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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

Book Review of:
The Climate of Fear:
The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World

2005: ISBN: 978-0-8129-7424-9
by Wole Soyinka. New York: Random House

Reviewed by Maximiliano E. Korstanje

University John. F. Kennedy*

    Throughout the twentieth century the west has feared a whole range of scenarios from totalitarianism or political dictatorship through to an apocalyptic thermo-nuclear war. After 9/11 the world has witnessed of an upsurge of media-reported violence that does not appear to discriminate by class or ethnicity. The current climate of fear is constructed under the supposition we are all the prey of a so-called 'terrorism' that combines a false fundamentalism with resentment of the West’s hegemony. This review focuses on, The Climate of Fear contains five Reith Lectures given by the Nobel Prize in literature laureate, Wole Soyinka in 2004 in the UK. 

    The decadence still visible in democracy allied with the decline of human rights results in an atmosphere of anxiety which only can be broken by ethnic tolerance and recognition of human dignity. Soyinka's essays lead readers through the complex world of current politics revealing Soyinka's own experience in Africa and his sense of social issues.   The whole provides an understanding of terrorism-related issues.   Soyinka examines qualitatively to what extent people feel more fear in spite of technical and material advances in recent decades.  The preface argues that the world cannot escape social instability when perpetrators of crimes can sell their stories to the media. Latin America and Africa have experienced this state of affairs for many years.  Generally, the 70's and 80's are characterized by the advent of bloody dictatorships that silenced their dissenting voices by violence and removal of dignity. This provided the springboard for the post-9/11 events that are shocking the US and Europe. 

    Soyinka claims that 9/11 did not surprise him. From that moment onwards, international public opinion (even in Africa) experienced a new climate of fear, in spite of the previous experiences of political terror.  Soyinka believes the world has faced extreme situations of panic before 9/11 ranging from Nazism and the Second World War to nuclear weapon testing. One of the aspects of global power that facilitates this feeling of uncertainty seems to be the lack of a visible rivalry once the USSR collapsed. The politic terror promulgated by states diminishes the dignity of enemies. These practices are rooted inside a territory but paved the way for a new form of terrorism which ended in the World Trade Center attacks. It is incorrect to see 9/11 as the beginning of a new fear but as the latest demonstration of the power of an empire over the rest of the world. Mass communications, though, transformed our ways of perceiving terrorism even if it did not alter the conditions that facilitate the new state of war. 

    In his second chapter, Soyinka examines the current connection between power and freedom. Unlike classical totalitarian States which are constructed by means of material asymmetries, the quasi-States construct their legitimacy by denouncing the injustices of the World. Quasi-States are not only terrorist cells but also mega-corporations which work in complicity producing weapons for one side or the other. Making profit of human suffering is a primary aspect that characterizes these quasi-states. The uncertainty these corporations engender denies the minimum codes of war by emphasizing the inexistence of boundaries and responsibilities. Once rectitude has been substituted by the right to exercise power, pathways towards a moral superiority are frustrated. Unlike the disaster of the Napalm-bombing of non-combatants by the United States in Vietnam, this new war-on-terror is characterized by targeting innocents as a primary option. In opposition to conventional wars, war-on-terror expands fear under the following two assumptions: a) hits can take place anywhere and anytime, and,  b) there is no limits on brutality non-combatants. Wars depend on the capacity to control others based on the principle of power. Governments often need the material resources of their neighbours. Where the expropriation method of capitalist trade fails, war finds success. One might speculate that war should be understood as an extension of economic production. 

    The role played by fear in late modernity is rooted in a desire for domination that has nothing to do with religiosity or even to religious fundamentalism, which in recent years has become synonymous with cruelty.  Throughout the final chapters of this book, Soyinka emphasizes psychological fear as key factor of internal indoctrination. He argues that this new sentiment of fear, where terrorism and Bush's preventive-war converge, is a result of strategies for expanding the current economic hegemony of the West.  In sharp contrast to state terrorism in 70s, this new fear seems to be ephemeral but for this not less powerful. 


*The author wants to thank to Charlie Mansfield at Plymouth University for his assistance in reading and editing part of this manuscript as well as his valuable comments.

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