I have watched with dismay as the Clinton campaign abandoned all restraint with their sleazy TV ad featuring sleeping children at risk. My dismay increased as it appeared to work: Clinton won both the Ohio and Texas primaries, reportedly on the strength of late-deciding voters who would have been most affected by her attack ad. Now I think it is time to respond—but not by defending the Obama machismo, or by pointing out that Clinton’s claim to be “experienced” has no validity. The response should come by invalidating the entire premise of the political discussion in this country, which, since 9/11, has based itself on the politics of fear.
To put it briefly, Senator Obama should now focus his campaign on the fundamental bankruptcy of this politics of fear and fear mongering. The opening salvo should simply recall Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line when the nation was gripped by fear of the Great Depression:
"…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…"
This line, and the policies that stemmed from it, succeeded in a way that few could have predicted. FDR was saying—and the rest of the line reinforces this with its description of fear as "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance"—that fear itself cripples any attempt on the part of people and governments to respond to a crisis. He did not maintain that there was no crisis. He simply said, nevermind the fear, nevermind the paralysis, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
This principle—perhaps updated to: "the only thing we have to fear is fear mongering itself"—fits the present situation almost perfectly. To undermine fear and the fear mongers would provide a perfect antidote and alternative not only to a) the Clinton TV commercial and her contention that Obama has no credentials to protect the nation from terrorism; but also to b) the similar attacks already being mounted by Senator McCain, when he says “the Democrats want to surrender in Iraq”; c) the entire 8-year reign of the Bush Administration, which has made fear mongering its central strategy and creed; d) the fear now mounting in the general populace of economic recession, the falling dollar, and the loss of American primacy as a respected world power.
Consider that since 9/11 every level of public discourse has been shaped and whittled down to one fear-mongering principle: terrorists are coming, we must fight them abroad before they get here, every cent invested (almost all militarily) in this fight is worth it, and, in this modern fight to the death, the American people SHOULD be afraid, should be so terrified and terrorized that they will make any sacrifice in blood, treasure, and their civil liberties in order to combat the demons planning to invade and kill us all.
It is a familiar, ancient cry that has worked almost unconditionally. Any opposition to military plans by Congress has been crippled before it could even be mounted. Congress itself has been gripped by fear—the fear of seeming to be “soft on terrorism.” And it has colluded in launching an illegal war against a country that was no threat to us; continued to fund an occupation of that same country for more than five years; spent a billion dollars a day to keep that war going; and allowed the United States to become known worldwide as an empire as aggressive, acquisitive and cruel as Rome or Great Britain. Worse, beginning with the Patriot Act and continuing with secret wiretapping of American citizens, a widespread policy of torture, and even the suspension of the ancient right of habeas corpus, the very liberties Americans are supposed to be defending have been steadily eroded. And through it all, fear has been the engine driving the whole enterprise.
For Barack Obama, all this has so far been portrayed as a weak spot in his resume. It need not be. The simple expedient of turning fear and fear-mongering to his advantage has the potential of reversing the entire campaign dynamic. For he can say, in effect, this is what we mean by CHANGE. We must change the politics of fear and fear-mongering. We must leave the fear mongers behind, and simply confront without fear the challenges and problems we have. Instead of the hyper-vigilance that has for the last eight years been the coin of the realm (and recall that hyper-vigilance is precisely what afflicts and cripples returning Iraq veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), we need to be vigilant about the threats that are real. In fact, many of these threats have been ignored because of the huge drain in both money and national energies absorbed by the occupation of Iraq. Instead of pursuing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, we abandoned the chase and invaded Iraq. Instead of shoring up the holes in our national defense against terrorist threats—our ports, our harbors, our infrastructure—we have been diverted by hyped-up orange and red alerts that turn out to be politically motivated. Instead of confronting the real threat posed to the entire world by global warming, we have been deluded into thinking that more spending and more wastage will somehow induce that threat go away. Instead of dealing with the huge losses to our national treasury due to stupendous military spending and equally stupendous borrowing, we have indulged in myopic tax cuts for the wealthy and privatization policies that have resulted in the enrichment of a favored few and the impoverishment of the many. And all this must change. The fear mongers must go.
In short, there is no need for Senator Obama to try to establish “commander-in-chief” or “government experience” credentials in the vain attempt to counter attacks. He need simply remind people what those so-called credentials (Cheney and Rumsfeld had years of experience while Bush has strutted like a wannabe Mussolini) have brought us: an unending war and a nation on the brink of financial ruin. He need simply remind the public of what fear does and what perhaps the greatest president of the last century said in his first inaugural address to a depressed nation in its grip:
"…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself..."