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Symbols

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.

 

Anthropologist Susan Phillips also takes aim at fear in her goofily titled Wallbangin’. Inspired by William Masters‘ 1995 Sun Valley shooting of taggers Cesar Rene Arce and David Hillo, and by the public’s apparent conviction that ”the loss of a human life [was] an appropriate punishment for the crime of graffiti“ (Masters was never prosecuted for 18-year-old Arce‘s murder), Phillips began to study gangs and graffiti. Fear, she writes, ”is one of the most active forces that fragment our society along racial, class and ethnic lines, shutting doors that should remain open and forcing people to turn on themselves in what little the larger society leaves behind. These are precisely the forces that create gangs today.“

To combat them, Phillips aims ”to replace black-and-white reductionist views of gang members with ones that allow for color, contrast and contradiction.“ She describes graffiti as first of all political, not merely representing gang members’ attempts to demarcate territory, but ”to negotiate relationships with both the society from which they are disempowered and others within their own groups.“ If it is not overtly political in the way that European and Latin American graffiti tend to be (my favorite, spotted last year on a Roman wall: ”Abortiamo il Papa!“), Phillips argues, it is because gang members‘ disenfranchisement from the dominant political system is so complete that engaging that system directly seems fruitless. For L.A. gangs, ”what becomes important is a group’s political positioning in relation to other segments within the same community . . . vying for prestige and resources among those with whom they compete,“ i.e., other gangs. Gang graffiti is supposed to alienate the uninitiated: ”It‘s directed toward a group of people who already understand what it means.“

If you read on, however, through Phillips’ at times fascinating, at times overly schematic a explications of the ”initials, numbers, aesthetic and symbolic codes, more or less rigid, layered meanings lurking within disjointed segments“ of spray-painted text, you, too, will be able to read the writing on the walls. Some of it, anyway. In the process, Phillips provides a tour of ”the fragmented, ahistoric, placeless urban worlds of late capitalist consumer culture,“ of the ”contours of the streets, which have themselves been shaped by the inequalities that capitalism manufactures in places where red lines protect the interests of those with as much power as racial hatred.“

There is, of course, something inescapably touristic about Phillips‘ enterprise, which reveals itself as much in her lapses into academic jargon (her UCLA dissertation formed the basis for the book) as in her occasionally embarrassing candor about the challenge, as a middle-class white girl, of winning gangbangers’ trust. (A few excerpted journal entries are particularly rough going: ”Each interaction I have with gangsters I learn so much. Some of my experiences are so full of lessons that it takes hours to write them all down.“) But Phillips, sensitive to the potential pitfalls of her project, maneuvers ably through them to give voice to the unavoidable link between the existence of gangs and ”the larger society‘s politics, its skewed relations of power, the limited access to its economic resources, and the systematic persecution and exclusion of certain populations from participation within it.“

This of course has been said before, but rarely so well and never in the context of such careful attention to the inscriptions scrawled on the very body of the city that surrounds us.

There are a lot of birds in Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps. Price begins with passenger pigeons, gargantuan flocks of which darkened the skies of the eastern United States for hours at a time until the late 19th century, then moves on to the birds that, for a while, decorated women‘s hats -- the whole stuffed, dead critters, not just the plumage -- at around the same time that passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction, and on from there to a more familiar fowl, the plastic lawn flamingo. Not an ornithologist but a historian, Price is less interested in the birds themselves than in the meanings we’ve allowed to cluster around them and in how we‘ve used them to create a distinctly American vision of nature.

Whether we used birds, living or dead, plumed or plastic, as foils for conversations about class or gender or consumerism, in each case, she argues, Americans have also used them to define nature as ”a Place Apart“ and thereby excuse ourselves from considering our implication in the ”ravenous uses of natural resources“ that mark our history. Price moves engagingly from birds, hats and lawns to Northern Exposure, Isuzu ads and the Nature Company Stores, to demonstrate how baby boomers ”have used a vision of Nature as a not-modern Place Apart powerfully to understand, navigate, enjoy, critique and, ultimately, evade the defining hallmarks, troubles and confusions of modern American life.“

 

In so doing she unfailingly pulls insights out of some of the more neglected moments of American discourse (the prolonged and rather vicious debate over the aforementioned ladies’ bird hats, for instance), laying bare the big social forces we‘re actually contesting when we think we’re just talking about birds, be they plastic, plucked or stuffed. Best of all, though, is her recipe for ballotine of squabs a la Madison. Alley pigeons will do. You‘ll need 12 of them, so get busy.


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