Fighting fear with fear

In "The Culture of Fear," Barry Glassner says we scare too easily. But does he have to be so scary about it?

Published June 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There's a "Three's Company" episode in which Jack and Janet, two of the sitcom's stars, get robbed by a man in a ski mask. The town
police chief assigns a cop to their apartment for protection -- the robber,
he knows, is a maniac and will probably return to kill Jack and Janet. But
when the cop arrives at the apartment, Jack recognizes the tattoo on his
hand as that of the robber. With some help from Mr. Furley, their
perpetually frightened landlord, Jack and Janet manage to knock the apparent
impostor unconscious with a flower vase. But moments later, after they have
succeeded in roping up the villain, the real robber enters the
apartment wielding a gun. In their attempt to get to the bottom of things, Jack and Janet's hypertrophied sense of suspicion led them to thrash the wrong man.

Thus unfolds the psychological architecture of Barry Glassner's "The
Culture of Fear," a sweeping examination of irrational fear in the United
States. Like the police officer's identity, truth emerges in the book as a
furtive reality, overlooked by a paranoid, misled public. We're afraid of
the wrong things, it seems, having been whipped into a blind frenzy by the perverse charm of global dread. The University of Southern California sociology professor takes a
universe of national nightmares -- crime, drug use, disease, air safety,
the Gulf War and other headline-grabbing phenomena -- and turns each on its
sensational ear. Left undeconstructed, he argues, these fantasies divert
our attention from the real robber just outside the door.

The book reads like an exploded Harper's Index: a rush of startling facts, a struggle to process them all. For example, Glassner shows how our fears around crime often have little to do with actual crime statistics. By the mid-1990s, "62 percent of us described ourselves as 'truly desperate' about crime -- almost twice as many as in the late 1980s, when crime rates were higher." Similarly he shows how the media's war on drugs has
often meant a war on simple facts. In the late 1990s, the number of illegal-drug users in the U.S. had decreased by half compared to 10 years before; still, only one in six Americans believed that the country was making progress.

And if the real problems of crime and drugs have been hopelessly inflated,
Glassner shows how certain national fears seem to be invented outright. As
evidence he cites a 1985 ABC News/Washington Post poll that found 60 percent of parents fearing their kids would be injured or killed
because of Halloween candy sabotage. When a University of Southern Illinois
professor looked into the matter, he found that not a single death or
serious injury existed on record. Two children had, in fact, died of
poisoning in Halloween history, but the poison came from their own homes.

"The Culture of Fear" unfolds as a landscape of windmills and a portrait
of the nation tilting at them. Fear itself, for Glassner, is not the
problem. It is, rather, a dangerous pathology that sucks our attention and
dollars from truly frightening problems: "hunger, dilapidated schools, gun
proliferation, and deficient health care for much of the U.S. population."

But this important argument flounders amid structural shortsightedness: Glassner neglects to see that he has participated in the very system of fear he hoped we would transcend. "We had better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy us," he writes dramatically. When Glassner pulls back the curtain to reveal alarmist journalism, he does so with nearly the same alarm. As he correctly identifies, America's collective fear comes not just from misleading statistics, but from the neon and flare used to present them; any departure from this cycle, then, requires a different voice.

In part, this is because Glassner launches an offensive against the very source of his own rhetorical power. One of the interesting things this research shows us is just how many experts figure into our national consciousness. Behind every paranoid myth, an expert lurks with a survey and a bar graph. No matter how irrational the anxiety, the book illustrates, an authority always emerges, willing to endorse it. So
Glassner's decision to fight fire with fire -- his principal strategy is to disarm one stat with another -- feels a little disappointing. Despite the satisfaction of seeing "Dateline" nailed, it's hard to see how this will elevate our dialogue on fear.

Most important, Glassner's examination unfurls too often with the same
no duh as every "Three's Company" episode. His dirt on vapid
rap-lyric critics yields nothing in the way of surprise, and his revelation
that road rage is actually an overblown media fantasy reads a little like a
predictable sitcom punchline. It's frustrating, because Glassner is
clearly a
talented researcher, but his research has unearthed facts too familiar to
jump-start the paradigm shifts he argues for.

"No longer, we learned in Time, was it 'unusual for kids to get back at the
world with ammunition,'" Glassner writes, lightly mocking the magazine's
histrionics. But balking at Time's histrionics is like complaining that the
beach is sandy. Of course mass-market newsmagazines sound hysterical --
theirs is a genre that has never purported to offer
the thoroughness or calm of, say, Harper's. Glassner finds himself in one
state of shock after another: If it isn't Time dramatizing its stories,
it's Barbara Walters manipulating our feelings.

His perpetual astonishment here betrays a coarse understanding of the
mainstream press, and consequently of the occasionally complex messages it
imparts. In his critique of recent road-rage coverage, for example,
Glassner exposes the media in all its breathless fuss: "They're all around
you, everywhere you drive, waiting to explode," he quotes a "20/20" episode
as saying about aggressive drivers. Quotes from other dramatic road-rage
stories follow, from Oprah Winfrey to the Los Angeles Times. But Glassner
misses an interesting nuance in the story's development. What began as an
earnest and grave tone subtly gave way, over time, to something lighter. Road rage never
became a joke for newscasters, but a we-know-we're-being-dramatic air did
emerge in some of the reports. Where newscasters had issued frenzied
warnings about drivers waiting to explode, they now toned their stories
down to accommodate its clearly diminished scope. A suggestion of
self-consciousness emanated from the new batch of stories, as though
journalists had glimpsed themselves delivering precisely the kind of news
people groan about.

The book's clumsiness with nuance borders on the offensive in a discussion of
child molestation myths. Glassner surmises that, because certain children
"changed their tunes" regarding their molestation claims, the alleged
abuse probably never happened. Certainly not all accusers are
victims, but Glassner must know that for children under emotional stress,
disclosure of trauma sometimes involves a long and complex process
of communication.

"The Culture of Fear" works best in its exploration of "metaphoric
illness." Riffing off Susan Sontag's critique of metaphoric
interpretations of disease (cancer patients who imagine viruses as "invading
armies" rather than microscopic matter, for example, tend to seek less
treatment than patients with more literal understandings), Glassner
asserts that an inversion of this phenomenon can be just as dangerous.

"Not only do we use metaphors to help us understand fatal illnesses that
most of us are poorly equipped to comprehend scientifically," he writes,
"we also create certain illnesses ... to help us come to terms with
features of our society that we are unprepared to confront directly."

Glassner argues that Gulf War syndrome assumed metaphorical status, allowing
Americans to use it as a vehicle for criticizing defense policy. Even as
evidence from prominent medical authorities suggested that GWS couldn't be
explained by the original theories of chemical exposure, the news media
remained irrationally convinced in many instances. "Whether or not there
is a coverup," a bizarre 1996 Washington Post story read, "the case
represents the Pentagon's self-protective culture at its worst."

As Glassner astutely points out, employing disease as a symbolic
substitute for a direct -- and vital -- critique of Pentagon policy has
real consequences. According to a study by Princeton professor Elaine
Showalter, thousands of Gulf War vets eschewed invaluable psychological
counseling in favor of countless medical exams -- "even when their stories
make clear that anxiety, fear, and anger are among their symptoms."

With such interpretations -- unveiling a national mythology and then
debunking it with well-researched figures --"The Culture of Fear" often makes
good on its promise to explain "why Americans are afraid of the wrong
things." Couched in logical, pop-psychology terms like symbolic
substitution and metaphoric illness, our unreality suddenly appears as part
of a knowable system. And as we recognize the patterns of our myths,
Glassner aptly identifies the culprits responsible: "those who tap into our
moral insecurities" in exchange for power and money.

Ultimately, however, the impressive breadth of Glassner's study exposes
its frequent
lack of depth. The book touches on all the right points -- from violence in
schools to drug use to illness -- but often leaves them half-excavated.
Remarking on America's feckless prison-building schemes (more
prisons don't equal less serious crime), he writes, "In California we
spend more on jails than on higher education." The important point
languishes at the level of bumper-sticker reasoning, where greater
scrutiny could have pushed the argument a little further. If this sort of
oversight evinces anything, it's Glassner's misidentification of his
audience: Anyone who would pick up a book debunking national
myths already knows the inadequacy of mainstream journalism and has come
looking for a richer critique.

In what begins as a look at gun fears in America, Glassner lets his
analysis degenerate into a standard-fare gun-control argument. His
assessments are accurate and deserved, but in the context, his agenda bars
them from resonating. Glassner never claims to be unbiased, but he does
purport to search for truth. And herein lies the most fascinating effect of
the book: "The Culture of Fear" reads as a brilliant example of how the
struggle for authority plays in America. Pitting expert against expert,
myth against myth, it demonstrates precisely how truth gets wrested,
continuously, from one set of hands to another. In the polemics of fear,
Glassner wields an impressive body of research and consequently enjoys the
power of redefining reality for a moment in history. But the struggle for
this power, even when born out of all the right reasons, smacks of the
very compulsion Glassner recognizes in our culture's fertile paranoia. And
like the purveyors of fear he condemns, he does a better job cataloguing
what's wrong in America than identifying solutions. And that's sort of

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

MORE FROM Chris Colin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College