State of Fear

I've finally finished reading State of Fear by Michael Crichton. Despite the small controversy it has stirred up by debunking several long-held environmentalist myths, the true impact of the work is not in the fact that it is a well-written thriller (which it is), nor in the fact that it challenges certain orthodoxies. The true impact comes into play precisely in a discussion of the title of the work.

In State of Fear, a minor character by the name of Norman Hoffman in essence sums up the point, which is that sometimes, people or groups will resort to fear-mongering in order to hang on to power. Before I get further into depth, I'll quote a bit of the dialogue in which the summation is made:

"Exactly. For fifty years, Western nations had maintained their citizens in a state of perpetual fear. Fear of the other side. Fear of nuclear war. The Communist menace. The Iron Curtain. The Evil Empire. And suddenly, in the fall of 1989, it was all finished. Gone, vanished. Over. The fall of the Berlin Wall created a vacuum of fear. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something had to fill it."

Evans frowned. "You're saying that environmental crises took the place of the Cold War?"

"That is what the evidence shows. Of course, now we have radical fundamentalism and post-9/11 terrorism to make us afraid, and those are certainly real reasons for fear, but that is not my point. My point is, there is always a cause for fear. The causes may change over time, but the fear is always with us. Before terrorism we feared the toxic environment. Before that we had the Communist menace. The point is, although the specific cause of our fear may change, we are never without the fear itself. Fear pervades society in all its aspects. Perpetually."


... "In the old days -- before your time, Peter -- citizens of the West believed their nation-states were dominated by something called the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower warned Americans against it in the 1960s, and after two world wars Europeans knew very well what it meant in their own countries. But the military-industrial complex is no longer the primary driver of society. In reality, for the last fifteen years we have been under the control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful and far more pervasive. I call it the politico-legal-media complex. The PLM. And it is dedicated to promoting fear in the population under the guise of promoting safety."

"Safety is important."

"Please. Western nations are fabulously safe. Yet people do not feel they are, because of the PLM. And the PLM is powerful and stable, precisely because it unites so many institutions of society. Politicians need fear to control the population. Lawyers need to litigate, and make money. The media need scare stories to capture an audience. Together, these three estates are so so compelling that they can go about their business even if the scare is totally groundless. If it has no basis in fact at all. For instance, consider silicon [sic] breast implants."

Evans sighed, shaking his head. "Breast implants?"

"Yes. You will recall that breast implants were claimed to cause cancer and autoimmune diseases. Despite statistical evidence that this was not true, we saw high-profile news stories, high-profile lawsuits, high-profile political hearings. The manufacturer, Dow Corning, was hounded out of business after paying $3.2 billion, and juries awarded huge cash payments to plaintiffs and their lawyers.

"Four years later, definitive epidemiological studies showed beyond a doubt that breast implants did not cause disease. But by then the crisis had already served its purpose, and the PLM had moved on, a ravenous machine seeking new fears, new terrors. I'm telling you, this is the way modern society works -- by the constant creation of fear. And there is no countervailing force. There is no system of checks and balances, no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear ..."

And exactly what is the underlying fear? Ironically, it is a fear of the loss of control. No matter how you spin it, fear is based on control. And so the elite attempts to control its audience by trotting out the fear of whatever is the fad, and the more vague the better. And always, the threat is one that promises to take away control. As Crichton notes, sometimes that fear is well-founded. But it is the manipulation of the fear that makes the elite, in this case the "PLM", so dangerous. The elite offers its audience a way of coping with the fear of losing control; but that method invariably comes down to giving control to the very same elite.

But because fears can be grounded in reality, it is important to differentiate methods of coping that are positive, versus those that imply losing even more control. For example, dealing with pollution can be handled with education as well as voluntary, maybe even private-incentive, plans, such as recycling. Granted, this means that you must trust your neighbors to be just as aware; but this seems to me far smarter than handing over control to the same elite. Whereas I can influence my neighbors through example and engagement, how am I supposed to influence, say Green Peace? These outfits that cry hysterically about the end of the world are no different from advertisers, and their foremost weapon is to act as Chicken Little.

The answer is not, of course, instinctive distrust of anyone in power, or trying to be in power. While skepticism is healthy, it is more important to educate ourselves about facts. In the process of learning, we will of course pick up biases, but so long as we are clear as to how to differentiate proven fact from unproven allegations, and statements of provable or disprovable fact from opinion masquerading as fact, we will be better off for it, as individuals and as a society.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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