted by HUAC, McCarthyism had an enormous influence both on public and political discourse, primarily because of civil-society cooperation with the congressional committee by employers, who made many demands of their employees, and who frequently “investigated” personnel for communist leanings and/or “activity”, and who were of course entirely free to fire their employees for whatever reason, including for refusing to testify before the HUAC. By doing so, he shows that a lot of the worrying about “state repression”, so commonplace in American discourse, is misplaced, and distracts people from the question what goes on in civil society, because if it hadn’t been for the happy (or unhappy, which had the same chilling effect) cooperation from Corporate America -- including liberal Hollywood -- it would never have been possible for McCarthyism to have the effects that it did.
In all, I found this a very interesting book, one which I will certainly return to a few more times in the near future. I very much encourage you to read it, and to consider doing so before or after reading Robin’s other book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah PalinThe Reactionary Mind, as it nicely complements this book in talking more about reactionary mindset, whereas I would argue this book is more relevant to understanding the liberal mindset.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Useful book, that seems to me to fairly effectively demolish most of the important economic talking points and dogmas out there. Although it is not paUseful book, that seems to me to fairly effectively demolish most of the important economic talking points and dogmas out there. Although it is not particularly rigorously argued, it seems to me that most of arguments offered by Chang would hold up when defended at greater length. (And anyway, why demand more rigor from Chang than from the freemarketeers on the other side, who generally offer arguments with holes large enough to pilot oil tankers through in them?)...more