21 December 2007

A timely call to courage for a nation of Chicken Littles and the politicians/media who encourage them

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
Barry Glassner
Basic Books, 2000

"We have the resources to feed, house, educate, insure, and disarm our communities if we resolve to do so....We can choose to redirect some...funds to combate serious dangers that threaten large numbers of people. At election time, we can choose candidates that proffer programs rather than scares." (p. 210)

With these concluding words, sociologist Barry Glassner underscores the basic premise of his book---Americans live in a culture in which extreme irrational fears are stoked while more serious (but less sexy) concerns are downplayed or ignored. Over the course of nine chapters, each focusing on a different "genre" of fear-mongering, Glassner dissects the most widely discussed terrors du jour (e.g., moral panics, violent crime, terrorism, infectious diseases like SARS, airplane crashes, etc.) and asks why it is that we tend to ignore serious, chronic, systemic problems like homelessness and malnutrition among American children in favor of flashy "threats" like West Nile Virus and school shootings.

His answer, such as it is, is that this culture of fear results from the intersection of political ideology, mass media pandering, and monomaniacal advocacy. So, for example, the obvious denominator common to all gun crimes, the relative ease with which guns can be acquired, is ignored or written-off in favor of moral or psychological explanations. That most child abuse, kidnapping, and murder occurs within the family unit gets less press than "don't talk to strangers," perhaps because we collectively fear what the examination of the "family" recommended by this data would reveal. SARS and West Nile Disease eclipse coverage of and response to a real killer, malaria; the spectacle of airplane crashes fills disproporationately more headlines than the far more risky rush hour commute; politicians pander to racist fears to win election. Glassner does an admirable job of debunking some very popular fears while also indicating more substantial concerns that require our attention.

The book is not perfect. His focus on systemic issues and his insistence that we use our national wealth for the benefit of all will rankle many who brace at this "liberalism" or "socialism." (To that, my response is that educating, feeding, housing, and immunizing children takes precendence over any ideological commitments, right or left, but I digress.) The book would definitely benefit from an update that takes into account the new-and-improved culture of fear we call "post-911 America." As well, perhaps Glassner or his editors felt that the book needed to be bigger, because the author spreads himself too thinly at times with the result that some chapters are less essential than others. My final criticism is that the book provides very little in terms of resources to respond to our culture of fear-mongering. How do we become more media savvy? How do we face up to "conservative" rhetoric that avoids systemic solutions to systemic problems? How do we become more "fear-proof" as individuals? A chapter on resources would be great in future editions.

In sum, this is a good antidote to much of the chicken-little behaviour that characterizes our national discourse and water cooler conversation. It is well-written and easily readable.

(This review was originally written on October 16, 2006.)

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