For many commentators, September 11 inaugurated a new era of fear. But as Corey Robin shows in his unsettling tour of the Western imagination--the first intellectual history of its kind--fear has shaped our politics and culture since time immemorial.
From the Garden of Eden to the Gulag Archipelago to today's headlines, Robin traces our growing fascination with political danger and disaster. As our faith in positive political principles recedes, he argues, we turn to fear as the justifying language of public life. We may not know the good, but we do know the bad. So we cling to fear, abandoning the quest for justice, equality, and freedom. But as fear becomes our intimate, we understand it less. In a startling reexamination of fear's greatest modern interpreters--Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt--Robin finds that writers since the eighteenth century have systematically obscured fear's political dimensions, diverting attention from the public and private authorities who sponsor and benefit from it. For fear, Robin insists, is an exemplary instrument of repression--in the public and private sector. Nowhere is this politically repressive fear--and its evasion--more evident than in contemporary America. In his final chapters, Robin accuses our leading scholars and critics of ignoring "Fear, American Style," which, as he shows, is the fruit of our most prized inheritances--the Constitution and the free market.
With danger playing an increasing role in our daily lives and justifying a growing number of government policies, Robin's Fear offers a bracing, and necessary, antidote to our contemporary culture of fear.
Given daily terror alerts and news reports of violence, Robin, professor of political science and contributor to the New York Times Magazine, offers a sober analysis of fear's Janus-faced potential as catalyst for economic progress and the raison d' tre of repressive regimes. A brilliant synthesis of historical perspective and the critically revealing story of "Fear, American Style," the account explores the classics of political thought by Hobbes, Montesquieu and Tocqueville and the portrayal of evil by Arendt in order to locate fear as the decisive underpinning of contemporary liberal theory. In doing so, Robin argues for the groundlessness of, on one hand, a "liberalism of anxiety" that perceives society as a debate over communities of identity and difference with low emphasis on social cohesion, while on the other hand a "liberalism of terror" that turns to abject evil as the summum malum grounding for morality. For Robin, both of these descriptions of political realities ignore the subtle threats fear wages in our everyday lives, most notably in the workplace. The closing chapters document how the Constitution and federalism's factionalist orientation aid that everyday fear. Conceived of before 9/11, but inclusive of its results, Robin's analysis predicts that when the war on terror does end, "we will find ourselves still living in fear."