No Fear


We’ve got to come up with a way to denounce politicians and other officials without labeling them “scary” or “dangerous.”  In Michael Harris’ new book Party of One:  Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover, the late Farley Mowat is quoted as saying that Stephen Harper is “the most dangerous human being ever elevated to power in Canada” (as opposed to the elevated non-humans?), while Marci MacDonald’s 2010 work The Armageddon Factor:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada linked Harper’s Conservatives to an ominous ascent of far-right religious activists.  Yet these dire criticisms unduly shrivel the vocabulary of protest.  That lexicon should also contain adjectives like “misguided,” “inept,” or “shortsighted” – descriptions of powerful people’s measurable performance, rather than the supposed hidden agendas they bring to it.  Lately, though, it appears that the only disapprovals we can muster are the most apocalyptic ones; mere doubt or objection will no longer suffice.

It’s true that prime ministers, presidents, and CEOs can make decisions which profoundly alter millions of lives.  Ordinary people can lose their jobs or their savings, can see their health or their security decline, and can be sent to fight and die, all at the behest of one influential person or administration.  That is, in principle, scary.  The fact remains, however, that in pluralistic post-industrial democracies, most of us are preoccupied with personal matters far outside the reach of the state or the corporation:  relationships, ambitions, opportunities, and so on.  Whether we have a Conservative or a Liberal government, whether we have tax cuts or spending hikes, whether we are at war or peace, our fundamental selves are untouched.   So there is something unsettling in the charge that any incremental shift in policy or leadership represents an inexorable slide toward totalitarianism.  Is our political system so precarious that a single vote or even a single proposal might topple it?  Is the free market so feeble that one more environmental regulation implies a looming Gulag?  Are our civil liberties so fragile that any dissent over abortion or gay rights raises a specter of Auschwitz?

I’m willing to bet that the commentators who are quickest to level the “scary” epithet are actually the least affected by whatever threat they perceive:  the suggestion that we are but one election or legislation away from blacklists and book burnings is most likely to come from those who have no firsthand experience of either.  After all, generations of Cassandras have warned us about creeping socialism, creeping fascism, the road to serfdom, the coming economic meltdown, the population explosion, American theocracy, sexual McCarthyism, peak oil, death panels, killer bees, and the Armageddon factor, without the Cassandra industry itself ever slowing down.  The historical record shows that invoking a frightful near future is more often an exercise in rhetorical extravagance on the part of the chattering classes than an expression of genuine public alarm.

A standard rebuttal here might be to point out that the National Socialists in 1930s Germany and the Muslim Brotherhood in contemporary Egypt – groups not known for their progressive platforms – campaigned in democratic elections before taking power and then sweeping away any opposition.  Weren’t they rightly tagged as “scary,” too, and can’t comparable coups happen in our own society today?   Well, the trouble is that a generalized fear of such takeovers has been with us since World War II, and since the publication of dystopian fiction such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Hunger Games, yet nothing resembling a deliberate, organized, and sustained repression of political freedom has ever come to pass.  Authorities can make bad decisions which trigger long series of unintended and unwelcome consequences, but to exaggerate those into Nazi- or Soviet-like “dangers” is to demean the authentic victims of those regimes, and the people who died opposing them.   The most gaping hole in the claims of the scare tacticians who write and talk in terrifying terms is that, for all their overstated apprehensions of coming crackdowns, by remaining in Canada they have pretty optimistically voted with their feet.

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