Thursday, March 20, 2014

Threats Real And Imagined

Probably the most important distinction Americans could possibly learn to make is that between real threats and figments of someone's imagination: that is, between what we have sound reason to fear, and what's been contrived in an attempt to make us fear. Quoth Robert Anton Wilson:

"The State is based on threat....If people aren't afraid of something, they'll realize they don't need that big government hand picking their pockets all the time. So, in case Russia and China collapse from internal dissension, or get into a private war and blow each other to hell, or suffer some unexpected natural calamity like a series of earthquakes, the saucer myth has been planted. If there are no earthly enemies to frighten the American people with, the saucer myth will immediately change. There will be 'evidence that they come from Mars and are planning to invade and enslave us. Dig?"

It's perfectly acceptable to argue that the Soviet Union constituted a real threat to Western Europe. However, we now know, thanks to the disclosure of much information the USSR's masters kept secret, that that tyranny could never have harmed the United States a tenth as much as the scare propaganda would have had us believe. Investigative journalist Andrew Cockburn (not to be confused with hard-lefty Alexander Cockburn of The Nation) produced an excellent book on this subject. Unfortunately, it never garnered the readership it deserved. Whether China can ever constitute a real threat to the U.S. is for the future to determine.

Many of the real threats used to justify ever-increasing defense budgets are mainly threats to other nations. The argument there is about our obligations as "world policeman," itself a disputable role for this or any nation. But note that even as defense appropriations grow seemingly without limit, the actual force available to be deployed has shrunk. It seems we reduce our ground forces, decommission a carrier battle group, and decimate our strategic weapons every time Congress votes to increase the defense budget. If the increases aren't buying us more military power, then what are they buying us?

But that's all about external threats. Those aren't the only ones.


Back during the Administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, we were introduced to the notion of a "War on Poverty." The rhetoric was deliberately chosen for its connotations of crisis. Poverty in America, according to the political mythmakers of those years, was a large problem that constituted a threat to all of us, though just how was never clearly articulated. The promoters succeeded in winning a degree of support sufficient to enact large, opulent "anti-poverty" programs and bureaucracies to match.

Fifty years have passed. Several trillion dollars have been spent on anti-poverty programs and related activities. Yet according to the official definition of "poverty," we have more of it in the U.S. than ever before. More, we've been told that we suffer from a malady called structural poverty, a kind that grows from the very nature of our economy, and which therefore cannot be eradicated, only palliated. The only response Washington and the state governments ever make to our demands for explanations is to demand more money for more and larger anti-poverty programs. This threat, it seems, can only be fended off by throwing bales of dollar bills at it.

Sociologist Charles Murray, in his book Losing Ground, pointed out that three simple measures appear completely sufficient to keep anyone out of poverty:

  • Finish high school;
  • Get married;
  • Get and keep any sort of job at all.

Few are the Americans who simply cannot implement those measures. Yet -- once again, according to federal definitions of poverty -- today some 47 million Americans are designated "poor," and are therefore entitled to monetary assistance. Wherein lies the threat to the rest of us, the benighted ones who've chosen to marry, to work, to live within our means, and to defer those gratifications we can't immediately afford?


While we're discussing domestic "wars," we must not neglect the War on Drugs. No sensible man would deny that drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and crack are genuinely dangerous to their users. No sensible man would assert that complete social passivity toward such temptations is rational and wise. But once again, the heart of the issue is the carefully nurtured perception that those drugs and their devotees constitute a threat to the rest of us.

Before the Harrison Narcotics Control Act of 1914, heroin and morphine were available "over the counter," at innumerable pharmacies. Indeed, as many physicians were insufficiently mindful of morphine's addictive property and tended to over-prescribe and over-administer it, heroin pills were originally marketed as a remedy for withdrawal from morphine addiction. Cocaine was available commercially in several forms, including the original formula for Coca-Cola® However, the potencies of those legal drug formulas were far below those of the "street drugs" of today.

The malignancies inherent in the Harrison Act had to wait a while to come fully to flower. Alcohol Prohibition took first place for fifteen years. That prohibited product was simply far more popular than the freshly banned drugs, and so commanded a swifter response. Only after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed did the American underworld take a significant interest in drugs. When it did, the explosion that followed was entirely predictable.

The "threat" posited before the Harrison Act was entirely imaginary. The users of the banned drugs were of no social consequence. Indeed, it has been argued that part of the willingness to see such drugs banned sprang from xenophobia, as the most visible users of opium were Chinese immigrants brought here to build the railroads. But after the Twenty-First Amendment deprived the underworld of that highly profitable black market, commerce in drugs did become a threat, mainly due to the violence between contending gangs. It was a clear case of the "solution" giving rise to the "problem."


Threat-mongering has grown into an industry of its own. Consider the threats we're most stridently told to fear today:

  • Disease threats;
  • Climate threats;
  • Pollution threats;
  • Terrorism threats;
  • Threats to the water table;
  • Resource-exhaustion threats;
  • Threats from privately owned firearms;
  • Threats from possible asteroidal impacts;
  • Threats from genetically modified foodstuffs.

Those are just the ones that occur to me at the moment. No doubt there are others I've overlooked. But my point is larger than any threat or compendium thereof could ever be:

The principal function of a threat, whether real or imagined, is to induce fear.

Fear causes people to look for a protector...and what have we here? Why, it's Big Government, resplendent in tights and cape, offering to protect us from everything! At a price, of course. A price in dollars and lost liberties. A price we must pay in advance -- and which will not be refunded even if the threat proves to be imaginary, and regardless of whether government can do the least little thing about it.

Food for thought.

2 comments:

  1. The government must have a crisis. If there is no crisis then government must create one. The government loves it when someone says "there should be a law". Rest assured, a law will soon be passed, but you probably won't like the result.

    If people would just stop saying "The government should do something . . ." then we could avoid a lot of unpleasantness. I wish the government would stop doing things and preferably start undoing things.

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  2. "Threats from the far right" should be appended to your list. There's no "far left" in the U.S., and certainly not in Europe. (AntiFa leftist street thugs there seem to register as the middle-of-the-road police auxiliaries who help keep order when Geert Wilders and Tommy Robinson come to town.)

    So that threat is like a duck with one wing, the other one having inexplicably disappeared.

    BTAIM, the far right threat is the most fearsome one of all, in my view.

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