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The Merchants of Moral Panic


In his famous Understanding Media published in 1964 Marshall McLuhan used the term ‘moral panic’ to refer to the fright experienced by certain cultural elites when confronted by the written text’s loss of influence before emergent forms of electronic media.

A few years later, Stanley Cohen, a British sociologist born in South Africa, made McLuhan’s phrase the focus of his study on the tensions between “mods” and “rockers”—two youth sub-groups of the working class—in British society.

Cohen highlights the key role played by “moral entrepreneurs” from the media in greatly overstating the degree to which the skirmishes between these groups of impoverished youth could and would endanger social peace. He further argues that these sustained campaigns of exaggeration had the effect of turning these lower-class beings into ‘folk devils;’ that is, “a visible reminder of what we were not to be,” a formulation which, in turn, bolstered the existing values ​​of bourgeois society.

The British historian Helen Graham has made very useful use of the concept of moral panic in her analyses of the treatment of women in the early years of the Franco regime (1939-1975). The liberation of women on many social fronts during the Republic (1931-39) had, in many ways, shaken the pillars of Spain’s then still very traditional society. Upon winning the Civil War and establishing the dictatorship, the Francoists greatly exaggerated supposed moral transgressions of Republican women to legitimize the repression they were using to return them to their ‘natural’ place in the social order. 

No matter how aggressive and cocksure both the entrepreneurs of moral panic in the media and their acolytes in the general population might at first glance appear to be, the main driver of their actions is always the spirit of defeat, that is, the consciousness of having lost the level of social control that they thought was their perpetual inheritance. 

When dominant social elites encounter phenomena that not only disturb them, but do not even fit minimally within the phenomenological frameworks about “reality” they have engineered for themselves and others, they invariably respond with coercion, and if that does not work, eventually with violence.

As heirs of a century and a half of intermittent, but globally positive, progress in the attainment of individual rights (and the consequent deconstruction of the old clerical and social class privileges), it is logical that many of us tend to associate the phenomenon of moral panic with the political right. And there are many reasons for doing so. From Le Bon, and his theories about the dangerous nature of the masses in the 1800s, to today’s Trumps, Erdogans, Bolsonaros, Abascals (Spain) and Orbans, the right has repeatedly resorted to moral panic to strengthen the foundations of its social power.

But I think it is a very big mistake to assume that the use of moral panic is strictly a right-wing phenomenon. 

Moral panic is, in fact, a tool available to supporters of any social group possessed, on the one hand, of a substantial level of anguish over the relative loss of its social hegemony, and on the other, of the media connections needed to mount a sustained campaign to demonize nonconformists.

The spectrum of ideologies we call ‘left-wing’ was born to do one thing above all others: to carry out a revision (radical in some branches of the ideological current, not so much in others) of the relations of economic power in society. It was not, as the study of European and South American anarchism clearly shows us, that activists working under the various acronyms of the left had no interest in pursuing a revision of other codes of social power. It was that they generally saw the revision of these other social codes as dependent on the reasonably satisfactory resolution of the economic question.

The widespread popularity and growth of left-wing parties in Europe in the first three or four decades after World War II was the result, above all, of this emphasis on the creation of economic structures designed to redistribute wealth in a much more equitable way than had ever been the case. 

That was until a new version of so-called free market economics broke into the high precincts of government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a development that seems to have taken the rulers of the then still dominant Leftist parties almost completely by surprise.

The inability to foresee the future is not a sin. What is morally reprehensible, however, is to pretend that the world has not changed, and that these changes do not seriously affect the people who are voting for you year after year. 

And what is truly disgusting are the attempts by these once dominant Leftist parties to try and cover up their serial stupor and laziness in the face of the often rapacious financialization of the economy over the last four decades by mounting campaign after campaign of moral panic.

When viewed in the light of its own original postulates (many of which, by the way, I generally embrace) the Left has failed miserably in carrying out its appointed task of checking and eventually reversing Big Finance’s frequent humiliation of millions of common people. 

But instead of admitting their failure and convening broad and robust conversations within their ranks and with their political opponents about the most effective new ways to fight for economic justice, they insult us with absurd linguistic restrictions (which are, by definition, also cognitive constraints) and endless stories about the horrible and ever immoral authoritarians of the Right. 

This, as if removing ‘offensive words’ from our vocabularies was the key to pulling millions out of misery and precariousness, or as if the growing popularity of the so-called authoritarian leaders had nothing to do with many people’s sense of having been abandoned to the depredations of often rigged markets while being preached to about the inherent wrongness of their long-standing moral codes. Or as if these so-called “Leftist” parties in power actually had any concrete plans to mitigate the toxic influence of Big Finance, Big Pharma and Big Tech. 

This thirty-year “leftist” lurch toward morally charged bullying designed to cover up the movement’s epic failure to ensure the freedom and dignity of common people has reached truly delirious proportions during the Covid crisis. 

This social sector’s cultural empresarios are no longer content, as they were for so long, to try and induce conformity and obedience through sneering and derision. 

No, they are now demanding that we offer up our bodies and those of our children to them, not as they claim, or in some cases might even absurdly believe, as a way of ensuring the safety of all, but as a palpable sign of our conformity with their idea of How the World Should Really Be™. 

Through these tactics—and I think it is important we are frank with ourselves about this—they have managed to put us all, like the mods and rockers in 1960s Great Britain, on the defensive. 

And we must also be frank about the fact that we are now witnessing nothing more and nothing less than a campaign of naked aggression against those who refuse to pay physical homage, offering a blood sacrifice if you will, to an idea of moral correctness rooted, at the very best, in shambolic logic. 

So how can and should we respond to this reality? First it is imperative that we recognize and accept that we are up against a sustained campaign of verbal cum physical violence. 

Very few of us like conflict and thus often go to great lengths to minimize and/or paper over its existence in our lives. Moreover, our current consumerist culture, rooted in a one-must-always-be-cool transactionalist ethos, only enhances this natural human tendency. 

This reticence, in turn, serves to embolden our opponents and, perhaps more importantly, generates paralysis in many of us for, as a very wise healer once said to me, “Anger turned inward becomes depression, and with depression comes an inability to exercise agency in life.” 

So, as primitive and untasteful as it may sound—especially to those of us socialized in the higher reaches of intellectual culture—we must begin to embrace our anger and to focus it like a satellite-killing laser beam against the only things that our opponents currently have going for them in the fight for public opinion: their false aura of moral superiority and the preemptive ability, thanks to massive media collusion, to frame the terms of the debate. 

In other words, we must not only rationally pick apart their laughable distortions of science, but also directly challenge their self-appointed “right” to decide what are and should be the social priorities for each and every wonderfully unique individual in society, as well as the questions that can be asked about the reality of the problem before us. 

An important element of this last approach is to never accept the terms of the debate as they have framed it. To attempt, for example, to preemptively distance ourselves from the question of “conspiracy theories” around Covid is, in effect, to ratify on the epistemological level the idea that there are trains of thought that can and should be summarily dismissed, a posture that is absolutely central to their efforts at control, and one that we as insurgents cannot afford to legitimize. 

I mentioned above that most of us will do quite a lot to avoid flat out interpersonal conflict. That is true. 

But it is also true that most people have a deep abhorrence of bullying and self-interested moral hypocrisy. We thus must be relentless in highlighting this essential aspect of those stage-managing the Covid crisis. 

Though most have tried to forget it, I remember quite clearly the days and months after September 11th when the mainstream press corps tittered like star-struck schoolchildren before the moralizing lies of Donald Rumsfeld, with People Magazine going so far as to include him in its “Sexiest Man Alive” issue. 

When the unindicted war criminal died recently, however, his former cheerleaders were nowhere to be found, nor were they asked to atone for their role in constructing and maintaining the grotesque myth of his wisdom and concern for human values. 


Because too many of us who knew better failed to forcefully confront him and his fellow warmongers and their press enablers in real time. 

And thus he was allowed, McArthur-style, to “just fade away.” 

Let’s resolve now to not let the Covid warriors merely fade away, using our imaginations to find ways of making it as uncomfortable as we possibly can for the merchants of moral panic to continue to practice their craft, and exercise their magisterium over public opinion. 

Our children and grandchildren will, I think, be grateful for our efforts 

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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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