Past Event

A Culture of Fear?

Café Society will meet at Chicago Cultural Center on Wednesday, November 18th.

Things that go bump in the night. Howling winds and chilling sights. Fear abounds. What do our fears (both real and imagined) tell us about the society we live in? In what ways do our anxieties dictate our value systems and actions?

While vampires and ghosts have their place in popular history, fear has a place in political history as a mechanism to further certain agendas. In his essay, The Politics of Fear, Alex Gourevitch writes, “In conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear as a way of restoring the power and authority of elites. The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.”

Some say that the Bush administration used the fear of terrorism to pass controversial laws under the Patriot Act. Looking back in history, others have pointed to the fear of “the other” as central to the atrocities that were committed in the Jim Crow era. In search of security and warmth, are we allowing our fears to influence policy and governance?

Michelle Chen thinks fear causes what she calls “in-humane” immigration policy. In her piece “Immigration chaos: rule of law versus rule by fear” on she writes, “While many social and economic factors drive immigration, the chaos in the system ties directly back to previous policy decisions, and Washington’s inaction has by default expanded the dilemma it supposedly wants to contain. As Congress turns away from rule of law in immigration policy, it turns over the system, and the fate of the people trapped in it, to those who rule by fear.”

With widespread unemployment, loss of health care, flu pandemics, and an ongoing war, many Americans have reason to be anxious. This anxiety for some has stirred feelings of intolerance. Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, said, “The whole country’s under threat right now, with economic difficulties and political polarization. The need to have someone to blame is really strong in human psychology.”

Recently Rush Limbaugh faced criticism when he accused President Obama of trying to “destroy” the economy” during an interview on “Fox News with Chris Wallace.” He said, “I have to think that it may be on purpose because this is just outrageous, what is happening — a denial of liberty, an attack on freedom.” Limbaugh’s dramatic language drew a line in the sand between those out to “destroy” and those out to “defend” our civil liberties, and, for many, indicated a strategy that incites anxiety and provokes paranoia. This begs the question: does political angling cause more anxiety than the monster lurking under the bed? And do we really only have to fear fear itself?

Do we live in a culture of fear? How has fear been used to promote certain political agendas and what are the dangers of this strategy? What does it mean to live and operate within a culture of fear? How does social and political anxiety alienate us from one another, separate political parties, and segregate communities? What are some strategies for resisting or disrupting a culture of fear? Do you think Americans should be afraid of the direction this country is headed in and why? Does fear weaken the fabric of a democracy?

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