Brett's Reviews > The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things

The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner
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's review
Mar 02, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: domestic-politics, sociology

I swear I had some notes I wanted to use for this review, but I can't find them now and will have to do this from memory, making my observations pretty limited. In short, I had mixed feelings about this book. Some of Glassner's points are obvious (the media sensationalizes, or even invents, many threats), some are thought-provoking items that have changed the way I thought, and in some cases I thought Glassner was being unnecessarily uncharitable towards the public's "fear" of certain phenomenons.

It is worth noting that this book was published in 1999, thus predating the amazing "politics of fear" that dominated national discourse throughout the Bush presidency. Nonetheless, many of the trends and topics that Glassner examines remain relevent. The book also makes a brief appearance in the Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine.

Of particular interest are the chapters entitled Monster Moms, dealing with teenage pregnancy, and Metaphoric Illnesses, dealing with imagined physical maladies that in some form represent a larger societal criticism (he suggests Gulf War Syndrome as a key example of this kind of illness).

On teenage mothers, I underlined this passage: "Ignorance about contraception, psychopathology, desire to prove adulthood, lack of family restraint, cultural patterns, desire to obtain welfare benefits, immorality, getting out of school--a host of reasons are given for childbirth in women under 20, while 'maternal instinct' is thought to suffice for those over 20." In general, he makes a convincing case that teen pregnancy is a dramatically overstated problem and the outcomes of teen pregnancy much less dire than news stories often suggest. Children of teen mothers do as well as other children from the same income level in school. Turns out I wasn't really thinking much about this issue and had just internalized the kind of stories I heard about teen motherhood as I was growing up.

But the other side of the coin is Glassner's critque of dangers such as plane crashes. Maybe I just take offense to this because I don't much care for flying, but Glassner spends a whole chapter telling us what we already know--that flying is statistically very safe. Nonetheless, people are still drawn to stories about planes crashing or possible deficiencies in FAA safety rules. Just because I might want to watch a news segment about the FAA doesn't mean I am so incredibly concerned that I won't get on an airplane--but if threats to my person from flying can be even further reduced from their already low levels--well, why shouldn't I care about that? Just because airplane crashes affect a small number of people doesn't mean that it wouldn't be better for them to effect a still smaller number of people.

This is a good book, but not one that will shift many people's paradigms. It's dated now, but still a breezy and somewhat nostolgic read for those that remember the fake scares of the 1990s.

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