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Climate of FearBBC Radio 4

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Reith Lectures

Reith 2004
Open University Discussion Forum


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The Lectures

Lecture 1: The Changing Mask of Fear
Lecture 2: Power and Freedom
Lecture 3: Rhetoric that Binds and Blinds
Lecture 4: A Quest for Dignity
Lecture 5: I am Right; You are Dead

Full transcripts and audio replay will be available after each lecture is broadcast.
Lecture 1 Lecture 1: The Changing Mask of Fear

In his first lecture Wole Soyinka considers from his viewpoint as a poet and drawing on his personal experience as a political activist the changes since the Cold War in the nature of fear and its impact on individuals and society. Fear can be bearable, even a force for good, for example bringing a community together to fight a common threat from the natural world like a forest fire, "a kind of fear one can live with, shrug off, one that may actually be absorbed as a therapeutic incidence".

Other kinds of fear, though, are "downright degrading". Crucially, they involve a loss of human dignity and freedom to act. First we had the fear of nuclear war between the superpowers, now "the fear is one of furtive, invisible power, the power of the quasi state, one that is not open to any negotiating structure."

"It is the unstructured, the totally unpredictable, those that have repudiated the norm, refuse to to be bound by the code of formalised states that instil the greatest fear."

Wole Soyinka does not date this new climate of fear from the events of September 11. He detects its origin in an event over a decade earlier which the world and in particular the continent of Africa chose to ignore - the downing of a passenger plane over the Republic of Niger some months before the similar disaster at Lockerbie.

"Even in death, where all victims are surely considered equal, some continue to die more equally than others. Dying over Scotland, no matter your pedigree, enhances your value over dying over African soil".

For Wole Soyinka 1989 was therefore the moment when the world first appeared to have stood still.

"September 11 2001 has proved to be only a culmination of the posted signs that had been boldly scrawled over decades in letters of blood."

Venue: The Royal Institution, London.

Recording date Tuesday, 9 March, 7.00pm.
Date of first broadcast: Wednesday, 7 April, 8.00pm.
Repeated: Saturday 10 April, 10.15pm.

Lecture 2 Lecture 2: Power and Freedom

This lecture examines how difficult it can be to tell friend from foe in a climate of fear. Organisations that are set up to overthrow dictatorships can themselves turn into tyrannical regimes. Liberation movements may be forced to seek help from dangerous quarters. And these days it is not just countries that control and direct the lives of their citizens. When the rule of law breaks down, shadowy forces set themselves up as "quasi-states" - and these, more than anything else, have produced today's climate of fear.

Soyinka looks at the recent history of two countries - Algeria and Nigeria - both plagued by political turmoil. He considers what has become one of the most difficult tests for democracy - what happens when the ballot box produces "the wrong result", when the people vote for a party that is fundamentally opposed to democracy?

The lecture also examines some of the ways in which the world has become a more dangerous place. Soyinka uses the Vietnam War to draw a contrast between nationalist struggles then and now. He points out that:

"The North Vietnamese, victims of two world powers in rapid succession, never considered designating the entire world a war arena where innocents and guilty alike would be legitimately targeted. Not one incident of hijacking took place during those wars, neither did the taking of hostages or the random detonation of bombs in places of tourist attraction, or of religious worship. United Nations agencies, as well as humanitarian organizations appear to have enjoyed the respect due to neutrals in conflict."

Soyinka also begins to develop his thesis about the nature of power - and its links to the climate of fear. He says:

"History concedes to exceptional figures, past and present - Alexander, Suleyman, King Darius, Chaka the Zulu, Ataturk, Indira Ghandi etc - the temperaments of nation builders as well as nurturers of power. What differs in our contemporary situation is that the relishing of power is no longer an attribute of the outstanding, exceptional individual, but is increasingly accessible to even the nondescript individual whose membership of a clique, or activities on behalf of The Chosen more than fulfils this hunger for a share in the diet of power...

"Any fool, any moron, any psychopath can aspire to the exercise of power … As long as you are sufficiently ruthless, amoral and manipulative - power is within the grasp of even the mentally deficient."

Power-mad dictators are a fact of life - can we achieve a clearer understanding of the nature of the beast?

Venue: School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Recording date: Thursday 11 March, 7.00pm.
Date of first broadcast: Wednesday 14 April, 8.00pm.
Repeated: Saturday 17 April, 10.15pm.

Lecture 3 Lecture 3: Rhetoric that Binds and Blinds

Between God and Nation, and Sieg Heil, a complex set of social impulses and goals are reduced to mere sound, but a potent tool that moves to vibrate a collective chord and displace reason. A willed hypnosis substitutes for individual volition and, the ecstasy of losing oneself in a sound-cloned crowd drives the most ordinary being to jettison all moral code and undertake hitherto unthinkable acts. Its religious versions prove even more deadly. Is the language of Political Correctness aiding and abetting its proliferation?

Venue: IMAX Theatre at Bristol.

Recording date: Tuesday 23 March, 7.00pm.
Date of first broadcast: Wednesday 21 April, 8.00pm.
Repeated: Saturday 24 April, 10.15pm.

Lecture 4 Lecture 4: A Quest for Dignity

Even in defeat, negotiating terms of surrender, a defeated nation pleads - 'Leave us something of our dignity'. Denied this little consideration, a doomed struggle is promptly resumed. So what exactly is this 'dignity' that even nations enshrine in their constitutions and Bills of Human Rights? A basic core of volition? A sense of freedom? Obviously human dignity involves both, and encompasses more. No matter the mask that is worn to hide the reality of fear, dignity remains incompatible with the entry of fear into the human psyche.

Venue: University of Leeds

Recording date: Thursday 25 March, 7.00pm.
Date of first broadcast: Wednesday 28 April, 8.00pm.
Repeated: Saturday 1 May, 10.15pm.

Lecture 5 Lecture 5: I am Right; You are Dead

When Osama bin Laden declares that the world is divided between believers and non-believers, it is easy to identify the menace of the fanatic mind but, in what other company can we place George Bush when we hear him declare that 'you are either with us or you are on the side of the terrorists'? We fail at our peril to recognize a twin strain of the same fanatic spore that threatens to consume the world in its messianic fires. What could be the role of the 'invisible' religions and world views in tempering the forces that seek to dichotomise the world?

Venue: Emory University, Atlanta, USA.

Recording date: Monday 29 March, 7.00pm.
Date of first broadcast: Wednesday 5 May, 8.00pm.
Repeated: Saturday 8 May, 10.15pm.

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Lecture audio and transcripts will be available after each broadcast.

  • Lecture 1:
    The Changing Mask of Fear
  • Lecture 2:
    Power and Freedom
  • Lecture 3:
    Rhetoric that Binds and Blinds
  • Lecture 4:
    A Quest for Dignity
  • Lecture 5:
    I am Right; You are Dead

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