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In the age of Trump, our society is defined by fear. Indeed, three out of four Americans say they feel more fearful today than they did only a couple decades ago. But are we living in exceptionally perilous times? In his bestselling book The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry Glassner demonstrates that it is our perception of danger that has increased, not the actual level of risk. Glassner exposes the people and organizations that manipulate our perceptions and profit from our fears: politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime and drug use even as rates for both are declining; advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases; TV shows that create a new scare every week to garner ratings. Glassner spells out the prices we pay for social panics: the huge sums of money that go to waste on unnecessary programs and products as well as time and energy spent worrying about our fears.
All the while, we are distracted from the true threats, from climate change to worsening inequality. In this updated edition of a modern classic, Glassner examines the current panics over vaccination and “political correctness” and reveals why Donald Trump’s fearmongering is so dangerously effective.
For Delaney, Megan, and Samantha Glassner, Sita Feinberg and Jan Haldipur, and Ben and Leah Rafferty
INTRODUCTION TO THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
A decade has passed since the publication of The Culture of Fear,during which time the term culture of fear has become part of our national lexicon, referenced regularly in academia, the mainstream media, and the blogosphere. Scholarly journals publish papers with titles like “The Culture of Fear and the Politics of Education,” while popular magazines like Newsweek print essays about “The (Play) Dating Game: Our Culture of Fear Means That We Can No Longer Count on Spontaneity to Bring Children Together.” Events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the subsequent “war on terror,” school shootings, vaccine scares, and the election of Barack Obama have given new relevance to many of the concepts I introduced in these pages. We saw numerous instances of individuals and organizations using fear to manipulate the population. They succeeded in large part because, as the book explains, after 30 years of nightly news full of dubious threats, we are fertile soil for fear mongers.1
Despite landmark events such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the economic downturn that began in 2008, the culture of fear I outlined in this book continues largely as I portrayed it. Pregnant teenagers, monster moms, Internet predators, and suburban thugs still stalk the airwaves. We still shake our heads over the latest mass shooting while failing to limit access to guns to people who shouldn’t have them. We fret over the kidnapping of a single toddler while millions of children live in poverty and attend crumbling schools. Atypical tragedies grab our attention while widespread problems go unaddressed.
Politicians, journalists, advocacy groups, and marketers continue to blow dangers out of proportion for votes, ratings, donations, and prof its. Fear mongering for personal, political, and corporate gain continues unabated. Indeed, many of the specific scares I addressed have resurfaced, sometimes in the very same form as earlier, sometimes in new clothes. I will discuss these, as well as significant ways in which our culture of fear has changed, in a major new final chapter.
Throughout the opening of this century, Americans have remained inordinately fearful of unlikely dangers. Even so, at least in some regards, there have been changes in our culture of fear. Most notably, foreign terrorists replaced domestic bogeymen as the principal figures in fear mongering by politicians and in much of the media. However, the very same scare tactics I discuss in the pages that follow—misdirection, presenting victims as experts, and treating isolated incidents as trends—have been applied with great success in the newer fear narrative. In the months immediately following 9/11, for example, the attacks elevated to newsworthiness minor airline mishaps and phony bomb threats that previously would not have made headlines, and created an exaggerated sense of individual risk.
What Is the Price of Fear—and Who Pays?
Nothing has done a better job of exploiting our anxieties than the phrase the war on terror, which the Bush administration used incessantly from late 2001 until they left office in early 2009. As former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski noted in the Washington Post in 2007, “The little secret here is that the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a ‘war on terror’ did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”2
The culture of fear predates 9/11 by at least a generation, but Brzezinski accurately described what happens when fear overtakes reason: “The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own—and can become demoralizing.... We are now divided, uncertain, and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist attack on the United States.”3
Whenever one group uses fear to manipulate another, someone benefits and someone pays, as Brzezinski observed. The war on terror had the effect of making us more paranoid not only about terrorists but also about homegrown crime. After sponsoring a survey in 2003 to gauge just how frightened Americans were, the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies introduced Masterpiece Family Protection. “Home invasion. Child abduction. Carjacking. Stalking threats. Road rage. Air rage. Even hijacking. It’s hard to think that these things could happen to you and your family. Yet, these unthinkable crimes punctuate television news coverage and highlight the pages of newspapers, magazines and websites every day,” declared the company’s website—as if the hyping of these rare events warranted a special insurance policy against them. “Each year, 58,000 children are victims of stranger/non-family abductions,” the site continued, referring to a U.S. Department of Justice study. (Never mind that the study itself made clear that of the 58,000 abductions, only about 115 a year were “stereotypical kidnappings” like that of Polly Klaas or Adam Walsh: “Most children’s nonfamily abduction episodes do not involve elements of the extremely alarming kind of crime that parents and reporters have in mind ... when they think about a kidnapping by a stranger.”)4
Emotional reactions to rare but disturbing events also lead to expensive and ineffective public policy. Child abductions, for example, inspire passionate advocates (typically grief-stricken families) to push for legislation they hope will solve the problem. Jessica’s Law, which was passed in California in 2006, is a case in point. It was drafted in response to the murder of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and killed by a sex offender who had completed his parole. Jessica’s Law stipulates that all sex offenders convicted of a crime in any of thirty-five categories be evaluated by a psychologist before being paroled, even if they had only committed one offense and were juveniles when they committed it. Prior to the legislation, parolees were evaluated if they had committed at least two offenses in any of nine categories. The goal of the parolee evaluations pre—and post—Jessica’s Law was to identify people who were most likely to commit a sex crime again, and in some cases, to confine them indefinitely to a state mental-health facility instead of paroling them.5
Two years after Jessica’s Law was implemented, as California was reeling from a $42 billion budget deficit, investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times looked into its cost. They discovered that more than $24 million had been paid to private psychologists in 2007 to evaluate the sex offenders. The state didn’t have enough staff psychologists or psychiatrists to meet the demand, so it had to hire outside evaluators. A few of them made more than a million dollars a year in their part-time gigs for the state. The result? Essentially no change in the number of sex offenders sent to mental hospitals. There were forty-one such cases in the eighteen months prior to Jessica’s Law, and forty-two in the eighteen months after it was implemented.6
Fear-driven legislation is good for politicians looking to arouse voters, for advocacy groups looking to attract donations, for ratings-hungry media, and for social scientists, attorneys, and other professionals who choose to cash in on them. Taxpayers foot the bill. And there is another, unintended consequence of fear-based legislation for the public: rather than reassure us, these laws further underscore the already-overhyped danger.
Before September 11, 2001, the toll taken by the culture of fear was not always obvious. Contrivances such as the “war on drugs” (which I deal with in chapter 6), specious menaces like sociopathic juveniles (chapter 3), and bogus medical scares such as “Vaccine Roulette” (chapter 7) were pricey and delusory, but limited. After the attacks of 9/11, exaggerated and unconfirmed scares had more serious and lasting consequences: invading other nations, relinquishing civil rights, censoring ourselves, sanctioning the torture of prisoners, and other missteps I outline in the book’s new final chapter.
As the decade progressed, overblown fears about terrorism and, later, public unease about the Iraq war distracted us from domestic issues that were growing more urgent by the month. In addition to serious, long-standing dangers to Americans’ health and well-being, lax or nonexistent regulations on financial institutions set the stage for a major international economic collapse. Threats to the U.S. financial system, obscured from public view in part by endless attention to the “war on terror,” undermined America’s national security more than Osama bin Laden and his organization ever did. As I note in the first edition’s introduction, the serious problems people ignore often give rise to the very dangers they fear the most.7
When I give public talks about the culture of fear, I am frequently asked, “Well, what should I be afraid of?” My answer is not “nothing,” as some of my questioners assume. On the contrary, I point out dangerous trends that have been around for a while and are thus viewed as old news and unappealing to the media. Motor vehicle injuries, for example, are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for children ages one to fifteen. Drowning and fires are second and third. Youngsters’ head injuries from bicycle accidents account for nearly 140,000 visits to the emergency room each year. If a parent is concerned about his or her children, their money is best spent on car seats, smoke detectors, swimming lessons, and bike helmets as opposed to GPS locators and child identification kits. They would hardly know that, however, from watching their local TV news or listening to the hype from advocacy groups.8
Many of the fear-worthy items I mention in the book are everyday scares we can deal with sensibly as long as we have the facts. More dif ficult to grasp is an underlying problem that has worsened in the intervening years: the massive gap between rich and poor. The culture of fear contributes to this schism by portraying the poor as threatening and unsympathetic. Yet just as the financial crisis that began in 2008 jeopardized not only people who lost their jobs and homes but also Americans’ strategic foreign interests, the gap between rich and poor threatens not only poor people but all Americans. “Living in a society with wide disparities—in health, in wealth, in education—is worse for all the society’s members, even the well-off,” wrote Elizabeth Gudrais, a journalist and associate editor of Harvard Magazine, reporting on a 2008 study about life expectancy in the United States. “Research indicates that high inequality reverberates through societies on multiple levels, correlating with, if not causing, more crime, less happiness, poorer mental and physical health, less racial harmony, and less civic and political participation.” Gudrais noted that in 2006 the disparity between rich and poor in the United States was at its highest point since 1928, with the top 1 percent of earners drawing 20.3 percent of the total national income.9
Gudrais’s article illustrates a positive role that journalists play in the culture of fear. While a major focus of this book is fear mongering by journalists and others, throughout the chapters that follow I take note as well of reporters who bring to light serious dangers about which the public hears little from politicians, corporations, and most of the media. Indeed, again and again I find that it is reporters, rather than government oversight organizations, academics, or other professional truth seekers, who debunk silly or exaggerated scares that other journalists irresponsibly promulgate.
Unfortunately, however, these correctives often occur long after whole sectors of the populace have been scared senseless. Take, for instance, the most public mea culpa I have found in the history of journalistic fear mongering. In 2006, on the twentieth anniversary of its infamous “Marriage Crunch” article, which had declared that a forty-year-old single woman was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to marry, Newsweek magazine admitted that “states of unions aren’t what we predicted they’d be.... Beyond all the research studies and forecasts, the trend-spotting and fear mongering that are too often the stock in trade of both journalists and academics, the real story of this anniversary is the unexpected happily-ever-afters.”
So wrote Daniel McGinn, a national correspondent for the magazine. In a lengthy article, he noted that about 90 percent of baby boomers either have married or will marry, and that most single women over forty who want to wed eventually do so. McGinn also tracked down eleven of the fourteen single women Newsweek had profiled in the original story. Only three remained single, and none had divorced.10
Another gloomy forecast that had been repeated across all media in the 1980s and ’90s—the fate of “crack babies”—has been soundly rebuffed by journalists as well. At the time, doctors had warned that the infants, “if they survive, are largely doomed to the underclass because of faulty cognitive and psychological development.” Headlines in the nation’s leading newspapers foretold a “bleak,” “joyless” future for such children, despite, as I discuss in chapter 3, considerable evidence at the time suggesting little cause to single out these children for special worry and stigmatization.
By 2009, journalists began to correct their publications’ earlier scare stories. That year, Susan Okie reported in the New York Times on the results of studies tracking the lives of these children for nearly fifteen years. “So far, these scientists say, the long-term effects of such [cocaine and opiate] exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small,” wrote Okie. Other media outlets picked up the story or ran their own.11
One can only hope that journalists—and public officials, advocates, and academics as well—will not wait so long in the future to question scares du jour as they arise.
Better still, one can hope for a future in which fear campaigns fail to sway the public in the first place, a prospect that the Presidential election of 2008 suggested may be more than mere fancy. The entry of Barack Obama early in the campaign provoked many of the racist scare tactics outlined in chapter 5 and added a layer of terrorist and anti-Muslim rhetoric to the mix, with Obama’s detractors repeatedly mentioning his middle name (Hussein) and accusing him of “palling around with terrorists.” Yet despite this, Obama captured the presidency with 52.4 percent of the popular vote. The final chapter of this new edition discusses the various attempts by both Republican and Democratic opponents to frighten voters away from Obama. That these tactics failed is an encouraging testament to Americans’ willingness to vote for—as the Obama campaign put it—hope over fear.
INTRODUCTION: WHY AMERICANS FEAR THE WRONG THINGS
Why are so many fears in the air, and so many of them unfounded? Why, as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, did two-thirds of Americans believe they were soaring? How did it come about that by mid-decade 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? Why, on a survey in 1997, when the crime rate had already fallen for a half dozen consecutive years, did more than half of us disagree with the statement “This country is finally beginning to make some progress in solving the crime problem”?1
In the late 1990s the number of drug users had decreased by half compared to a decade earlier; almost two-thirds of high school seniors had never used any illegal drugs, even marijuana. So why did a majority of adults rank drug abuse as the greatest danger to America’s youth? Why did nine out of ten believe the drug problem is out of control, and only one in six believe the country was making progress?2
Give us a happy ending and we write a new disaster story. In the late 1990s the unemployment rate was below 5 percent for the first time in a quarter century. People who had been pounding the pavement for years could finally get work. Yet pundits warned of imminent economic disaster. They predicted inflation would take off, just as they had a few years earlier—also erroneously—when the unemployment rate dipped below 6 percent.3
We compound our worries beyond all reason. Life expectancy in the United States has doubled during the twentieth century. We are better able to cure and control diseases than any other civilization in history. Yet we hear that phenomenal numbers of us are dreadfully ill. In 1996 Bob Garfield, a magazine writer, reviewed articles about serious diseases published over the course of a year in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and USA Today. He learned that, in addition to 59 million Americans with heart disease, 53 million with migraines, 25 million with osteoporosis, 16 million with obesity, and 3 million with cancer, many Americans suffer from more obscure ailments such as temporomandibular joint disorders (10 million) and brain injuries (2 million). Adding up the estimates, Garfield determined that 543 million Americans are seriously sick—a shocking number in a nation of 266 million inhabitants. “Either as a society we are doomed, or someone is seriously double-dipping,” he suggested.4
Garfield appears to have underestimated one category of patients: for psychiatric ailments his figure was 53 million. Yet when Jim Windolf, an editor of the New York Observer, collated estimates for maladies ranging from borderline personality disorder (10 million) and sex addiction (11 million) to less well-known conditions such as restless leg syndrome (12 million) he came up with a figure of 152 million. “But give the experts a little time,” he advised. “With another new quantifiable disorder or two, everybody in the country will be officially nuts.”5
Indeed, Windolf omitted from his estimates new-fashioned afflictions that have yet to make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ofMental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association: ailments such as road rage, which afflicts more than half of Americans, according to a psychologist’s testimony before a congressional hearing in 1997.6
The scope of our health fears seems limitless. Besides worrying disproportionately about legitimate ailments and prematurely about would-be diseases, we continue to fret over already refuted dangers. Some still worry, for instance, about “flesh-eating bacteria,” a bug first rammed into our consciousness in 1994 when the U.S. news media picked up on a screamer headline in a British tabloid, “Killer Bug Ate My Face.” The bacteria, depicted as more brutal than anything seen in modern times, was said to be spreading faster than the pack of photographers outside the home of its latest victim. In point of fact, however, we were not “terribly vulnerable” to these “superbugs,” nor were they “medicine’s worst nightmares,” as voices in the media warned.
Group A strep, a cyclical strain that has been around for ages, had been dormant for half a century or more before making a comeback. The British pseudoepidemic had resulted in a total of about a dozen deaths in the previous year. Medical experts roundly rebutted the scares by noting that of 20 to 30 million strep infections each year in the United States fewer than 1 in 1,000 involve serious strep A complications, and only 500 to 1,500 people suffer the flesh-eating syndrome, whose proper name is necrotizing fasciitis. Still the fear persisted. Years after the initial scare, horrifying news stories continued to appear, complete with grotesque pictures of victims. A United Press International story in 1998 typical of the genre told of a child in Texas who died of the “deadly strain” of bacteria that the reporter warned “can spread at a rate of up to one inch per hour.”7
When we are not worrying about deadly diseases we worry about homicidal strangers. Every few months for the past several years it seems we discover a new category of people to fear: government thugs in Waco, sadistic cops on Los Angeles freeways and in Brooklyn police stations, mass-murdering youths in small towns all over the country. A single anomalous event can provide us with multiple groups of people to fear. After the 1995 explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma City first we panicked about Arabs. “Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to promote free-floating fear and a measure of anarchy, thereby disrupting American life,” a NewYork Post editorial asserted. “Whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working,” wrote A. M. Rosenthal in the New York Times.8
When it turned out that the bombers were young white guys from middle America, two more groups instantly became spooky: right-wing radio talk show hosts who criticize the government—depicted by President Bill Clinton as “purveyors of hatred and division”—and members of militias. No group of disgruntled men was too ragtag not to warrant big, prophetic news stories.9
We have managed to convince ourselves that just about every young American male is a potential mass murderer—a remarkable achievement, considering the steep downward trend in youth crime throughout the 1990s. Faced year after year with comforting statistics, we either ignore them—adult Americans estimate that people under eighteen commit about half of all violent crimes when the actual number is 13 percent—or recast them as “The Lull Before the Storm” (Newsweek headline). “We know we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around or our country is going to be living with chaos,” Bill Clinton asserted in 1997, even while acknowledging that the youth violent crime rate had fallen 9.2 percent the previous year.10
The more things improve the more pessimistic we become. Violence-related deaths at the nation’s schools dropped to a record low during the 1996—97 academic year (19 deaths out of 54 million children), and only one in ten public schools reported any serious crime. Yet Time and U.S. News & World Report both ran headlines in 1996 referring to “Teenage Time Bombs.” In a nation of “Children Without Souls” (another Time headline that year), “America’s beleaguered cities are about to be victimized by a paradigm shattering wave of ultraviolent, morally vacuous young people some call ‘the superpredators,’” William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, and John Dilulio, a criminologist, forecast in a book published in 1996.11
Instead of the arrival of superpredators, violence by urban youths continued to decline. So we went looking elsewhere for proof that heinous behavior by young people was “becoming increasingly more commonplace in America” (CNN). After a sixteen-year-old in Pearl, Mississippi, and a fourteen-year-old in West Paducah, Kentucky, went on shooting sprees in late 1997, killing five of their classmates and wounding twelve others, these isolated incidents were taken as evidence of “an epidemic of seemingly depraved adolescent murderers” (Geraldo Rivera). Three months later in March 1998 all sense of proportion vanished after two boys ages eleven and thirteen killed four students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas. No longer, we learned in Time, was it “unusual for kids to get back at the world with live ammunition.” When a child psychologist on NBC’s “Today” show advised parents to reassure their children that shootings at schools are rare, reporter Ann Curry corrected him. “But this is the fourth case since October,” she said.12
Over the next couple of months young people failed to accommodate the trend hawkers. None committed mass murder. Fear of killer kids remained very much in the air nonetheless. In stories on topics such as school safety and childhood trauma, reporters recapitulated the gory details of the killings. And the news media made a point of reporting every incident in which a child was caught at school with a gun or making a death threat. In May, when a fifteen-year-old in Springfield, Oregon, did open fire in a cafeteria filled with students, killing two and wounding twenty-three others, the event felt like a continuation of a “disturbing trend” (New York Times). The day after the shooting, on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” the criminologist Vincent Schiraldi tried to explain that the recent string of incidents did not constitute a trend, that youth homicide rates had declined by 30 percent in recent years, and more than three times as many people were killed by lightning than by violence at schools. But the show’s host, Robert Siegel, interrupted him. “You’re saying these are just anomalous events?” he asked, audibly peeved. The criminologist reiterated that anomalous is precisely the right word to describe the events, and he called it “a grave mistake” to imagine otherwise.
Yet given what had happened in Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oregon, could anyone doubt that today’s youths are “more likely to pull a gun than make a fist,” as Katie Couric declared on the “Today” show?13
Roosevelt Was Wrong
We had better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy us. Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger. False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship.
"Glassner has written a gutsy exposé of one of the most widespread delusions of our time: misplaced fear."
—Los Angeles Times
- "A sobering examination."—Washington Post Book World
- "[The Culture of Fear] ought to be part of every savvy media-watcher's toolbox."—American Prospect
- "[Glassner is] a master at the art of dissecting research."—New York Times
- "We become what we behold. And what we behold in our public media is an America more terrifying than it actually is. Combining meticulous scholarship with a winning prose style, Barry Glassner shows how and why our media are scaring us to death. The book is a calming as it is serious, and offers a sound intellectual alternative to Prozac."—Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death
- "The Culture of Fear uses strong data and careful reasoning to calm everybody down."—Amitai Etzioni, author of The Limits of Privacy
- "One of the most important sociological books you'll read this year, and certainly the most reassuring."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2010
- Page Count
- 360 pages
- Basic Books