Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Reading :: The Culture of Fear

Originally posted: Wed, 17 Aug 2005 09:48:49

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things

by Barry Glassner

Every year, every student in first-year composition reads what we call the "First Year Forum" book: a book that has been selected in order to anchor discussions across all first-year comp courses at UT. The idea is to have students across campus reading the same text, discussing it in their dorm rooms as well as their classrooms, and ideally having the author visit campus. We won't be able to have the author come to campus in 05-06 -- the author, John Stuart Mill, is apparently in no shape to visit.

But we did manage to have Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, come to discuss the 2004-2005 First Year Forum book. I missed out on the talk, but not the book, which I just finished using in my summer II course.

Glassner's strength is that he documents nearly everything. When talking about fears of -- and I'm reading off the front cover -- "crime, drugs, minorities, teen moms, killer kids, mutant microbes, plane crashes, road rage & so much more," he does a terrific job of dissecting the perception of various dangers and contrasting them with the available statistics. He also provides overlooked but more severe dangers in comparison. That's great.

Unfortunately, the book has some real flaws as well. Glassner holds some definite views that he does not treat with the same scrutiny as the views he challenges. Sometimes the results are, frankly, embarassing.

To understand why our first example is embarassing, let me give you a sense of what it's like to read Culture of Fear. Glassner's introduction has 49 footnotes; Chapter 1 has 43; Chapter 2 has 70. Each footnote has an average of two citations (my estimate; I didn't make a comprehensive survey). When bringing these citations to bear on dubious fears, Glassner ruthlessly pounds us with statistics, mostly having to do with body counts. That's admirable.

But then we get to p.66, where Glassner describes how Advo, Inc.

mails out an estimated 57 million postcards each week to American households. Each card features on one side the smiling face, birth date, eye color, hair color, and other vital information for a missing child, and on the reverse side an advertisement for a local business. The question "Have you seen me?" printed above the child's picture has multiple meanings: it asks if we've seen the child and, at the same time, if we've seen the advertisement and the product or service it advertises. As Marilyn Ivy, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, notes in an essay about this marketing device, "That a child is missing -- not at home -- also brings up fears that perhaps we as residents at home are missing something too." (p.66)

Whatever one thinks of Advo's postcards -- and I routinely throw them away without a glance, I confess -- it's quite a charge to level that they are meant to manipulate readers into buying things rather than to perform what their producers and advertisers believe to be a valuable service. And that's what Glassner appears to be saying here. What monsters these people must be to prey on the worries and fears of their customers! So what mountain of evidence does Glassner quote to demonstrate that this is so? Interviews from advertisers? Surveys of the ads' readers? No, nothing. It's simply stated as obvious, not needing proof. Glassner would never let his opponents get away with something like that. But here he is, without a shred of evidence, accusing Advo and its advertisers of profiting from human misery.

Glassner, as I implied earlier, uses the body count as his measure of danger. On this point he scolds us for being afraid to fly. "In the entire history of commercial aviation, dating back to 1914, fewer than 13,000 people have died in airplane crashes. Three times that many Americans lose their lives in automobile accidents in a single year" (p.183). Sure, I think most people know that driving is more dangerous than flying. But Glassner doesn't seem to account for the fact that most of us think one death is more terrifying and horrible than the other. Would you rather die swiftly in a two-person accident over which you have some control? Or in a two-minute free fall with 60 people screaming around you? Glassner doesn't seem to consider that people can make rational choices using criteria other than body count.

Usually. But, strangely, Glassner does feel free to use additional criteria when he gets to a couple of his hobby-horse issues. For instance, automobiles cause many more deaths per year than guns, yet guns are "a danger that by any rational calculation deserves top billing on Americans' lists of fears" (p.xix). Because gun deaths are more senseless? More preventable? More immoral? More benighted and backward? There are arguments to be made -- good ones -- but Glassner doesn't make them, treating the question as obvious. Perhaps the answer is simple as the fact that Glassner owns a car but no guns. But that would mean that he's using statistics to affirm his own beliefs rather than to dispassionately get to the bottom of the issue -- wouldn't it?


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