The Weekend Australian 7 January 2022
These days, the language of catastrophism permeates public discourse. At times it seems that just about every serious problem facing the world is swiftly reframed as a threat to human survival.
Numerous commentators insist the climate emergency is already costing lives. Scaremongers claim the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. The narrative of fear has flourished since the outbreak of Covid. It has led political leaders throughout the world to respond to just about every challenge in a panic-like mode. How else can we explain turning Melbourne into a state of permanent lockdown?
We are used to scaremongering about climate change, global terrorism and Covid but recently political language has internalised this approach to the point that political opponents are portrayed as posing existential risks.
Labor MP Andrew Leigh’s book Existential Risk And Extreme Politics is paradigmatic in this respect. Leigh claims that populist politics has elevated existential risk. Almost imperceptibly, existential threats such as climate change, pandemics and nuclear war are coupled with the threat posed by populist adversaries.
As bad as it has become in Australia, the politics of hysteria is far more omnipresent in the
US. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic it was evident that sections of the governing class and the media had become habituated to catastrophising public issues. For some time now, it has become fashionable to discuss the political conflicts and divisions that permeate public life in the US through the prism of a civil war.
For sections of the American cultural establishment, stopping the return of Donald Trump and defeating his supporters is akin to preventing a climate change-induced catastrophe. Predictions that a civil war is imminent or that it has been already set in motion are frequently and irresponsibly recycled by media commentators.
The claim that the US faces a bloody conflict, not unlike the Civil War between the North and the South, gained media traction during the months leading up to the 2020 November presidential election. The media was awash with the assertion that a conflict akin to a bloody civil war was imminent in the US. One commentator in Vice posed the question of “Is the US already in a civil war?”. He noted that “several experts” indicated an “insurgency was most likely” and that “they believe we’re already in the early stages of one, a period before large-scale political violence the CIA defines as an ‘incipient insurgency’.”
The appetite for scary scenarios was fed by some experts who insisted that the Covid pandemic was fuelling “America’s rural-urban war” over how to respond to the threat to public health. The casual usage of the war metaphor by mainstream media commentators and sections of the political elites was in part due to the debasement of public language and the exhaustion of genuine debate.
It also indicated that public figures felt far more comfortable with the politics of fear than with advocating the politics of hope.
The moment at which the politics of fear mutated into a form of permanent hysteria occurred on January 6, 2021. On that day, rioting supporters of Donald Trump invaded the US Capitol in Washington DC. The rioters assaulted police officers guarding the building, vandalised property and occupied the Capitol until they were ejected by security personnel.
Politically motivated violence was bad enough but what was even more troubling has been the tendency by the media to interpret this event through the pre-existing narrative of a civil war.
What was a politically motivated riot was almost instantaneously rebranded as an insurrection. The Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi raised the stakes by asserting that there was a nefarious connection between the rioters and the Russian government. She stated “these people, unbeknownst to them” were “Putin puppets”. She added “they were doing Putin’s business when they did that at the incitement of an insurrection by the president of the United States”.
Almost immediately, proponents of the “civil war is imminent” thesis devoted their energy to expose the conspirators, who supposedly organised the insurrection. Their catastrophic warning notwithstanding, they have failed to come up with any link to Russia or any evidence of an organised conspiracy to organise an insurrection. Last August, Reuters reported that the FBI failed to find evidence that the attack on “the US Capitol was the result of an organised plot to overturn the presidential election result”. The FBI was forced to concede that the violence was not centrally co-ordinated by prominent supporters of Donald Trump.
The absence of evidence notwithstanding, America’s cultural elite, along with the leadership of the Democratic Party, continues to remain in hysteria mode. Tragically, its obsession with the threat of an insurrection or a coup has hardened during the past year to the point that it genuinely finds it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
The New York Times, once a paper of record, reads like a sensation-seeking tabloid promoting panic about an impending civil war. Anyone reading its paranoid account of the events surrounding January 6 would draw the conclusion that America had narrowly averted a bloody coup d’etat.
Since the beginning of the year, the catastrophising of January 6 has turned into a growth industry. On New Year’s Day, The New York Times issued an editorial statement titled Every Day Is January 6 Now. In case anyone failed to get the message communicated by the title, it added: “January 6 is not in the past; it is every day.” The implication of this statement was that an existential threat posed by the monster of a totalitarian dictatorship had become a normal, everyday reality. It claimed that the American republic “faces an existential threat”. The threat it referred to is the American version of Leigh’s fantasy of the existential risk of populism: the millions of voters who continue to support Trump. In its typical alarmist tone, it states “no self-governing society can survive such a threat by denying it exists”.
Since issuing its editorial statement, The New York Times continues to interpret developments in American public life as if they are chapters leading up to the unleashing of a civil war. Commentaries such as Thomas Friedman’s How to Stop Trump and Prevent Another Jan 6” self-consciously link the spread of the Omicron virus with the threat of a populist insurrection. Other media outlets have internalised this message. “The next civil war is already here – we just refuse to see it,” argues Stephen Marche in The Guardian.
How long before the refusal to accept his politics of hysteria is denounced as “civil war denialism”?
At first sight it is tempting to draw the conclusion that the catastrophising of January 6 is pure scaremongering propaganda. No doubt there is an element of media manipulation and conscious twisting of reality at play. But on closer inspection it seems as if sections of the political and cultural establishment have thoroughly internalised the culture of fear. The existential risk of populism is only one among the many that preoccupies them.
The obsession of turning every problem into an existential threat leaves no dimension of everyday life untouched. When you read a report by the Australian Climate Council that claims climate change “poses an existential threat to the future of sport” it becomes evident that scaremongering has become the weapon of choice for every fear entrepreneur wishing to attract headlines.
If they come for sport, is it any surprise that the politics of hysteria has become so routinised that it barely provokes a response.
Thankfully, most people have learned to take alarmist warnings in their stride. But constant scaremongering and ceaseless warnings about existential threats have a corrosive impact on public life. Its long-term effect is to diminish the ability of people to confront the challenge they face and encourages a culture of defeatism.
To successfully deal with very real problems, such the ones posed by the coronavirus pandemic, we need to reject the doom mongers and learn to rely on our common sense.
Frank Furedi is an author, commentator and professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His latest book, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: The Culture War Over Socialisation, is published by De Gruyter.