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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Imagining fear

In the May 2015 Atlantic, Princeton historian David A. Bell reviewed The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett and Phantom Terror by Adam Zamoyski. In his last paragraphs, Bell makes an interesting point about the way fears can be created in the public imagination despite the lack of genuine threats:
But imagined terrors, as he [Zamoyski] and Tackett very usefully remind us, can have even more political potency than real ones. While early-19th-century Europe had its share of real revolutionary conspirators, the “directing committee” was as much a figment of the imagination as was the nest of spies and traitors that Robespierre claimed, toward the end of the Terror, to have discovered at the heart of the revolutionary National Convention. Both fantasies stand in a long line that stretches straight through to our own day. 
There is nothing particularly unusual, then, about the fears of an “invasion” of illegal immigrants that have such a large place in the mind-set of American conservatives, or the Russian fears of fascism that Vladimir Putin exploited so successfully to generate support for his incursions into Ukraine. Such emotions are an integral part of modern political life, and tempting as it may be to dismiss them as irrational, hysterical, and not worthy of serious discussion, we cannot simply wish them away.

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