Thursday, November 10, 2011

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?: A Review of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner

Title: The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More)
Author: Barry Glassner
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Basic Books (1999)
Pages: 276
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: As with most of the non-fiction titles I've been reading the last few months, this book was borrowed from my library as part of my research for a book that I'm working on.

About the Author: Barry Glassner is currently the President of Lewis and Clark College. A sociologist and the author of seven books, Glassner is probably best known for his best-selling book The Culture of Fear.

Synopsis: In this eye-opening examination of a pathology that has swept the country, the noted sociologist Barry Glassner reveals why Americans are burdened with overblown fears. He exposes the people and organizations that manipulate our perceptions and profit from our anxieties: politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime and drug use even as both are declining; advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases; TV news-magazines that monger a new scare every week to garner ratings.

Review: In the years following 9/11, Americans were kept in a constant state of fear by politicians and news anchors who disseminated information on everything from anthrax attacks to attempted hijackings to possible suicide bombings. Even now, ten years after the attacks, we still live in a society where we are reminded of just how dangerous the world can be...even if most of us will never be personally affected by many, if not most, of its potential hazards. Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear came out two years before any of this happened, but his message is still highly relevant today.

The Culture of Fear touches upon many of the subjects that Bernard Goldberg's Bias did, but it is everything that Goldberg's book could never be. Well-researched, superbly-argued, and highly-critical of all news outlets (not just the liberal ones), The Culture of Fear is a deft assessment of American fears in the 1990s...and a skillfully-written and scathing criticism of the individuals and organizations who fanned the flames of those fears.

As the sub-sub-title of the book says, this is the story of the things that Americans were urged to fear by the mainstream media and by politicians desperate for approval ratings and election results--crime, drugs, disease, the breakdown of society as we know it. Each chapter is an exploration of one aspect of society that has been scapegoated by those in power and Glassner not only proves how small of a threat these things really are, he also argues that what's really to blame is society itself.

Let me give an example. For those of us who were kids in the nineties, I'm sure we can all remember Columbine, D.A.R.E., dangerous Halloween candy, and the "Stranger Danger"-type campaigns. As the over-protected child of an over-protective mother, I remember all too well how she reacted to each school shooting, how she would carefully check all of my candy after trick-or-treating to find anything that could have  been tampered with, and how I was constantly reminded by her of the best ways not to get kidnapped. I also remember George Bush the 1st coming onto my TV screen to inform me of the dangers of drug use and the countless hours of advertisements I watched that warned me that my brain on drugs would be like an egg being bashed by a big-ass frying pan.

Glassner points to each of these things as being endemic of the cultural atmosphere in the 1990s and he swiftly counters each of these dangers with solid facts that disprove how prevalent these dangers were thought to be. He then proposes an explanation as to why parents and children were subjected to years of fear-mongering--our nation's children are at risk, but not because of tainted candy (which was a hoax perpetuated by cases where family members poisoned their own children's candy) or from strangers. No, the real issues were much simpler and much more pervasive: child poverty, inequality, bad family environments, etc. His point being, of course, that the problems children faced were not outside threats but, rather, they were much closer to home and were caused by society's inability to accept culpability for what was happening to them.

I accept this, although I'm a dirty-hippy-bleeding-heart-liberal, so I guess that's to be expected. But, Glassner's argument is based on well-documented evidence and carefully-researched statistics. It isn't just gut feeling or opinion. The mainstream media, he says, was often unwilling or unable to report the real problems due to interference by network executives, politicians, or corporate sponsors who would never have allowed them to point the finger in the right direction. So, instead, they had to raise awareness of the real problems in society by creating problems where there were none. It makes sense, especially considering the fact that as crime rates were going down, the networks were constantly barraging families with news about just how bad the crime "really" was in this country.

There are other culprits of course. Politicians, interest groups and advocates (touched upon in a much less respectful way in Goldberg's book), and others who had a stake in creating a culture of fear. Just looking at the media today, I don't think that anyone can deny that this culture is still being created, still being shaped by those who use the media to gain power and influence. Even though the world of Glassner's book had yet to be marred by the scar of September 11, 2001, there was quite enough to be unnecessarily scared of at that point that The Culture of Fear never seems dated or out of touch with the times.

The book is fascinating, well-written, often-funny, and all-around a great read. I don't think that I could recommend this book enough. His societal and cultural analysis and commentary are right on the nose and hold significance even to this day. The dangers and the enemies that we're told to be afraid of may change, but the overarching principle remains the same: keep them afraid so that they don't pay attention to what's really going on; keep them on edge about things that aren't really a threat so that they don't try to fix the real, systemic problems that face this country.

I'm giving The Culture of Fear 5 out of 5 Gabriels.



  1. This book has been on my to read list since it was first released. Now it's being bumped to higher priority.

  2. THIS BOOK SOUNDS AWESOME! Like, something I would write if I could write intelligent stuff, which I can't. Definitely going to try and track down a copy of this asap.

  3. Satia: It's definitely worth reading. The only reason it took me so long to get through it was because I was furiously taking notes. It's not long and could probably be read in just a few days.

    Laura: It was. And I'm sure you can write intelligently. You're just being hard on yourself.

    If either of you read it, I'd love to see the reviews. Feel free to come back and post links. :)