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The Fear Digest

Muslims, Gay People, Mitt Romney and Other Things That Freaked Out America This Week

Our weekly rundown of terror and fear.
January 18, 2015, 4:53pm

Screenshot via NBC Dallas–Fort Worth

Welcome back to the fear digest, which ranks the top ten things Americans are terrified of. Read last week's column here.

10. The Worship of Technology
Fear comes in all sorts of flavors. There's the spike of adrenaline you get when you see an out-of-control car veering toward you, the dread that creeps over you when you realize the institutions of this world aren't on your side, and the dose of hopelessness mixed with a kind of awe that washes through you when you contemplate how warped some of society's core beliefs are. It's that third type that hits you when you read Ian Bogost's essay in The Atlantic about our blind faith in technology, particularly the "algorithms" used by tech giants like Google that ordinary people invoke the way ancient Greeks might have talked about soothsayers. "The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with 'God' and ask yourself if the sense changes any," writes Bogost, and goes on:

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Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion. It's part of a larger trend.

The scientific revolution was meant to challenge tradition and faith, particularly a faith in religious superstition. But today, Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites. Science and technology have become so pervasive and distorted, they have turned into a new type of theology.

Last week's rank: Unranked

9. The Academy Awards' Racism
This week also saw a sort of fear blended with rage, as an obscure organization known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a list of films, actors, directors, makeup artists, set designers, sound engineers, and others that its members thought did an especially good job. The most prominent categories were 100 percent white people, leading Al Sharpton and others to be like, "Hey, that's sort of racist, right?" And yeah, it looks pretty bad—though as usual, the Academy's bias against minorities wasn't as severe as its bias toward drama-filled biopics that make film people feel like what they're doing is important. On the upside, maybe the Academy is merely representing the racism of Hollywood as a whole?
Last week's rank: Unranked

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8. People Who Hate the Cops
Though the thinkpiece-industrial complex largely moved on to focus on racism in the film world this week, activists continued to demonstrate against the institutionalized racism of the police. This week protesters in Boston handcuffed themselves to cement-filled barrels and blocked a highway, while their West Coast counterparts disrupted public transportation in the Bay Area by causing a commotion in BART stations and "banging spoons on passing trains," according to Reuters. This filled commuters with annoyance, if not exactly fear, and as everyone knows crankiness is the first step toward revolution.
Last week's rank: 3

7. The Cops
Of course, this being the weekend of MLK Day, there were plenty of other, less disruptive protests, as people from Texas to New Jersey marched against police brutality. Over the last 12 months it's become increasingly impossible to deny that the shootings and beatings of black men are symptoms of the disease of racism that's infected this country for its entire history. Maybe sometimes activists' tactics aren't successful or it's not clear what individual protests achieve, but we live in a world where Florida cops use mug shots of black men as gun range targets—perhaps it's not that unreasonable to take to the streets in rage and terror?
Last week's rank: 2

6. Mitt Romney
On the lighter side, like a grizzled con man coming out of retirement for one last big score, Mitt Romney has all but announced he's running for president—on an anti-poverty platform, apparently. Last go-round Romney was mocked by his opponents not only for his extreme wealth but for saying that 47 percent of Americans relied on government support to get by and therefore would never vote for him, so this approach looks pretty desperate. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal—the paper of record for the big-business conservatives that are theoretically Romney's natural constituents—published a mocking editorial that began with the line, "If Mitt Romney is the answer, what is the question?" BURN. The scary thing about all of this is that Romney is actually a viable candidate by some measures.
Last week's rank: Unranked

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5. Global Warming
While we get all excited for the train wreck of a horse race that is the 2016 presidential campaign, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reminded us this week that we're living in the last generation that can effectively fight climate change.
Last week's rank: Unranked

4. Gay People
Of course, while many people are worried about climate change, it's much more common for us to be terrified of our fellow humans rather than the thing that could wipe us all out. This fear leads to some rather nasty responses, as it did last Saturday, January 10, when a Colorado chaplain stopped a funeral service because he wouldn't show a memorial video that included photos of the deceased woman kissing her partner, who was also a woman. The church knew in advance the woman was a lesbian, but "the church policy is that people with alternate lifestyles can have services, but there can be no pictures or videos of overt kissing or hugging," the chaplain told the Associated Press, explaining a horrible policy that is guaranteed to upset and offend people. "The church has to answer to its board and the members who pay their bills."
Last week's rank: Unranked

3. Muslims
That's just one pastor at one church being a dick, however. In the Dallas suburb of Garland, thousands of American flag–waving protesters demonstrated their dickishness on Saturday when they picketed a Muslim conference that was, ironically, about combatting homophobia. The local news broadcast featured one man who literally said, "You're not welcome here"; another protester held up a sign that said "Go home and take Obama with you." From reports, it wasn't clear that they had a specific political gripe with the event, which was called "Stand with the Prophet Against Terror and Hate"—they appeared to just be upset that Muslims were gathering.
Last week's rank: Unranked

2. Unsupervised Children
If there's anything more terrifying than a group of religious people getting together to talk about ways to fight against hate, it's kids wandering the streets of American suburbs. In Silver Spring, Maryland, police hassled a couple for letting their ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter walk home alone from a park a mile away. Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are part of the "free-range" parenting movement, which is all about giving your children independence and responsibility, and the idea that the government would interfere with that choice is pretty horrifying for people across the political spectrum. Though writers like Hannah Rosin have pointed out how insane it is for the police and Child Protective Services to get involved in cases like these, it happens a lot. Parents can get in trouble—and even charged with crimes—for leaving their kids by themselves in the house or allowing them to walk down the street or even letting them play by themselves outside. The world is indeed a scary place for kids—a lesson that they will learn when their parents are thrown in jail for letting them roam freely around their neighborhoods.
Last week's rank: Unranked

1. Terrorism
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, governments across Europe have been upping security at possible terrorist attack targets. In Belgium, an anti-terror raid left two suspects dead; the French authorities investigated anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala for making a joke on Facebook. That anti-terror terror has spread across the Atlantic as well, with the Transportation Security Administration increasing the number of random bag searches at airports, even though the Department of Homeland Security admitted, "We have no specific, credible intelligence of an attack of the kind in Paris last week being planned by terrorist organizations in this country."

It's become a routine over the last decade and a half: an attack, a sense of panic that ripples out in its wake, then a series of arrests and violence justified by the panic, and finally a heightened level of security that becomes the new normal. This week it might have been jarring for citizens in Brussels to see armed paratroopers on the streets, and travelers might grumble as some bored TSA agent shuffles through their sweaters, but we get used to such indignities—or we're told we have to, anyway, in the name of security, though whatever measures we take, there's always another attack, another crackdown, and more men on the streets with guns.
Last week's rank: 1

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