Use of Fear in Political Discourse: Do Latinos recognize it?

December 7th, 2009 · 11 Comments

Seneca has contributed the following about Latinos and the use of fear in the political climate:

Fear in public discourse is as ancient as political competition. While man was in the caves, he became fearful of fire, the shadows it created, lightening, thunder, the wind or snow storms, the swollen sea, the flooding streams, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the sun, the moon, an eclipse, shooting stars, the movement of clouds, the howling of wild animals in the night and many other phenomenon. One ancient protagonist among our ancestors who became most important was not the leader of the pack but the ‘medicine man’ or better known as the ‘warlock’, the ‘sorcerer’, the ‘brujo‘ or simply the person who practiced the ‘black’ or supernatural arts and purported to be a healer as well. This manipulator of the human spirit in most races, tribes, clans and extended family became often associated with the idea of a ‘priest’, ‘rabbi’, or a ‘holy man’ and gradually a significant political influence. The politics enter when this brujo is able to not only use the natural fears of man but also to become the chief counselor or advisor to the pack or clan leader, king, prince, nobleman, or simple chieftain. His use of fear over the pack or clan helped him control the extended family or clan for the ‘leader’. This clever or artful individual becomes key to the organization especially as Plato described the tribe leaving the cave and out into the foreboding world. This demonstrated man’s urge to discover the world and confront the perilous challenges of an untamed one. A world of superstition (evil eye, spells, curses, disease, death…) made for a terrifying world existence. This struck at man’s most primal instinct: survival. The threats and fears have been a staple throughout human history.

In modern day public discourse, the politicians and the men or the persons of the cloth invariably use some sort of fear. The smite and wrath of God is one of the most ancient invocations of fear. The politicians, who became the managers of the city or nation-state, invariably invoked the power of the prince or head of state or nation to control the masses. Civil law seems to have codified the nobility’s claim to wealth especially land. Penal law as it developed was to control the peasantry, the lumpen, or the simply the lower orders. The penalties in violating penal law were obvious (in ancient times usually considered a threat to the governing class’ position in society). In autocratic societies or dictatorships, these legal ukases or decrees are enough to put most people on notice. The fear of the prince or king seeking retribution is enough on how to scare the populus into submission. Stalin did this most effectively in the 1930s with his wholesale slaughter of about 30 million Russian peasants (Kulaks) and millions of others. Hitler was another feared character. His totalitarian state created fear of the Jews and then sowed the hatred and monstrous destruction of the European Jewish population. But in democracy the use of fear is implicitly suppose to recede. Why? Because man has learned how to speak for himself, cheerfully groups up with like-minded people and seeks the best leadership. Man in the current democratic process has become more subtle in the manipulation of a more modern social being. Yet, the shameless use of ‘fear-mongering’ has risen to surging and commanding heights in recent decades in the Western World, especially the United States.

Fear-mongering in wars is quite common. We must not forget Winston Churchill’s cynical but true comment when asked how he could justify the lies and distortions Britain carried out against the Third Reich: he retorted with typical wit and bemusement: “…the truth is so precious that it must be safeguarded with a bodyguard of lies…” In today’s modern world of political discussion, we should be so lucky to have Churchillian wit or dazzle! Instead we have mostly mortifying demonstration of vituperative, lacerating, wicked inferences, slander and fear-mongering at its most evil. Talk show radio has become the medium of choice in the fear-mongering attempts. The political right with its nationalistic, ethnocentric penchants is in the forefront. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Glen Beck, Anne Coulter, and some would include Lou Dobbs. The thundering sound of these prophets of doom and gloom certainly captivate a large segment of the American body politic. They readily resort to using ‘wedge’ issues like abortion, gun control, anti-gay sentiment to garner support for the Republican Party. Just like the Iranians call their political party, Hezbollah (Party of God), some wags call the GOP the ‘Party of God’ since it thrives in its core attraction to the religious fundamentalists. The right appears to have a much more defined array of issues that they invoke in fear-mongering: raising taxes, budget deficits, soft on commies or enemies of American people, gun control , pro-life (anti-abortion), use of busing for school integration, welfare, health care system, environmental issues, feminist rights, affirmative action and host of other themes. The liberal left lamely creates fear by pointing out that the right is excessive and dangerous and will eventually seek a higher cost. The left is often inclined to target capitalism as being ‘savage capitalism': “the rich get richer and the poor get kids.”

Among the Latino community, fear-mongering has been constant. The Latinos before World War II were fearful of being arrested, lynched, detained or merely question by white authorities. The fear inherently was one of being targeted as a non-white or alien and therefore no basic rights could save you. The courageous work of the LULACS and other pioneering groups helped stem the fear. Fear was used by white political bosses to get the Latino vote. Staying on your side of town was a time honored approach to keep the Mexicans in their place. Sometime after the Civil Rights of 1964 with public accommodations fully attempting to integrate American society, the northern part or non-segregated portion of the US began to react to busing of school children in particular. The North, which earlier had been seen as tolerant of integration, now felt threatened. Concurrently, the Hispanics for the first time began to distance themselves from the Black American community, which previously had been a faithful partner in fighting discrimination. Cubans and Puerto Ricans came from island nations with a long history and presence of Afro-Caribe people. Hence, they showed no threat in general with working or living with non-white or non-Hispanics, though, a discernible patronizing feeling was commonly detected. Yet, Latino communities, especially Mexican-Americans who had rarely lived alongside African Americans, were targeted for fear-mongering by racists, intolerant individuals, hate-purveyors etc. The black communities were also whipped up to fear the ‘hordes’ of newly arrived Latino immigrants, who would displace them and take their jobs. Plainly, fear was the instrument of use in most cases.

The present day challenge for Latinos lies in the current immigration discussion. It is riven with fear of the newly arrived immigrants will bring down wages, take their jobs, create more negative image of Latinos, ruin neighborhoods, cause more discrimination against Latinos with a backlash from both the white and the African American communities. Fear has accompanied man since he left the caves and will continue to be used by the powerful or would be powerful to control groups, especially the poor, dispossessed, the undocumented, people of color, the less educated and the insecure middle class or working classes. Fear is the preferred instrument of control especially in politics and social interchange. The Latino leadership must be vigilant that they do not follow the already present example often demonstrated in contemporary US society. As FDR eloquently said ‘…there is nothing to fear but fear itself…’

Tags: Abortion rights · African-Americans · Civil Rights · diversity · GOP · Immigration · Latino History · LULAC · Media · racism · Republican Party · Same-sex marriage · Seneca

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pablo // Dec 8, 2009 at 2:05 am

    I fear fear, and homelessness, and prison time.

  • 2 Pablo // Dec 8, 2009 at 2:56 am

    …and weakening long-term bond markets and cataclysmic climate change.

  • 3 india blanca // Dec 8, 2009 at 6:23 am

    As usual Seneca brings to the forefront a thought provoking issue that we must take time to analyze and ponder….especially when fear mongering is used to denigrate ethnicities and inflamed racist rhetoric something that has become too common post 9/11…as Latinos we must be able to identify fear mongering…I believe the best way to accomplish this is by staying well informed and by developing our own criteria…this will allow us to fight back any attempt to pull us into the vortex of mass hysteria pro or anti any subject matter.

  • 4 ChL // Dec 9, 2009 at 6:58 am

    I think that many Latinos do recognize and realize that fear is being used to demonize them. However, we also play into the fear itself by sometimes meeting those lowered expectations. For instance, many feel that Latino youth are involved in gangs, crime, etc., and some try to perpetuate that kind of culture or the appearance of it even if they aren’t into crime per se.

  • 5 Xavier Cardenas // Dec 9, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Yeah but then again “if the shoe fits”?

  • 6 moreno // Dec 9, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    “Talk show radio has become the medium of choice in the fear-mongering attempts. The political right with its nationalistic, ethnocentric penchants is in the forefront.”

    This is so true, and sadly, the people who listen to AM talk radio seem to be predisposed to not wanting to expand their minds with books, travel or sharing new experiences, so they are easily conned by these nationalistic, ranting con men. The Rush Limbaughs and Lou Dobbs types still have radio shows, and they prey on the fear of people who don’t get out much or who don’t engage with people who are different from them.

    Fear mongering is a powerful tool. We also saw what happened with the gay marriage debate in some of the states where gays were allowed to marry, and life went on a usual. But fear kicked in when people starting talking about gay families with school children, etc. and it worked, as anti-gay marriage measures were passed.

    Now with Latinos, it is going to be the usual narrative about how we all have a dozen kids, how we supposedly take jobs away from American citizens, while many of us are already citizens and treated like we aren’t. Or that we don’t want to learn English, even though evidence suggests that we assimilate at the same rate as other groups.

  • 7 BettyM // Dec 9, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Excellent article – makes me wonder how many people realize that they have made and are making decisions based on fear.

  • 8 Reyfeo // Dec 9, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    …soooo, Al Gore qualifies since he’s out scaring the crap out of any one stupid enough to believe the world is doomed to our stupid American polluting ways?

    This article itself is an example of fear mongering against conservative, Christian, anti-abortion, ‘marriage is between a man and woman’, good American citizens who believe you should get in line and come here legally if you want to join the American club.

  • 9 Cockroach People // Dec 10, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Fear is a natural instinct. Parent’s worry about their kids so they tell them they can’t do something because something bad might happen. This can be overdone and can be completely irrational (e.g. you shouldn’t marry a Black guy because…fill in the blank) especially with parents of the smothering sort. But that doesn’t mean that in some cases the bad thing isn’t a real threat.

    Plato’s Allegory was less about fear of the unknown and more about the tendency for people to accept whatever they see in front of them rather than using the gift of reason to contemplate the divine truth. For that reason, he thought that hyper-rational philosophers should rule.

    The problem is that most people don’t take time to rationally plot their way through every aspect of life (though on some level they make rational calculations in the short-term), taking into consideration the long-term effects of any one decision. Thus the philosopher or the brujo are needed to help guide the pack, clan, city-state, etc. There are natural hierarchies among humans, like it or not. Does that mean that the smartest or strongest have a right to be in charge and the rest of us must obey them? No. But most of us look for people who have lived more or studied more than we have to help us make sense of our path ahead. Some of us take what is useful and discard the rest and others reject everything or accept everything. People of the cloth or even those of the political persuasion can be good or bad and can focus on fear or not–that’s just like any one else with authority. Clergy are not essentially fear mongers because they sometimes invoke fear any more than my mother is a fear monger because she warned me not to join a gang because I might end up in prison or dead. She was wrong when she tried to get my sister not to date a black guy because my Dad would flip! But it’s not essentially who she is.

    If it weren’t from some very bold people of the cloth–and even a few politicians–many of the rights movements you mention would have never happened. Who but a Cesar Chavez, a Dr. King, a Gandhi, a Dorothy Day, a Jacques Maritain, a Malcom X, even a Tijerina (though he did use fear hear and there too); could have commanded the respect and influence to move such movements to some measure of success? Sure the grassroots where pushing some of them to act, but even behind the scenes clergy and leaders had prominent roles even while some of their brethren were part of the problem (think the intended audience of the letter from Birmingham Jail).

    Yes the Orwellian Pigs are among our leaders, but that does not mean fear per se is an absolute evil. We should fear the and lament the loss of our civil and human rights to corporate interests. We should fear the failure of our public education system. We should fear the absence of true dialogue in many parts of the blogosphere and in the news media as you point out (fear mongering by the way, but good fear mongering ;). We should fear the everlasting wars in the Middle East…I think that’s enough preaching–I better shut up. I’m afraid someone might accuse me of being a brujo.

  • 10 Rocio // May 5, 2010 at 12:32 am

    What a shame Mr. Obama.! The lowest political move I’ve ever seen. How ignorant you think latino people are? You are taking advantage of our fears as immigrants for your own political gain.
    How low of you trying to make us believe that the color of our skin is the problem. You are dividing us!
    God knows what kind of sick game you are playing bowing to an Islamic monarch. You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
    Stand up against the person who is trying to make this great nation like the ones we escape from in the first place.

    A house divided against itself cannot stand.
    Abraham Lincoln

  • 11 Fay Paxton // May 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I don’t have a comment on this particular article. I”ve read at least twenty articles on your website today and just had to find somewhere to express my gratitude for such informed and passionate discourse.

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