Monday, May 21, 2007

Moral Panics

I'm thinking out loud here, which is no sin on the Internets, apparently, so bear with me. There are certain risks that most rational people evaluate rationally. The relative risk of driving versus flying, for example. It certainly seems more dangerous to travel aloft in a big aluminum tube that doesn't really seem like it should stay aloft than it does to drive to Costco to pick up a case of Diet Red Bull. But most of us know that it's less dangerous to fly to New York from D.C. So we don't worry much when we're told to turn off our electronic devices and put our seats in the upright position.
But the flying versus driving risk calculus has no political/ideological backdrop that would skew our risk analysis. Also, it's a known quantity in the aggregate and easily checkable.
There are other risks that are more speculative and uncertain. And for some of them, our ideological preconceptions seem to crowd out any sort of rational calculus. Why are some of us worried about school shootings, while others treat that risk like the risk of dying in a fiery plane crash or getting Lou Gehrig's disease? Why do some of us worry about terrorism, while others stress about the risks of global warming?
Isn't the determining factor here our respective ideologically-charged narratives about American society and what may be wrong with it? Why in the 1980s did one side of the political spectrum panic about Alar on apples, while others waxed dystopic about Soviet aggression? How does your average Blue-Teamer decide that global warming poses enormous threats to our way of life? Has he (masculine as universal, sorry) examined the various scenarios offered by the IPCC and arrived at his position through a sober reflection on the evidence? Or do the most dangerous scenarios fit in with a general notion that late capitalist America consumes too much and too blithely and cares too little about long-term consequences? Why are so many Red-Teamers convinced, on the basis of one horrific strike on American soil, that we face a threat of enormous proportions, even though the post-September 11th world looks much like the pre-September 11th world in terms of terrorism on the home front? Could it be that the narrative of impending doom fits in with what conservatives have long felt about American society, that liberal societies are weak and vacillating and unwilling to defend themselves? Anyone who's spent much time in the conservative movement must be familiar with the sort of character who fancies himself a poor man's Whitaker Chambers, and flatters himself that his fellow countrymen do not recognize the grave threats to our way of life and lack the moral fortitude he's blessed with, to do what is necessary to defeat the Other. The concept of the "moral panic" is instructive here, as is the old line by H.L. Mencken, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."


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