top of page

Fear: Its Political Uses and Abuses

12th Social Research Conference February 5-7, 2004

Again, we are living at a time of collective fear--fear that is encouraged by our government and exacerbated by our media. This fear has its origins in the shocking events of September 11, which horrified and mesmerized the nation and many across the rest of the world. Over and over we watched the planes smashing into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and saw the buildings collapse, as the tapes were played and replayed endlessly on our television screens. A nation that had seemed impervious to attack from the outside suffered grievously at the hands of a small, determined band of fanatics who saw us as the "great Satan." We were no longer invulnerable, and our vulnerability required swift and decisive action.

This sense of vulnerability and the fear it engendered quickly became the justification for so much that has been done by our government ever since, in the name of protecting us. Two wars have been fought and our constitutional protections have been slashed away at the core, all in the name of fighting terrorism. The Justice department now claims the power to hold American citizens in prison indefinitely, without access to lawyers, simply because they have been labeled "enemy combatants." Terrorism suspects have been held in secret detention for many months, some with no access to an attorney, while their hearings, when they occur, are closed to the public and the press. Questioning the legitimacy of these actions, including that of the preemptive war on Iraq, is explicitly seen by many as un-American, as aiding and abetting the enemy. These actions, we are told, are necessary to combat and eliminate the very sources of our fears. How can we legitimately oppose them?

This may be the only time in our history when we are not only warned that we should be afraid, but told exactly how afraid we should be (red, orange or yellow alerts), and yet, regardless of how afraid we should be, we are given no advice about what to do, except perhaps to be wary of strangers and stock up on duct tape and bottled water. What is the effect of this?

What better time then, to step back and reflect upon the political uses and abuses of fear? What can we learn from looking at other times in our own history, or in the history of other places, when fear was the order of the day? For example, fifty or more years ago this country was in the midst of the "Red Scare," McCarthy was in his ascendancy, and American civil liberties were also being seriously threatened and eroded. Are these similar moments?

There are many unanswered questions about the political uses and abuses of fear, and the processes at work during times such as these, that call for investigation. What do the social sciences have to say about these questions of how we respond to fear, and how our responses can be manipulated? Can we learn something relevant to our understanding of these processes from the neuroscience of fear? How can the most significant political theories help us understand fear, and in turn, how has fear figured in these influential theories of political life? How have new communication technologies changed the ways in which fear is spread? Can fear and even terror play a positive role in political life, perhaps by inspiring a moral reawakening? Finally, if these avenues of knowledge can improve our understanding of the processes now at work, what do they teach us about appropriate action -- action we can take both in the name of fear and as a means of reducing it?

This conference is funded by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation

To order the related issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly



Thursday, February 5, 2004

Session 1: Keynote: The Politics of Fear

Vice President Al Gore

Friday, February 6, 2004

Session 2: Fear and How it Works: Science and Social Science

Joe LeDoux Barry Glassner Tom Pyszczynski

Steven Heller

Session 3: The Political Theory and Vocabulary of Fear

John Hollander George Kateb Corey Robin Ira Katznelson

Session 4: What we gain, what we lose-The Effects of Fear

Cass Sunstein

Eric Alterman Aryeh Neier

Saturday, February 7, 2004

Session 5: Cases Studies : What Can They Teach Us?

Ellen Schrecker E. Valentine Daniel Jessica Stern

Session 6: Politics of Fear After 9/11: Can the past inform the future?

Moderator: Kenneth Prewitt Panelists:

Eric Alterman

Andrew Arato

Tom Pyszczynski

Corey Robin

Jessica Stern


Thursday, February 5 - Saturday, February 7, 2004

Facing Fear: Images of the Enemy An exhibition of images of demonized enemies, in association with the Master of Arts in Media Studies program, New School University. Curated by Carol Wilder, Chair of the Department of Communication and Associate Dean of The New School, New School University. Saturday, February 7, 2004 - 4:30 p.m.

Fear: A Reading of Fearful Poetry and Prose Co-Sponsored by the New School Graduate Writing Program. Curated by Robert Polito, Director, The Writing Program, New School University and David Lehman, Poetry Coordinator, The Writing Program, New School University.

Saturday, February 7, 2004 - 6:00 p.m. Images of Fear in Art - Guided tours of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tours will meet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY. Tours will be guided by Elinor Richter, Associate Professor of Art History, Hunter College and Howard Rosenthal, Artist-Lecturer, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
bottom of page