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May 20, 2016, 3:38 PM  |  News

In a classic “Simpsons” episode, entitled “Bart’s Comet,” a comet is heading toward Springfield. The federal government comes to the rescue proposing a bill that would allow the evacuation of the town.   But the bill fails to pass in the House of Representatives because an amendment has been added pledging $30 million to “the perverted arts.” This prompts a famous Kent Brockman line: “I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work.” It’s funny, and yet it is not. It’s fiction, and yet it is real. It is true satire.

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Satire consists of two distinct elements: humour and truth. It pokes fun at something on the surface, while revealing a larger, more complex truth beneath it. While “Bart’s Comet” makes us chuckle, it also makes us wince at the fact that this is how governments actually act, and that, really, democracy doesn’t work as well as we like to think. The best satire is both funny and slightly disturbing…or scary…or thought-provoking. Or all three. The best satire makes you wonder if it is satire at all.

Fear for America is a unique book in that it is made up almost entirely of tweets sent out by the U.S. Department of Fear (@FearDep) – a fictional (?) arm of the U.S. government. It is also satire at its best: darkly funny and darkly scary.

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Despite its decidedly non-traditional structure (a book of tweets?!), it contains many elements we look for in a good book: narrative, characters, humour, drama. The only thing seemingly missing is a plot, until you realize that the entire book itself is a plot.

Confused? Good. You should be.

In the insular world of “Fear for America,” the U.S. Department of Fear is an umbrella government agency, “established by the Vice-President,” though exactly which Vice-President remains unclear throughout. The Department of Fear represents the interests of other government agencies (the CIA, the NSA, Homeland Security), pro-government media, “friendly” American corporations, and its “defence partners.” It uses a Twitter account to further its simple objective: “to promote the agency’s agenda and increase public awareness of DoF and its mission.” That mission is equally simple: to scare the crap out of ordinary American citizens (the 99%) in order to benefit the DoF and the interests of its corporate partners (the 1%). And as the book makes very clear, this installation of fear will be done by any means necessary.

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“Fear For America” is an Orwellian vision being played out today on CNN.

It’s an Orwellian vision, indeed. But there is also a healthy dose of Nietzsche and Machiavelli as well. Fear is effective. It makes people vulnerable. It motivates people to do things they would not normally do, to think in ways they would not normally think. And in doing so, it puts the government – and all of its economic and political interests – in complete control.

A simple example: If Americans fear terrorism, they will support a war on terror, which will benefit government-friendly arms makers and media channels which report on the war. Therefore, it is the Department of Fear’s job to make sure the war is real (and scary) in the minds of the American public, who are seen by the Department as expendable pawns, to be manipulated for the benefit of the Department’s many (mainly financial) interests.

The tweets themselves are “real,” in the sense that the U.S. Department of Fear does have a legitimate Twitter page (56.9K followers), and all of the tweets contained in the book have appeared online. Whether the subject matter of the tweets is real or not depends on the intelligence level of the reader, their political orientation, and their level of cynicism and mistrust of big government.

fear twitter

The book itself is broken down into three parts: “Building the Fear Society; Leading the Fear Revolution; and Exporting Fear.” Within each part are various subtopics, each with their own collection of tweets and a quote from the Secretary of Fear. No subject or area of interest is left untweeted.

Following are a few examples:

The Economy:

It’s unfair that the bottom 40% had to bear the brunt of the financial crisis. Next time the other 59% will have to share the pain.

If you’re one of our corporate partners, you want the taxpayers to cover your costs, not just your losses during a bailout.

The New Legal System:

Better that ten men who were probably guilty of something anyway be executed than one guilty man go free.

Want fewer dumb laws? Sorry, our agreement with the prison industry stipulates 90% occupancy for 20 years.

The Media:

As an American journalist, your first duty is to scare the public. Do that and you can break every rule in the book.

Activism:

Warning: If you discover a legal and effective form of activism, we’ll imprison you for terrorism.

Citizenship:

May we suggest you learn to behave as if everything you do is being recorded.

Education:

If your kids exhibit high energy, initiative or curiosity, get a doctor to prescribe them something.

Having the same companies serve both institutions streamlines the school-to-prison transition.

The Environment:

If we cut down all the forests and fish out the sea, think how much money we could put in the bank for future generations.

Food/Health:

Quite frankly, we would rather risk the health of 100 million people than put a $100 million dent in corporate profits.

We are committed to ensuring factory farms have access to the antibiotics necessary to maximize the profitability of the fast food industry.

After meeting with drug company CEO’s, we determined that American babies need twice as many shots as other countries’ babies.

The War on Terror:

We’ve got Americans scared shitless of just about anything attached to the word “terrorism”. Even if it’s just a chunk of code.

Your web-browsing habits are a sure give away. At least that’s what we’ll tell the jury. #terrorism

Labelling Nigeria’s “Boko Haram” a terror group gives us an excuse to spy on the Nigerian community & arrest old people who reply to those Nigerian e-mails.

Border Enforcement:

Two years ago we accidentally deported a 14 year-old American girl to Bogota, Columbia. They now have her in jail.

The 14 year-old American girl we mistakenly deported to Columbia didn’t speak Spanish at the time. But she does now.

Does deporting a 14 year-old American citizen to Columbia warrant any resignations? Nah.

Assassinations:

From 2003-2008 we made only 44 drone strikes; but from 2009-2012 we made at least 240 drone strikes. #progress

Assassinating suspects with missiles from the sky has turned out to be far less controversial than imprisoning them on a desert island.

Anyone who stands, sleeps, or walks in the vicinity of a suspicious-looking Pakistani or Yemeni is asking to be labelled a dead militant.

After a missile strike, our drone will hang around for a while to see if any rescuers show up. They make easy targets

Surveillance:

Facebook is more useful to us when people use their real names. Please report any friends who don’t.

People don’t have human rights online, but some human rights persist offline because our laws are outdated.

Curious why it’s legal for our spy drones to hover outside your window? To the courts, that’s a flying police dog.

Canada:

More like us: Canada to increase surveillance, build prisons, have mandatory minimum sentences.

Our corporate partners kindly asked Canada to rewrite all its environmental laws. And Canada said OK.

Haha?

What makes “Fear for America so effective is that the tweets and the message could easily be real. It is not hard to imagine a time when the U.S. Department of Fear becomes an actuality (or worse, that it currently exists). And that is the scary part. “Fear for America simply makes concrete what has abstractly and implicitly been happening for years. Its fear-mongering messages, for the most part, seem to be ones the U.S. government has implicitly been sending since the end of the Cold War.

Governments and government agencies have been using fear to manipulate citizens for centuries. Orwell did not simply dream up his world of 1984. He simply (and masterfully) articulated what was already in the air. From Machiavelli to Mussolini, from George Washington to George Bush, leaders of all stripes have understood the power of fear to control citizens and influence policy. But it was usually done with a subtle touch. There is no subtlety in “Fear for America.” There is no hiding behind metaphor and innuendo. This is not veiled propaganda. The messages are blunt and almost arrogantly uncomplicated.

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“You have much to fear, so support me/us and I/we will handle it for you.” – Trump’s Playbook. Image courtesy The Conversation

And they sound eerily familiar in the Trump-fuelled world of American politics circa right now. The Department’s messages to the American people are Trump’s messages: you have much to fear, so support me/us and I/we will handle it for you. It’s a ridiculously simple message, but also very effective, if Trump’s disturbing popularity is any indication.

Just as many of us recoil at the jingoistic. fear-mongering rhetoric of Trump’s politics, so too do we recoil at the jingoistic, fear-mongering rhetoric of the Department of Fear’s vision for America and the rest of the world. But, damn it, if they are both not weirdly entertaining.

Ultimately, “Fear for America is a worthy read because, like the best satire, it will make you smile and it will make you cringe. Most of all, however, it will make you question the blurred line between fiction and reality. It will make you question the words and actions of any government, and the lengths to which they will go to protect their interests. It will make you question all that you see and hear. In case you didn’t already.

By Tobin

Top image courtesy The Conversation

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