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Symbols 

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.

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.

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