Friday, April 22, 2016

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Fear Makers,” by Darwin L. Teilhet

(Editor’s note: This is the 136th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
An overwhelming sense of dislocation and uncertainty permeates Darwin Teilhet’s World War II thriller, The Fear Makers. Published originally in 1945 as the war wound to an end, The Fear Makers is a slim yet farsighted masterpiece describing the incipient misuses of public opinion manipulation long before Vance Packard identified them in The Hidden Persuaders. With “the big lie” of Nazi propaganda in the background, Teilhet’s chilling scenario brings the pernicious tools of mass intimidation and persuasion to the American home front, where plans for jockeying a political candidate into office using returning GIs as a power base against labor unions and Jews is well underway. Celebrated American war hero Captain Allan Eaton, suffering from traumatic head injuries, is one of those GIs.

This book kicks off with a touch of Hitchcockian duplicity, mistaken identity, and treachery as Eaton attempts to rebuild a life he’s not even sure happened. Eaton is on his way from a Boston veteran’s hospital to Washington, D.C., to sell his interest in his respected polling firm. A fellow passenger on the train, a stranger named Brown, remarks to Eaton that his business partner, Clark Baker, has been killed under dark and unsettling circumstances. Demonstrating friendship and empathy in a city where the housing supply is known to be tight, Brown gives Eaton an address where he has friends who’ll put him up. For a while, Eaton’s life is no longer under his control.

Eaton thinks he still owns half of his polling company, but is soon informed by the new owner, a wheedling and ham-handed former office manager named Megassum, that he’d actually sold his interest to Baker before leaving for the war. Eaton doesn’t remember signing a contract, but he’s hired on by the firm as a figurehead of probity. Megassum also wants the trusted Eaton to be “in on” the latest project, promoting an anti-labor candidate who “deserves the soldier vote.” When Eaton is quick to see that Megassum employs specious polling techniques, it should come as no surprise that Megassum wants to keep tabs on him. Barney Bond, the gifted statistician who served in Eaton’s job during his absence, takes a keen interest in Eaton as well.

An intelligent, unscrupulous, and self-described “spastic” who seems to fawn over Eaton’s skill and reputation, Barney’s attempts to forge a bond of empathy with Eaton, including using their disabilities as common ground, are shameless. Bond is a repugnant and diabolical opportunist, and on the surface comes off as a Strangelovian mastermind whose hobby is devising a “semantic calculating machine.” It doesn’t take long for his sad, simple motivation to gurgle forth in the confidence and trust he believes he shares with Eaton.
“We get money,” said Barney. “Lots of money. A million dollars.” His eyes lighted. “Girls.” He wiped his lips.
Bond is skeptical of the “facts” surrounding Baker’s death by auto, and tells Eaton he needs to investigate the rumors that Megassum might have been involved. Eventually, the conniving Bond suggests that Eaton might learn the truth from Megassum if he uses a gun.

Not inculpable himself, Eaton is an infamous but repentant pioneer of whisper campaigns—rumor-spreading techniques used in the firm’s early days. Horrified to learn that his Master’s thesis on the subject (which he’d rather forget) is being used as a textbook, Eaton realizes in short order that Clark Baker Associates has changed beyond his worst fears. Now an intimidation and falsification factory, its tentacles seem to stretch everywhere: Phony letter-writing campaigns and polls employing tendentious questions are used to produce predetermined answers; recruits are trained to infiltrate civic groups and manipulate media to sway public opinion; and smear tactics slander African Americans, Jews, and “slackers” who didn’t serve in the war, influencing GIs overseas as well as their waiting families. “It was like starting a fire ten years ago and thinking it had been put out for good and coming back finding it burning ten times greater,” thinks Eaton, who feels the tug of Megassum’s reach and must act with caution.

(Left) Author Darwin Teilhet (photographed by Earl C. Berger)

Any complaints by Megassum to the Veterans Administration concerning Eaton’s mental state can result in Eaton being committed, and Eaton knows it. For a time, at least, that’s how Megassum keeps Eaton from becoming too curious. He’ s caught between freedom and remaining Megassum’s stooge—or exposing Megassum’s vile agenda and being readmitted to a hospital, which Eaton dreads.

When he arrives at the home of Brown’s friends, Eaton finds he is not expected. The house turns out to be occupied by European Jews who’ve fled Europe, and none have heard of the mysterious Mr. Brown. One of them, Elizabeth, becomes a love interest for Eaton, and it’s in that residence where he finds a temporary haven that’s homey, comforting … and short-lived. The house next door is occupied by a thuggish family of anti-Semites who vandalize the home of their gentle neighbors. As a member of this small, thrown-together family, Eaton experiences the persecution that his hosts and legions of people before them, all over the world, have endured.

A confrontation with the hate-mongers leads to a conversation, and Eaton discovers he’d in fact come to the wrong house; it was not the immigrants to whom he’d been recommended, but to the angry household of Hal Borland and his common-law wife, Vivien, next door. Vivien is a talented artist and forger with a laugh like “pulsating ice water.” Eaton discovers a briefcase full of letters addressed to GIs overseas and Megassum’s plans thereby become clearer. Together with Elizabeth’s biochemist brother, Eaton attempts to correct the falsified data in those missives, and when Eaton makes off with Megassum’s tainted polling information, guns are pulled and the chase is on.

Coincidence and misadventure abound to propel The Fear Makers’ plot and give the book a deeper level of meaning, as when Eaton and Elizabeth—on the run and afoot—are provided sanctuary by the black jazz musician George Goodspeed, to whom Eaton had given a lift at this story’s beginning. Eaton’s persistent use of military time subtly makes the reader see that Eaton has yet to leave the past and move beyond his circumstances. The occasional awkward sentences in Eaton’s narration give a sense of his unbalance, prompting the reader to reason that Eaton has not made a full recovery, which adds tension and ambiguity to the events occurring here.

“The post-war era will be ripe for a properly developed plan of psychological attack in all fields of enterprise, based on the polling operations as a cover for action,” says Barney Bond. If only this strategy were used to sell just Corn Flakes. The world is complicated, and sifting through the mass media and their profusion of viewpoints is tricky. There is nothing to really fear but the fear makers themselves; a clear and discerning mind is all that’s needed to differentiate between good and evil, no matter how they’re packaged.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

There's a very underrated 1958 film adaptation directed by the great Jacques Tourneur. It's often dismissed as a Red Scare movie, quite unfairly. Manipulation is manipulation regardless of who's doing the manipulating and the movie tackles the subject quite well. It's particularly strong on the use of front organisations and the exploitation of well-meaning but deluded idealists.