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Fear: The History of a Political Idea, by Corey Robin

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Fear: The History of a Political Idea

Fear: The History of a Political Idea, by Corey Robin

Fear is an ubiquitous part of the human condition. It is a basic, primal emotion which can motivate a person to act reasonably in defense of their safety and well-being or act irrationally in a manner that threatens the well-being of others. Because of its effectiveness as a motivator of action, it’s only natural that it would become part of politics; unfortunately, it’s an aspect of politics which is seldom engaged in a critical, skeptical manner.


Title: Fear: The History of a Political Idea
Author: Corey Robin
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195157028

• Presents a great deal of information on the unrecognized uses of political fear in America

• Often more academic than average readers will want to slog through

• Analysis of how fear has been understood and used in political contexts
• Reviews the work of philosophers like Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt
• Argues that unless we understand how fear is used, we cannot effectively resist it

Book Review

In a world where terrorism has been made foundational for diverse aspects of political, legal, and social life, fear has also been made foundational. In a world where we have to think about terrorism when making decisions from politics to travel plans, fear has been made a basic aspect of our lives. We need to understand this politicized fear in order to gain some critical distance between ourselves and unspoken assumptions. This is the purpose behind Corey Robin’s Fear: The History of a Political Idea.

Although fear exists on personal levels, Robin focuses on political fear — fears that “emanate from society or have consequences for society.” Such fears may stem from conflicts between societies (like terrorism) or stem from personal events (such as crime or racism). The first half of the book examines the ways in which philosophers such as Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt have explained or used fear as part of their political philosophies.

The second half, which will probably interest most readers, is “Fear, American Style,” an exploration of how fear has been used in America for the interests of the powerful: McCarthyism, mistreatment of workers, terrorism, etc. In this American context, Robin examines fear as a “political tool, an instrument of elite rule or insurgent advance, created and sustained by political leaders or activists who stand to gain something from it, either because fear helps them pursue a specific political goal, or because it reflects or lends support to their moral and political beliefs—or both.” Such historical analysis might be disturbing in a disinterested way, but what is really disturbing is Robin’s argument that we like fear and desire to be afraid.

According to Robin, we have latched on to fear as a basis for social cohesion in our communities and thus welcome reasons to be afraid because we perceive ourselves as being bound together by of it. At the same time, though, we recognize that fear is ultimately empty and unable to serve as a basis for society. It’s a contradiction that lies at the foundation of America’s liberal democracy: on the one hand, our political institutions are predicated on a fear of the misuse of power; on the other hand, fear itself is misused in a way that undermines those institutions’ commitment to equality and democracy.

Emotions have been extensively studied by philosophers and psychologists, so there is sound academic work on the nature of emotions and how we can approach them. Unfortunately, little of this has spread to the general public. Insofar as people are unaware of how their emotions can be manipulated, they are also ill-equipped to counter attempted manipulation. In fact, some people seem to think that emotions themselves are immune to skeptical critique, but that is mistaken.

Fear: The History of a Political Idea

Fear: The History of a Political Idea, by Corey Robin

It’s useful to politicians that people adopt such an attitude, though, because by making people afraid it’s possible to bypass the normal political debates. We are made to feel afraid by being told that we are under attack by some fundamental evil — but because it is so evil, it’s not something that can be reasoned with or compromised with as we do in usual politics. The evil must be fought to the bitter end because “it’s either us or them,” and thus fear is used as a political tool for avoiding hard political debates.

Robin’s book appears to be aimed at a broad audience, but I suspect that people without some background in political science and philosophy will get lost at times through the first half. While an interesting discussion of how political philosophers have understood the nature and use of fear, it does get a bit dense at times. The second half doesn’t suffer from this as much, however, and there is a lot here which people would benefit from learning about.

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