Mar 22, 2006 5:14 pm


Everything you'd ever wanted to know about John Mearsheimer's mode of thinking can be found in his discussion of lying and especially fearmongering in a paper he presented to the ASPA in 2004. First, he explains that the more tyrannical the regime, the less it needs to fearmonger or to lie, for that matter. The real problems are the difficulties elites have in handling the masses in democracies. Then he gives an example of a hypothetical fearmongering: Warning the American people of Nazi threat in the 1930's. Forget the caveats with which he covers his backside and note the category.

The elites, it should be emphasized, are fear-mongering here because they believe it is in the national interest, not because they are evil people and or because they are pursuing selfish gain. The fact is that there may be cases where the public fails to see or is unwilling to deal with a threat and therefore it makes good sense for the elites to lie to their public to get them off the dime. For example, if we replayed the 1930s, most people would probably applaud any lies told to enhance public awareness of the threat posed by Nazi Germany.

Note the underlying assumption that the elite would have needed lies to convince the American people of the Nazi threat. Truth would not have sufficed. Hence, fearmongering may be a necessary vice if an essentially undemocratic one.

Elites fear-monger because they believe that their public (or their political system) is incapable of dealing effectively with threats to national security, and therefore the people must be lied to so that they do the right thing. The underlying assumption is that the people do not know what is best for their country. In effect, the masses are asses, while the leaders are wise and prescient. Fear-mongering is anti-democratic at its core and it is also a pure top-down form of behavior.

So what is one to do to avoid becoming a fearmongerer? Be even more tyrannical than Hitler:

First, it is more likely in democracies than autocracies, because elites are more beholden to public opinion in democracies. There is a rich tradition of this kind of thinking on the right in America, where it is widely believed that democracies are at a disadvantage against non-democracies, because the masses make it hard to execute a smart and bold foreign policy. This line of thinking was evident during the Cold War among neo-conservatives and others like Jean Francois Revel, who thought that the publics in democracies were prone to appease adversaries rather than confront them. But this perspective is not restricted to the right, as is evident in The Public Philosophy by Walter Lippmann.

This kind of behavior, however, is not simply limited to democracies, because in the age of nationalism, even elites in non-democracies must pay attention to public opinion. Hitler, for example, closely monitored the German public’s thinking. Nevertheless, the more autocratic or the more firmly the autocrat’s grip on his society, the less likely the need for fearmongering.

He admits that both Hitler and Bin Laden felt the need to explain their actions to their constituencies. But he refuses to let the evidence undermine his basic thesis. He merely notes it then ignores it. Instead, he goes on"to demonstrate" the villainy of democracies, particularly those (surprise, surprise) of Israel and the US. Israel is given as an example of a lying state which along with the US of states found on brutality. The example of a particularly brutal behavior of a state: US bombing of Japan.

Search as one will in Mearsheimer's paper, one may not find a single word in praise of democracy or a single word in condemnation of totalitarianism. The opposite is true. Realism for Mearsheimer means giving preference to a Hitler type totalitarian regime over a Roosevelt type democratic one. It is a small wonder he opposed the overthrow of Saddam and believes that the Bush administration is engaging in (virtuous?) fear mongering against Al Qaeda. Mearsheimer, like many frustrated academics, is yearning to be a Platonic philosopher king. We are lucky we do not have to live under his rule.

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pst314 - 3/22/2006

Amazing and appalling.

Perhaps there should be an annual Mouth of Sauron Award for the most brazen academic defender of evil. On second thought, leave the Mouth of Sauron Award for public figures, and award academics with a Grima Wormtongue Award.