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On Fear, Lizard Brains, and 1984

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I spent much of yesterday having people try to scare the hell out of me. In the morning it was President Bush. At night it was Big Brother. At times, it wasn't easy telling them apart. Let me explain:

My very scary day was jump-started by the president's chilling tale of how my hometown had narrowly escaped a 9/11-like attack, with hijacked planes being flown into a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper. I know, I know: the story is old news, a four year-old plot that we were already told about years ago, which, in fact, some experts believe never got off the al-Qaeda drawing board -- and which Holden picks apart. But the president sure made it sound really, really frightening.

Then, at night, I saw a preview performance of a brilliant new production of George Orwell's 1984 -- adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan and directed by Tim Robbins -- and was struck by the ways that Big Brother uses fear and perpetual war to keep the citizens of Oceania under control. And, especially, how that fear effectively blots out memory.

"His memory," writes Orwell of his rebellious hero, "was not satisfactorily under control." Memory "satisfactorily under control" is a perfect description of the mindset that allows Bush and Cheney to repeatedly lie to the American people and get away with it. Thanks to the constant fear-mongering. Again and again. ('Last throes'? who remembers anything about 'last throes'?)

Orwell also shows how a frightened people will look to the strongest and most confident to save and protect them. As Goldstein says in the play: "Even the humblest, most industrious citizen is expected to be an ignorant fanatic, whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and triumph, regardless of his own suffering. In other words, the mentality appropriate to a state of war. And being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival."

I knew Karl Rove was a student of history, but apparently he's a student of literature, too.

The Big Brothers in the Bush White House bang the fear-gong like clockwork. Early in the week, the administration took some hits on its NSA warrantless wiretapping program, with even Republicans like Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Heather Wilson raising doubts. And before the week was out, there was the president, offering up details of shoe bombs and "young men from Southeast Asia" meeting with Osama bin Laden and preparing to attack L.A. (In 1984, the unseen enemy keeps shifting from "Eurasia" to "Eastasia" and back again).

The president didn't directly link the disruption of the attack with the NSA wiretapping but, as noted by the New York Times, Frances Townsend, his counterterrorism adviser, "did not rule out the program as a factor in discovering the plan." How very vague of her.

Listening to Bush's speech, I kept flashing on comedian Kevin Nealon's classic Subliminal Message Guy character: "Since [9/11] we've taken decisive action (no time for FISA) to protect our citizens against new dangers (old ones too). We're hunting down terrorists (Osama who?) using every element of our national power (even illegal elements) -- military (mission accomplished), intelligence (warrantless wiretapping), law enforcement (more wiretapping)... When an American president says something, he better mean what he said (except for all the times he doesn't)."

Scaring the bejeezus out of us any time the going gets tough is simple, crude -- and has worked like a charm for the Bushies. I'm guessing that they're saving a fresh elevation of the terror alert status until closer to November.

Watching my personal "Fear Factor" double feature -- Bush and Big Brother -- reminded me of a conversation I had during the 2004 campaign with Dr. Daniel Siegel, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist whose book Mindsight explores the physiological workings of the brain. He explained that the Bush campaign's unrelenting fear-mongering had left voters "shrouded in a 'fog of fear,'" reacting not with their linear, logical left brain but with their lizard, more emotional right brain.

Deep in the brain lies the amygdala, an almond-sized region that generates fear. When this fear state is activated, the amygdala springs into action. Before you are even consciously aware that you are afraid, your lizard brain responds by clicking into survival mode. No time to assess the situation, no time to look at the facts, just fight, flight or freeze. Fear paralyzes our reasoning and literally makes it impossible to think straight. Instead, we search for emotional, nonverbal cues from others that will make us feel safe and secure.

This is precisely why Rove wants to paint Democrats as having "a pre-9/11 worldview" which, by implication, makes them unwilling to go the extra -- even illegal -- mile to keep America safe.

The only way to break through this "fog of fear" is to keep shining a light on this cynical strategy, like Hillary Clinton did the other day at the UAW convention: "If you're paying attention, you saw two weeks ago, Karl Rove, in a room like this, telling the Republican National Committee, 'Here's your game plan, folks. Here's how we're going to win. We're going to win by getting everybody scared again.... We're going to keep playing the fear card.'"

Some in the mainstream media are doing the same. The headline on the jump page of the Los Angeles Times story on Bush's speech reads, "Critics Question Timing of Disclosures About Plot." And the New York Times' story on it offered a similarly dubious tone: "Mr. Bush's speech came at a time when Republicans are intent on establishing their record on national security as the pre-eminent issue in the 2006 midterm elections, and when the president is facing questions from members of both parties about a secret eavesdropping program that he describes as pivotal to the war on terrorism."

Maybe even the MSM's lizard brains are getting wise to the White House's scare tactics. And, just maybe, we're about to enter a new era where our collective memory is no longer "satisfactorily under control."