Friday, May 17, 2013

The Right Fear at the Right Time

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Dies, Part 15
Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things

Recent news reports noted that amid heightened fears of gun violence, actual firearms homicide statistics have dropped precipitously since the early 1990s. Despite high-profile shootings like Sandy Hook and Aurora, Americans in the aggregate reach for guns less than a generation ago. It’s hardly unmitigated good news, since America still has Earth’s highest homicide rate. But it raises the question: why the discrepancy between fear and fact?

Times have changed since sociologist Barry Glassner wrote his most influential book. In 2000, American media personalities performed elaborate mental gymnastics to blame anything but guns for the prior decade’s alarming violence. Now, when fewer Americans keep firearms at home, and violence sits at a low unseen since before Lyndon Johnson, an apparent preponderance of public opinion appears willing to blame guns first. Why the about face?

Perhaps, though, circumstances haven’t changed that much. Glassner notes that the anti-drug hysteria of the 1980s, when Nancy Reagan added “Just Say No” to the American lexicon, came at a low ebb for drug use. In the 1990s, we stood paralyzed in fear of “Gulf War Syndrome,” a portmanteau diagnosis into which we threw every ailment ever suffered by Desert Storm veterans. Popular fears historically have little factual foundation.

Americans seem remarkably susceptible to fears based more in emotional reflex than external evidence. This vulnerability gets amplified by our willingness to trust perceived authority figures, particularly in media and politics. When multiple authorities overlap, as happened with drugs in the Reagan era, or with gun homicide today, this creates the appearance of corresponding evidence, sufficient to pass for “proof” in the court of public opinion.

Consider President George HW Bush’s famous 1989 speech, when he waved a baggie of crack at television cameras, claiming Secret Service purchased it across the street from the White House. Despite its telegenic qualities, we now know this speech stank of inaccuracies: the dealer had to be coaxed to Lafayette Park, unfamiliar turf regularly policed by federal smokies. The President manufactured evidence to unify Americans behind his pet scare.

But crack, a drug favored by African Americans, made sense in DC, a predominantly black city. Americans wanted to believe drug abuse was prevalent, and accepted specious testimony that supported their existing prejudices. Even conservative commentator PJ O’Rourke noted, at the time, the racial subtext behind Bush’s speech. Yet Americans so wanted to fear somebody for something, that many (including me) swallowed the tale whole.

Glassner is merciless in identifying culprits behind such pandering techniques. Magazine and TV editors who fan middle-class white paranoia; lobbyists with an agenda; even, appallingly enough, demagogues who believe their own overheated rhetoric. Glassner shows particular annoyance with then-President Bill Clinton, a man so fearful of being called “weak” that he habitually pimped the very fears he campaigned to resist.

Because the media/government confluence tends to create its own cultural narrative, Glassner approaches popular paranoias using the techniques prior critics used to dismantle myths. Reagan-era drug hysteria, for instance, masked official rejection of 1960s culture, and liberalism in general. Gulf War Syndrome allowed Americans to obliquely face our popular support for an overseas engagement, without making concessions for soldiers’ return to civilian life.

Because we refuse to meet such challenges directly, we surrender ourselves to scares du jour. Each bĂȘte noire holds our attention long enough to feel we’ve “done something about the problem,” then the circus moves onto the next hip nightmare (Casey Anthony, anyone?). Monday, we whitewash the Seventh Amendment to bust street gangs; Tuesday, we suspend habeas corpus to combat road rage. Nothing gets fixed, but we feel good about ourselves.

How, then, should we read today’s misplaced gun violence fears? Tempting as it is to blame such phobias on delayed reaction to past crimes, or tyrannical government overreach, such partisan responses overlook the wider cultural climate. Even if violence has grown relatively uncommon, America remains a remarkably violent society, conflating saber-rattling with strength and substituting payback for justice. Bold gun laws to address 1993’s social ills only defer real action.

Glassner unequivocally states that anti-intellectual willingness to nurture fear impedes real solutions. Especially when professional fear merchants exaggerate sentiment regarding small risks, we surrender ourselves to paralysis, living from crisis to crisis. We must stop waiting for the white-hatted hero to arrive, talking points in his six-shooter, to solve everything for us. Let us face life as it is, without hiding in somebody else’s prefab world.

Because the next crisis will certainly come, whether we fix the one before us or not.

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