Moral Panic: Past and Present, North and South

The Finnish YouTube one-man death squad is just the latest data point in the moral panic over “the Nazi Internet.”

This [blog post] is basically a conflation of cinema-induced fantasy, anti-Americanism, anti-President Bush, anti-capitalism, and fear of propaganda stemming from World War II. –Richard Edelman

A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip. — Zen koan.

Fads can be incredibly lucrative: mass hysteria and stupidity can make a real difference to a business’ bottom line. … –Rhymer Rigby. “Craze Management.” Management Today. London: Jun 1998. p. 58

A follow-up note to

It seems to be a fact about blogging that posting about sex and death drives more traffic to your site. Just look at the perennial top posts on this blog, for example, as calculated by the gizmo that provides its users:

That last item — a mobbed-up, child-fucking paramilitary death squad operating in one of Rio’s most upscale neighborhoods — seems to have it all.

You would think that circulation-minded, sensationalist Brazilian tabloids would jump on the story for that very reason. But they do not. You read very little about it.

Why is that so?

I have been reading up on the theory of “moral panic” recently — which seems to be how people doing real research on the subject refer to what NMM tends to call “the rhetoric of hysterical virginity.”

We field-collect a lot of extremely hardy specimens from the press and press-release newswires down here in Brazil.

Two recent items of interest on that topic, currently occupying my virtual bookshelf:

  1. Ronald Weitzer, “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade,” Politics & Society, 2007; 35; 447
  2. Walter Lippman, A Preface to Politics (1913) (Project Gutenberg edition, 2006), Chapter V, “Well Meaning But Unmeaning: The Chicago Vice Report”

Weitzer describes the phenomenon with admirable clarity:

Moral crusades advance claims about both the gravity and incidence of a particular problem. They typically rely on horror stories and “atrocity tales” about victims in which the most shocking exemplars of victimization are described and typified. Casting the problem in highly dramatic terms by recounting the plight of highly traumatized victims is intended to alarm the public and policy makers and justify draconian solutions. At the same time, inflated claims are made about the magnitude of the problem. A key feature of many moral crusades is that the imputed scale of a problem … far exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence. Moreover, crusade leaders consider the problem unambiguous: they are not inclined to acknowledge gray areas and are adamant that a particular evil exists precisely as they depict it.

Lippmann, from a later chapter titled “The Red Herring”:

The clever choice of issues influences all politics from the petty manoeuvers of a ward leader to the most brilliant creative statesmanship.

He is describing the political use of the moral crusade in the elections of, I think it is, 1912:

On the side you can see the Prohibitionists endeavoring to make the country see drink as a central problem; the emerging socialists insisting that not the tariff, or liquor, or the control of trusts, but the ownership of capital should be the heart of the discussion. Electoral campaigns do not resemble debates so much as they do competing amusement shows where, with bright lights, gaudy posters and persuasive, insistent voices, each booth is trying to collect a crowd; The victory in a campaign is far more likely to go to the most plausible diagnosis than to the most convincing method of cure. Once a party can induce the country to see its issue as supreme the greater part of its task is done.

It is too bad that Lippman’s The Phantom Public (1922) is not available on Gutenberg. The evolution of his thinking on democracy seems very relevant to me.

Project: Read all of Lippmann alongside all of Carlos Lacerda (The Power of Ideas).

Also currently on the bookshelf, and relevant to this theme: The election-year notebooks of Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta (Russia), published posthumously (in Portuguese).

(The journalist was rubbed out by a death squad.)

See, most recently:

On which more later. Errands this morning.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Novaya Gazeta (Russia)


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