Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: The Culture of Fear

This book focuses on the sort of public media scares that have, and continue to, grip the American public. It argues that not only are these episodes of mass hysteria completely unfounded, they are actively detrimental to the American population. From fears of car-jacking and plane crashes to those of silicone breast implants and unwed teenage mothers, Glassner uncovers significant evidence that these threats were grossly overblown, even in the face of hard countervailing evidence. So, that raises the question of how these non-issues become the basis for widespread fear. On this Glassner is clear. He places the blame squarely on the media and lobby groups. The frequency and the tone with which the media presents scare stories leads to their power and proliferation. Glassner certainly shows the existence of significant scares, and offers compelling evidence that many of these were overblown. As for Glassner's second contention, that these fears are actively hurting Americans, his claims are not uniformly sound. One of the strongest parts of this book is Glassner's discussion of the ways in which unreasonable fears perpetuate racism against young black men. Many are well aware of the failures of the heavily-funded war on drugs, and how the conditions of poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity are completely ignored. But some of Glassner's claims are just as far-fetched as the media events he studies. Claiming that airline crash hysteria is dangerous because people who might fly would otherwise engage in the more dangerous activity of driving is specious at best. The bulk of this book is a series of topical chapters on various hysterias. In his conclusion Glassner addresses the question of why Americans are so susceptible to these scares. Here, Glassner points to one of the phenomena that has defined the lives of Americans in the second half of the twentieth century: celebration of the culture of experts. Each of these scare campaigns gained legitimacy through public pronouncements made by those who appear to be knowledgeable experts. Each of these campaigns has loud, publicly-oriented experts of its own. And experts seem reliable. Herein lies the danger. Professionalization began in the United States in the 19th c., as practitioners in certain fields sought the hallmarks of professionalism: standards, limited entry, national organizations, and peer review. In the wake of WWII, as American culture celebrated higher education, especially science, Americans came to respect, even celebrate the culture of experts. They sought experts to analyze and improve all areas of their lives. The very standards of education and professionalization suggested that expert opinion was trustworthy, that it was best. This very trust has allowed for the manipulation of the American public. In a culture in which expert opinion is revered, and the very fact of expert status suggests qualification, it becomes difficult to determine what is reasonable trust and what is not. In seeing Glassner's conclusions, it becomes clear that one of the problems is surely too much news. With 24-hour news channels, programs like Dateline on television every night of the week, all of this airtime has to be filled with something. This creates an atmosphere ripe for exploitation. This book certainly made me think, however, I suspect Glassner might be preaching to the choir. People who are reading academic sociology are likely not the same people who drink up hours of sensationalist news without a second thought.
Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic, 2000) ISBN: 0465014909

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