The Plastic Hippo

April 15, 2010

We have nothing to fear…

Filed under: History,Politics — theplastichippo @ 12:19 am

Thucydides and Herodotus

More than a week in and it has already descended into farce. The half-wits that offer themselves as our next political leaders remain gripped with the self-delusion that people actually believe what they say and like drowning men clinging to the thought that someone somewhere must trust them, they bluster and connive.

“Death Tax” scream the Tories. A hung parliament will result in riots and civil disorder bellow the Liberal Democrats. Labour has targeted women suffering from breast cancer and suggested that vital treatment will cease if the victims vote for the opposition. Devoid of any coherent policies, fear is the key to winning elections as a frightened electorate is a compliant electorate and, more importantly, when you are out of ideas the only option is to have a go at the other bunch.

None of this is anything new. There is a direct line of scare mongering that can be traced back through Enoch Powell, Machiavelli and Plato. Even earlier, Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War states that fear, honour and profit are the main motivations in acquiring power. Governments need to keep their people in fear in order to impose control and crude dictatorships tend to directly threaten their citizens. The possibility of a door being kicked in at the dead of night by the Gestapo or the KGB makes the populous fear that they will suffer the same fate that befell “los desaparecidos” of Argentina. More mature democracies are far more subtle and invented threats are used to keep folks scared and pliant. Domestic and international terrorism, swine flu, bird flu, HIV Aids, weapons of mass destruction and even the millennium computer bug are hyped out of all proportion to keep us frightened and trusting of those who lead us.

In the longest parliament since the Second World War, the expenses scandal has dominated the legacy of those who sat in Westminster. More than a third of MPs are standing down, either through shame or disgust and the change is likely to be as seismic as the Reform Act of 1832 when the rotten boroughs were disfranchised. One might hope that politicians would have learnt the lesson that moat cleaning, duck houses and the unfortunate choice of a pay-per-view movie requires some contrition. It seems that this is not the case as all the political parties who have ignored the electorate over the last five years now want to hear our views because they want our vote.

In 1933, at the deepest trough of the last great depression, Franklin D Roosevelt, in his inaugural presidential address misquoted Francis Bacon saying:
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Six years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, W H Auden published a poem called September 1, 1939.

“Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.”

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