Fear, words, birds

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999

America is good at fearing. We’re scared of terrorists, germs, spies, kids, the Internet, pit bulls, killer bees and countless other phenomena. For a nation of such immense wealth and power, we‘re a remarkably skittish bunch. It is not hard, though, to cobble together an argument that fear, coupled with the twin demons of class- and race-hatred, has always been among the most powerful forces pushing American history along, and that it is this nation’s collective fears -- as much as its fantasies, be they of equality of opportunity or the open frontier -- that not only hold us together as a people, but provide the very source of our dubious strength. The Red Scare, the Yellow Menace, the murderoustreacherouslecherous instincts of blacks, immigrants, Jews, unwed mothers, sexual deviants, the poor, your very own children: Choose your fear. Chances are someone already shares it, and between the two of you is a community in utero.

Let it hatch and grow to maturity, and you have the society USC sociologist Barry Glassner describes in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Armed with an impressive arsenal of statistical data, Glassner sorts through a sizable handful of American terrors, exposing our anxieties as not only baseless, but as blinds behind which our real problems lay hidden. When we should have been worrying about unemployment insurance, corporate downsizing and growing income inequality, Glassner contends, we were getting all worked up over nothing. It turns out that only a minuscule number of people die as a result of road-rage-induced violence, that ”postal employees are actually about two-and-a-half times less likely than the average worker to be killed on the job,“ that there are only ”two known cases where children apparently did die from poisoned Halloween candy,“ that crack babies will be okay after all, that Germans are more likely to get rolled at home than while visiting Florida. Who knew?

Glassner‘s specific analyses of how unfounded fears stand in for worries about deeper social ailments tend to be a little thin. Panic over road rage lets us ”avoid problems we do not want to confront, such as overcrowded roads and the superabundance of guns,“ and hysteria about ”workplace violence is a way of talking about the precariousness of employment without directly confronting what primarily put workers at risk -- the endless waves of corporate layoffs that began in the early 1980s.“ Perhaps he’s right, but beyond simply stating them, Glassner puts forth no arguments to shore up these points.

Related Stories

  • Jammy Jobs

    Los Angeles is the traffic congestion capital of America. And, because it's the second least-affordable housing market for middle class families, it's also an epicenter for long-distance commuters. It's no wonder, then, that California tops a list of states in which job-seekers are looking for stay-at-home gigs. That's the conclusion of employment site FlexJobs, which...
  • Henry Rollins: Hemp Is Back 2

    I am in the back of an SUV, the seat in front of me almost against my knees. The great wide open of southeastern Colorado rolls by the window. Except for Kerri, who’s driving, everyone has a laptop open. Phone calls are coming in, logistics are being hammered out, something about...
  • Cali Lives Strong

    Californians spend more in federal taxes than they receive back in services. And the same can be said for healthcare. According to an analysis by personal finance site WalletHub, California barely makes the top 20 (number 19) among states when it comes to "return on investment" (ROI) for healthcare costs...
  • Creative Town

    Forbes magazine this month put its stamp of approval on on L.A.'s role as one of the world's foremost providers of popular culture. The problem is that the publication didn't give us nearly enough credit.  Forbes ranked the 50 largest American metropolitan areas based on how well locals did with...
  • Better Weather

    This news is not going to knock anyone off their seat. But, yeah, L.A. County is home to the best warm weather places in the nation. At least that's the conclusion of personal finance site WalletHub, which this week named Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank as "cities with the best ... year-round...

More than that, though, he betrays a surprising, if not atypical, liberal naivete about how culture works. Determined to correct America‘s false fears with a mere recitation of contrary evidence, Glassner seems inordinately astonished that human societies are not strictly rational creatures. His failure to appreciate that fears are enormously powerful to the very same degree that they are not at all rational is also reflected in his account of just who is at fault: Adopting the righteous tone of a TV-news expose uncovering the devious methods employed by crooked car mechanics or telemarketing scammers, Glassner promises to reveal ”the actual vendors of our fears“ and lay bare the contents of ”the fear mongers’ bag of tricks.“

The villains, it turns out, are unscrupulous politicians, right-wing think tanks, corporate foundations and lobbyists, and some (but not all) journalists. In this rather distressing account, the public is no more complicit in the grand bamboozles of our time than the unsuspecting mark is at fault for losing the family fortune in a round of three-card monty. Which means we‘re all just suckers, and that our fears are merely lies, rather than the complex and mythic terrain on which we all take part in negotiations -- at times pernicious, at times not -- for the fate of the national soul.

If Glassner fails to answer the question posed by the subtitle of his book, and occasionally chooses peculiar targets (Gulf War syndrome, he insists, is a ”metaphoric illness“; silicone breast implants are perfectly safe; and TWA Flight 800 blew up spontaneously like the FBI said), he nonetheless shows himself to be a sharp critic of the hypocrisies that compose much of American political discourse: The scourge of illegitimacy resurfaces as an issue just as the few social supports that might have lent single mothers a scrap of dignity are stripped away; each new administration blathers on about drug abuse’s toll on our youth, while racially motivated drug-war sentencing laws keep the prison population as young, black and brown as possible; and while the media drooled for days over German tourists‘ tendency to show up dead at Florida rest stops, no one likes to mention that ”the murder rate for black men is double that of American soldiers in World War II.“ Such facts bear repeating.

  • Fear, words, birds

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • Karaoke Pole Dancing @ The Viper Room
    Sam's Hofbrau presented "Sam Tripoli's Rock N Pole Championship" this week at The Viper Room. Paired up karaoke singers and pole dancers competed for a nice cash prize and Hollywood Hustler gift bags. Entertainment included a special appearance by porn star Tera Patrick, serving as judge, and performing a burlesque number. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • The Best L.A. Costumes of 2014 (So Far)
    It's no secret that SoCal knows what it's doing when it comes to make-up and costume design, (hello, Hollywood!) so it makes sense that we would also have the world's best cosplay. Here are our picks for the best of 2014 (so far).
  • Lina in L.A. -- The Dog & Pony Show
    Comedian, burlesque diva and L.A.'s most fabulous little person, Selene Luna, hosts a wild variety show (no pups or ponies, just great performers) Mondays at Akbar. Recently, the fun featured strip tease from Audrey DeLuxe, standup from Michael Patrick Duggan, Paul Jacek and Mary Kennedy and the smokin' musical stylings of Crissy Guerrero and Kristian Hoffman.