(Fourth in a series; first part here, second part here, third part here.)

We will build nothing, create nothing, inspire nothing of worth while in the grip of fear.

It is often said that violence "sends a message" to this or that recipient. Often the alleged message is about the firmness of our resolve — "we really mean it!" We send messages of this nature to the Middle East fairly regularly these days; its inbox is full. Israel sends the message to Lebanon. Russia sends the message to Chechnya. Indonesia sends the message to its separatists. And so on.

This is bullshit of the most pernicious possible sort.

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Violence sends no message. This is not merely some kind of moral disagreement or metaphor: Violence has no semantic content. Modern civilization has become expert at laying layer after layer of verbiage atop its violence, but it is all rationalization and justification. At root, everything violence "says" is captured in the famous words of the Incredible Hulk: "Hulk smash!"

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Victims of violence do not sit back and contemplate what they may have done to prompt it. They do not reconsider or learn lessons. They fight back, or they flee. As I said in earlier posts, fear and anger pull us away from ratiocination. They are the affective equivalent of the fetal position, reducing us to pure ego, pure self-preservation.

Progressives can be forgiven for envying the incredible hot hormonal rush of power that comes from stoking fear/anger. It’s perfectly understandable, the temptation they feel to set up their own zero-sum struggles, to describe the dangers ahead (of poverty, or global warming, or infectious disease) in gruesome, apocalyptic tones, with a sprinkling of evil, mustache-twirling villains.

Bill Maher expresses a common lament: "The Republicans know how to scare people, even about things that aren’t that scary. Democrats can’t even do it with things that are scary."

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That assessment is quite accurate. Recently Cass Sunstein noted a new body of research showing that voters reminded of their mortality (if, for example, they are reminded of 9/11) shift perceptibly toward Republicans. And so:

Unless circumstances have relevantly changed since 2004, Bush–and almost certainly Republican candidates more generally–are likely to benefit from any reference to terrorism or the September 11 attacks. So Karl Rove knows exactly what he is doing.

The "best reading" of the social science, he says, indicates that "a reminder of mortality … triggers a kind of visceral fear and outrage, and that visceral fear and outrage lead people to support the leader who seems firmer, stronger, and more aggressive."

This is, of course, precisely what I’ve been describing.

From all this Sunstein concludes:

If this is right, then the proper Democratic response is … to show the same kind of firmness and resolve–and capacity for aggression–that people have associated with Bush.

Sunstein isn’t the only one explicitly arguing that the left should raise the ante on fear and anger — fight it out with the right on the right’s own territory. The idea is that, say, environmentalists should get people terrified of global warming, so that they hate it and seek out leaders who aggressively attack it. To put it in Lakoffian terms, lots of people are counseling that the Nurturing Mother become a Strict Father. We can play that game too, right?

No. However tempting it may be, this is the wrong way to go. It cannot succeed. Not in the long term.

(When one finally reaches one’s point, after many thousands of words, one cannot resist a little bold text.)

Human beings evolved to fear faces. Predators. Invaders. Beasties in the night. Self-imposed risks that accumulate over time in statistical increments just don’t pack the same visceral punch.

Cancer, heart disease, and auto accidents don’t inspire the same lizard-brain response as "evildoers," even though they collectively cause over half of all fatalities in the U.S. (evildoers aren’t even in the top ten). Even the horrors of Hurricane Katrina don’t seem to have inspired in us any real will to fight poverty or climate change. Only predators — which in this day and age tends to mean brown faces, either evil Islamists or immigrating Mexicans — stir the viscera. It’s just the way we’re built.

So progressives will have to look elsewhere for motivation. More on that next post.