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Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear Essay

The murder of thousands of Americans on their own soil on September 11, 2001 created a new era in United States History: the era of fear. That is the finding Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. In the book’s pages is found a thorough examination of why Americans are fearful, why they aren’t, and what this says about the average citizen. It is not to say that Glassner indicates that Americans do, or should, live in fear of unexpected terrorist attack.

Rather, his purpose in writing is to illuminate why it is that Americans fear the wrong things and fail to act on the right fears: he cites examples such as fearing shootings on school grounds, but not limiting access to guns. In other words, he is attempting to describe what fear is like in the culture of America and what it says about reality and perception. That is his thesis. Summed up, Glassner writes that when it comes to fear, Americans live in a culture of false paranoia and irrational paradoxes. His methodology comes through clearly.

He utilizes individual case studies to coherently and cohesively build a strong unified theory. Each story and topic becomes one more brick in the foundation of his thesis. In that way he easily compels and convinces all but the most cynical reader. Finally, it is Glassner’s point of view that really works wonders. He acts as if he is but a casual, though analytical, objective observer. What Does the Author Have to Say? Fear can be created – and manipulated. Time and again Glassner returns to the example of the events of September 11, 2001 for treasures with which to bolster his theory.

It is indeed ripe ground for that. It seems to be the case study for just why American citizens are paranoid for all of the wrong reasons. Yes, the terrorist attacks were awful, and all the more so because 1) they were completely unexpected and unannounced, and 2) they targeted the innocent civilian populace. That being said, writes Glassner, they were also completely anomalous. The fear of such an attack in the future due to the fact that it happened once before is unjustifiable.

It had been two hundred and twenty-five years from the beginnings of the United States for such an attack to occur, and as of this tenth anniversary edition of the book it has been another ten years without such attack. Sure, that is not to say that it couldn’t happen again. However, the point that the author makes is that it is just circumstances like this that are fertile breeding ground for manipulators. In this case, he cites the then ongoing efforts of President George W. Bush to convince the population that there was an active war on terror.

This war, he reminded frequently, was directed at the American citizen, the mom and pop on the street. The war could reach every home, every business. The entire country was under various alert conditions at all times. This supports the first main point of The Culture of Fear. Fear can be a force of manipulation and creation. The second point of the book is closely related to its main premise. It is the ongoing effects of a mass media accentuating the most unlikely of crimes. Each and every day the media, including the press, the internet, and the television networks, blares out stories of kidnappings, murders and more.

The chief aim seems to be that ‘it could happen to you. ’ In fact, it probably will happen to you unless you take precautions daily. Fingerprint your children. Update your photographs and dental records. Plant microchips in your children’s skin. Anything to do to escape the boogeyman, because undoubtedly he’s out there. Never mind the fact that more often than not, the statistics behind the reports are skewed mightily to prove these points ex post facto. The announcements alone are proof enough for most people. The culture of fear is encouraged, and bought into.

After all, the media is a powerful presence. When it comes to the third point, it becomes somewhat murky as to how some things come about. Glassner relates example after example of public policy responses to these scenarios – and how they absolutely fail to deal with the actual situations that spawn the fear. In other words, ineffective public policy is the knee jerk reaction to fear. The author is quick to relate such failures. He points out the sheer number of dollars allocated to these efforts and the startling statistics that show the problem has not changed at all.

Also, he is not shy at pointing out that this culture of fear and reaction provides great political opportunity for candidates that are ‘tough on crime’ to emerge, ready to raise the banners of various well-meaning causes. Once the candidates become elected officials, either the cause is dropped along with its passion, or new laws are passed that in essence are just excuses to spend money and advance political careers. Criticism of the Author I greatly enjoyed this book. I will be unequivocal about that. Perhaps it biases my review, but I do have points to support my response.

To begin with, the book is well-paced. By that I mean to say that it reads well. Much of non-fiction – particularly educated and researched non-fiction – is dry, and fails to engage the reader in the sense that its subjects remain remote. Granted, Glassner has a subject that is much more accessible to readers than the typical tome, but he does not bore with statistics or inane stories. He moves the action right along by showing readers why this involves them, and why it should naturally interest them. Each chapter begins with a premise that is readily understandable.

It also includes a counterpoint and then the fun begins. Every chapter delivers. There is a natural satisfaction to this and makes reading the book enjoyable. I never experienced a more well planned out book, in this regard. I was never left wondering why something was missing, or what the author’s point was after all. He provides vignettes that most every reader either has knowledge of, or direct experience with. In that regard, the book almost reads like a continuous narrative, full of intrigue and personal connections. What surprised me in particular were the findings of the author.

He clearly exposed the myths behind much of the country’s fears – fears that turn out to be nearly entirely fictitious or so improbable as to be nearly laughable. Then he does something important and which caused my surprise. He listed the fears that all Americans should actually be concerned with. These are the issues that most citizens will encounter on a daily basis and should be giving their attention rather than the stories at the top of newspaper headlines. Motor vehicle injuries, drowning, fires, head injuries to children from bicycle accidents, these are the realities of danger in America.

And these can be prevented. Safer vehicles, more restrictive drivers’ licenses, and bicycle helmet laws – these are the tools of the fearful citizen that can bring some peace to life. I never thought that Glassner would make such a strong point out of such mundane information. It made me want to actually change my personal living styles, and not in the manner of investing in gas masks or bunkers. Naturally, the book is not perfect. Probably the greatest weakness is the ability of it to be dismissed as a big government bashing book. It could be accused of having an agenda.

It is fairly heavy handed when it comes to discussing the media and the government’s efforts at propagating fears among the population. Perhaps Glassner could have helped himself some by providing statistical analysis of actual terrorist linked events over the course of the century. This may have more convincingly pointed out just how anachronistic the terror attacks of Fall 2001 really were, and remain. Rather than describe the government’s reaction to it, he could have simply left it at that and trusted the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

But that is a small point. One area that could have been covered differently is that chapter on Youth at Risk. With a subtitle of Faulty Diagnoses and Callous Cures one would expect that it would be a medically related chapter. Indeed that it is. However, I feel that the chapter rather disregards the pervasive depression and angst that this generation seems to be finding themselves in. It would appear at least from common experience that these troubles which are leading to more and more suicides and bullying are real and worth a serious look.

It is not as if Glassner just glosses over these things, but I think that his overall take on the situation is not serious enough. He instead appears to have it out for the medical establishment. Some could say that this trivializes the problems that teens today are undergoing. I think that would be an accurate indictment. The chapter could either have been more aimed that direction, or perhaps could be eliminated altogether as a general fear among the United States population at large. Summation

Barry Glassner’s book The Culture of Fear is one to be read. It is quite easy to recommend. Primarily it is because the book’s audience is also the general population. Every reader would know a potential reader in a neighbor, co-worker, relative. Glassner makes his point very clear – the culture of fear is absolutely pervasive. We are all a part of this society that lives in near constant paranoia over things that probably will never happen; and we ignore what we probably should fear on a daily basis.

That is what is so ultimately compelling about the book. It is nearly a handbook for peaceful living. The Culture of Fear makes promises through its introduction and its chapter titles, and it delivers. The prose is concise and clearly understandable. The scenarios, likewise, are situations in which nearly every reader can either imagine, or has actually experienced. This lends an instant authority and trustworthiness to the book. And after all, where there is trustworthy authority, there is careful consideration of fears itself.


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