Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Moral Panic by Haggai Ram
Generally speaking, the term moral panic has been used in sociological analysis to refer to periods when certain groups are negatively framed and labeled as the enemies of society's cosmological order of things and as a threat to its interests. The Massachusetts witch hunt in the mid-seventeenth century was perhaps the first paradigmatic case of moral panic, which achieved more recent expressions in American McCarthyism in the 1950s and in the persecution of the Stalinist Left in Europe during the Cold War. Twentieth-century history provides us with a plethora of phenomena that can be defined and conceptualized in terms of a threat to social mores and moral rectitude: alcoholism, homosexuality, sexuality, the maintenance of family values, abortions, and the smoking of marijuana. Most of these phenomena reaffirmed existing social and racial-ethnic hierarchies and hence induced feelings of misplaced and exaggerated anxiety.
As a mass hysteria generated by the exploitation of people's worst fears, moral panic is, for the most part, not orchestrated by one (conspiratorial) source. Rather, moral panics are produced by social agents ( or “moral entrepreneurs”) from all ranks of society – the media, politicians, social science experts, and so on. That is to say, some are engineered by elites, some come by way of middle-level interest groups, and still others emerge almost spontaneously from the grass roots.
Moral panic depends on the delineation of a scapegoat – or 'folk devil' – as an identifiable object onto which our deeper social fears and anxieties may be projected. Although moral panic centers on a particular folk devil, the locus of the panic, however, is not the folk devil itself. Rather, folk devils are the ideological embodiment of deeper anxieties “symptomatic of a more general situation of protracted state and economic failure, but one not (yet) perceived of in terms of 'crisis'.
Moral panics are constructions or mediations of state contradictions and failures. The receptacles of all these intense feelings of threat are, therefore, culturally and politically constructed, products of the human imagination. As such, they are highly exaggerated. Reflecting on specific historical episodes of moral panic, sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yeuda this conclude, “In each case, a specific agent was widely felt to be responsible for the threat; in each case a sober assessment of the evidence concerning the nature of the supposed threat forces the observer to the conclusion that the fear and concern were, in all likelihood, exaggerated or misplaced.”
What, among other things, lies at the heart of this study [Iranophobia; The Logic of an Israeli Obsession] is the argument that Israeli phobias about Iran must be understood in relation to the moral panic about the project of modernity's perceived “contradictions and failures” in the Jewish state. More precisely, these phobias are to be understood in relation to domestic (Ashkenazi, secularist, middle-class) anxieties posed by Israel's religious and ethnic ( Mizrahi) underclass since the latter half of the 1970s. Indeed, it is not coincidental, I argue, that Iran has been transformed into a repellent and frightening external other in the Israeli imagination at the same time that Israel's ethnic and religious “outsiders within” ( or folk devils) have shown Jewish-Israeli modernity to be in a state of crisis, and “not a finished ideal state seen as the culmination of a majestically plotted history.”
[see also:'Jewish Terrorism in Israel" by Ami Pedahzur & Arie Perliger, Columbia University Press, 2009. http://johnshaplin.blogspot.com/2009/11/evacuating-settlements-by-ami-pedahzur.html]
As I write these words in late September 2007, at the conclusion of President Ahmadinejad's visit to the United Nations General Assembly, during which he also appeared before students at New York City's Columbia University. For most Israeli analysts and laypersons this visit was equivalent to “Satan coming to New York.” Within this context, they lost no time showering contempt and scorn upon Ahmadinejad, even mocking him for putting on eyeglasses during a video interview with American reporters, as though he was trying to deceive them into believing that he was an intellectual. For, according to the dominant Israeli view, Iran is a nation composed of ignorant and ignoble people who could not put eyeglasses to good use anyway. A piece offering my own perspectives on the visit, as well as an overview of the ideas I put forth in this book, was posted on Ynet, the Internet edition of Yedi'ot Ahronoth. Literally 99 percent of the five hundred talkbacks that followed in response accused me of high treason and of complicity with Holocaust denial, with some even calling for for my deportation ( to Iran, of course) and wishing for my death. It is my intention to explore in this book the roots of the mind-set that has enabled the introduction of such extreme venomous reaction.
By systematically engaging with widespread Israeli notions and narratives of Iran, I ( and Israeli historian of Iran) will incorporate my own theoretically informed readings of Iranian history, and in so doing, provide a vista into the conflicting, converging, and conflated discourses that shaped not only the history of reading Iran in Israel but also the history of writing Iran in Israel.