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Posted October 2, 2003 

Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things:
By Barry Glassner
NY:Basic Books:1999

Reviewed by: Lon Woodbury

The author, Barry Glassner, is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California. This book is a result of his research into what he calls "a pathology that has swept the country," that is, misplaced fear. In this book he traces how a public fear is created, and identifies those who profit from our anxieties. He further explains how a successful campaign to establish any kind of fear in the mind of the public can profit politicians, advocacy groups, the media and businesses.

In discussing how such misplaced fears become so popular, the author suggests each popular fear taps into some existing uneasiness in our society. He used as an example the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orson Wells, which caused a brief panic about an alleged invasion from Mars. For a few brief hours, an estimated one million Americans believed the fictional broadcast and panicked. He suggests that in 1938 the country was already nervous about war news from Europe and was concerned that America could be dragged into that conflict. He suggests that the public, already fearing the worst, was ready for bad news, which resulted in the unanticipated reaction to the Mars invasion broadcast. Not only was the panic in this situation driven by the previously existing nervousness, he goes on to say, but all the panics experienced by the population are rooted in some pre-existing concern that is manipulated by those who can profit from fanning those concerns. He makes it clear that profit is not just about money. A politician profits through fame and votes, advocacy groups profit by publicity and increased donations to fight what is feared, the media profits from increased readers and viewers, and businesses profit financially by selling solutions to what is feared.

Crime, road rage, and flesh eating bacteria are a few of the recent panics he discusses, and shows that as a serious threat, their existence was more hype than reality. He does this by quoting serious research on the subjects, comparing that with popular presentations in the media. The mismatch is startling.

The fear for our children is given its own chapter, and he discusses the popular perspective that America's children face grave dangers, hyped regularly in TV documentaries and in newspapers. He demonstrates, for example, that teen gambling and Internet addictions, are less prevalent than feared, and when it becomes an actual problem, is usually accompanied by other serious mental or situational conditions that are more likely to be the real problem. Besides, he points out, in many it is just a passing phase of growing up similar to what most adults went through in their youth, with no serious long-term effects to those adults’ futures.

Missing children is another on-going panic, fueled especially by media reports of children abducted by strangers. One example he cites was Geraldo Rivera's comments on national TV that "they will come for your kid over the Internet; they will come in a truck; they will come in a pickup in the dark of night; they will come in the Hollywood Mall in Florida. There are sickos out there." Yet, the author reports, criminal justice experts estimate there are only 200 to 300 children a year abducted by strangers, out of America's 64 million children, an almost infinitesimal percentage. An item of concern by all means, but not justification for a panic that can protect children from normal living, and frighten them to where they have an unreasoning fear of everybody!

He compares the popular perception of an epidemic of school shootings convincing the public that schools are extremely unsafe, to exhaustive research that shows that children are more safe in schools than home, parks, or any other place children congregate.

Or, "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."

He concludes, "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 book reminds me of the popular and controversial columnist in the 1930s, H. L. Mencken, who said essentially the same thing almost 80 years ago, indicating public hyped fears are not a new phenomena.

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. ~ H.L. Mencken

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