The defining moments of 1999 are those of the Columbine massacre: Cassie Bernall’s audible yes, crouched teens herded out of the high school, and omnipresent screen shots of "Doom" and hate-filled web pages. So much for life in America at the end of the century. Or is it? The United States is safer and more affluent than ever. And yet our nightmares, embodied by trench-coated outsiders, have overtaken our dreams. We wring our hands and ask: What can we learn from these horrific acts? What can be done about this epidemic of violence? What nonsense, Barry Glassner, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, avers in his new book, The Culture of Fear.
Our fears are disproportionate to the risks of everyday life in the United States, Glassner argues. We fear black men. We fear our children. We fear razor blades in our child’s Halloween candy. We read the latest Gavin de Becker book to keep ourselves and our children (the good ones anyway) safe. But why? We live at the millennial cusp. Reports of hidden dangers empty newsstands. These are partial explanations at best, according to Glassner, who has set his eyes on this prize: “The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.”
This is Glassner’s liberal thesis to a book that, at its best, takes no obvious political bias except the truth. He ably dissects the misinformation surrounding America’s dubious war on drugs. America’s children, he argues, are rarely snatched from our homes by Satanists, nor do they shoot up their schools between Ritalin and graduation. His exposure of pseudo-experts like Marty Rimm, author of a well-publicized and now discredited report on Internet pornography, and Arnold Nerenberg, “America’s Road-rage therapist,” is quite welcome.
But Glassner stumbles early with a puzzling first chapter. Initially, Glassner turns his attention to road rage, a Dateline favorite. He quickly changes topics. Perhaps because it fits his thesis particularly well or because it is an indirect attack on him as a liberal university professor, Glassner addresses the conservative attack on universities. Putting aside that there is no clear relationship between road rage and political correctness, he abandons his objective posture in favor of one of self-justification. It also calls into question his choice of topics. While reading The Culture of Fear, I came up with an alternative list of potential topics (domestic terrorism, “dangerous” dogs, raw eggs and undercooked pork). Does Glassner’s book reflect the most glaring examples of fear mongering in America or merely examples of it?
Still, The Culture of Fear is a necessary corrective to contemporary scare-mongering of all types and by all purveyors: politicians, the media, non-profits and multi-nationals. Glassner writes clearly and persuasively, countering anecdote and emotion with statistical fact and argument. Despite minor flaws, it is a nearly perfectly-timed book. It assuages our fears after this summer of murderous teenagers and spree-killing day traders. Now if we could only send a copy to everyone at Fox News…