Book Club: Fear

This is the discussion thread for The Culture of Fear. Comment below to join the conversation, no need to “sign up” as part of the book club to do so. If you comment on this post, you are part of the club!

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 newsmagazines that monger a new scare every week to garner ratings.

A passionate and reassuring study, The Culture of Fear thoroughly debunks many of the predominant scares of our age. The author lays bare the frightening lies and half-truths told about: workplace violence, the Internet, airline safety, child abduction, gulf war syndrome, baby-killing mothers, suicidal teens and angry African Americans.

Whether by the promotion of dubious statistics about pseudo-problems like “road rage” and “husband abuse,” or frightening stories about “middle-class junkies” and “depraved adolescent murderers,” the peddlers of fear cost Americans dearly. Individually, we’re weighed down with needless worries, and as a nation, we waste billions of dollars combating minor or non-existent dangers. All the while, we neglect real problems that we could solve if we put our minds to them.

Barry Glassner’s book diagnoses a predominant pathology of our age and provides a rallying cry for a return to rationality in our personal lives and in our national sense of purpose. As such, The Culture of Fear offers a timely antidote that Americans cannot afford to pass up at the dawn of the new millennium.

14 thoughts on “Book Club: Fear

  1. I’m about halfway thru the book, so I figured I’d start with some of my commentary.

    Chapter 1: Dubious Dangers on Roadways and Campuses

    The beginning of the chapter cover road rage basically. I liked it, since living in a big city (Chicago) and spending many hours of my life in traffic, I can see how people can be led to road rage, but never really see it happening. So I understand the fear that the media puts into us believing there are crazy drivers out there just ready to snap.

    Then in the second part of the chapter, the tone of the author changes to where he starts putting much of the blame of spreading fear on conservatives, including George Bush senior and several conservative authors. I guess you can say I wasn’t too crazy about it since I’m conservative and didn’t agree with some of his blame and finger pointing.

    So far the author has jumped around to a few different points, I don’t care much for his bais, but still interested to see what he has to offer.

    Jenna Reply:

    I disliked that as well, although I agree that conservatives cause a lot of problems with hyperbolic statements and such. We are big fans of Jon Stewart and sometimes I am blown away by the pieces he puts together pointing out how ridiculous the conservative media can be.

    The liberals recently had their own example of one of their own fear mongering and using hyperbole, with the guy who said that those who are speaking out against the health care bill are spreading “the big lie” like Nazis.

  2. What I’ve appreciated most about his book is the emphasis he makes on how, by focusing on things we really shouldn’t be fearing, we ignore things we should be worried about, that we actually can fix. I think that’s what he means when he talks about politicians taking advantage of fear. If we’re terrified of a terrorist attack, and spending billions of dollars on it, then we won’t focus on the boring, day to day things that we actually should be concerned with- specifically when it comes to education, child poverty, child abuse, etc. I like how he emphasizes that irrational fear is a distraction, and that by priming us to have irrational fear, we are primed to be manipulated by it. People who are afraid will do things they might not otherwise do- let’s take the Patriot Act. Everyone was saying it was better “to be safe”. They were motivated by fear. If 9/11 had not happened, I don’t think there is any way that people would have supported the Patriot Act (I’ve read the whole thing, it is pretty awful, in my opinion, and is contrary to several American ideals that are specifically enumerated in our Constitution). I think this is a good example of how playing on our irrational fears- whether it’s the media doing it, or politicians (on both sides!!)- is a surefire way to be able to manipulate large groups of people.

    Jenna Reply:

    Yes! I liked that too. I wish I felt like I could do a better job of it after reading the book, but I think it’s something I’m going to have to keep working on it.

    Do you feel like there are sites/resources that do a good job picking these things out and dissecting it for people like me who have a hard time taking apart an argument and finding flaws/strengths?

    Sophia Reply:

    It’s so hard because so much information is unfortunately cherry picked or biased one way or the other. is useful sometimes, as is you can get e-mails about how your representatives are voting. The best way I’ve found is to just try and get more than one or two perspectives on an issue, and to try and read the news often from a variety of sources so that you have a context for those issues when they come up and you get a lot of different perspectives. My daily news is NPR, BBC, Al-Jazeera, and CNN. To get more left leaning news I check out Huff Post, to get more right leaning I check out FOX. But I only check them online or listen to NPR in the car or while I’m cooking. I spend maybe half an hour, or an hour if something crazy is going on, each day, but I’ve found it does wonders for my ability to pick things out of the din and evaluate it, since I have a good bead on what’s been going on. For example, I like to tell people that because of how much I researched and paid attention in the 2000 Presidential Republican primary and subsequent election, and because I paid attention to the 2004 DNC, it helped me a lot during the 2008 Presidential election- I had a solid base of knowledge and background on both candidates, and I was able to see the dishonesty and twisting of history being thrown on both sides of the aisle as a result, which I think helped me make a better, logical decision instead of getting caught up in election fever.

    It has always seemed like the more informed you are for longer stretches of time- daily, humdrum news- then the easier it is to kind of pick up on hyperbole when crazy things happen, or when there is a scare. You’ll think “hmmm, everyone is freaking out about this but I read a story about it a year ago and it wasn’t a big deal then, why does it matter now?”. I hope that makes sense, I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well, but that has been the best way I know of to keep my head on straight when it comes to the onslaught of the media news. I think it also helps a ton that we don’t have a T.V. and I read all of my news or listen to it on the radio, so I don’t have to sit through talking heads and pundits spouting off their opinions. I read very boring news articles, haha :)

    Sorry this was so long!

    Sophia Reply:

    I was thinking about this more and just wanted to clarify that even though the examples I used were in the arena of politics and policy, I’ve found this useful in terms of analyzing pretty much anything that is in the news and garnering a lot of attention :)

  3. As someone with a totally irrational fear of flying the safety stats in the fear of flying chapter BLEW MY MIND. Less than 13,000 casualties in the entire world in the entire history of aviation since 1904?? Why am I so scared of what is essentially the safest endeavor on the planet?!

    Jenna Reply:

    I tweeted a picture of that paragraph today :). I’m not afraid of flying so I can’t identify, but it makes you think twice about a road trip, right?

    Sophia Reply:

    Haha, yes it does! And I saw that tweet today and it reminded me of how insane and ridiculous my fear is :)

  4. I really liked the section about child preadators, it’s reassuring to hear someone argue why it isn’t this enormous risk that media/those who dislike being so public can make it out to be. I was surprised and saddened to realize that the real risk to kids (statistically) is abuse from friends/family members. This American Life recently did a segment on a boy who was raped by another boy while his parents had dinner+drinks together upstairs ( I’m not going to walk around assuming that every single person I leave my child with is going to hurt them in some way, but it does make me realize that I need to be very aware of who I leave him with.

    The section that made me laugh? The one that talked about pron on the internet and how it “wasn’t a threat”. Ha! 10 years later, as someone who is very opposed to pornography and thinks it has very negative effects, this is something I’m very worried about, and I think for good reason.

    I remember my mom telling me to be careful at parties (this was at BYU where no one drank either!) because I needed to make sure I didn’t leave my drink and get roofied. Hard to believe that 1000 girls who claimed they were roofied got tested and only 6 of them had! This sounds like women underestimating how much they drank.

    The vaccine section made me sad. It’s sad to watch the media continue to make the same mistakes over and over with regards to reporting on vaccines. Reporting that promotes fear instead of facts has had serious consequences around the world!

    As I said to Sophia above, I wish I did a better job of analyzing what I read and pointing out the logical fallacies. I don’t think I’m very good at it yet, but this book has made me want to research things more thoroughly before I come down on a certain side.

    The most striking thing this book did for me was made me rethink my position on airport scanners! I still don’t see the point in protesting and causing problems for yourself (like the guy we passed over Christmas who was throwing a fit and was taken aside), but it does strike me as something that is pushed upon us that is highly profitable for the companies that make those scanners. Hatred toward the US has certainly grown in the US, but how much has the threat really increased? This thinking was also spurred after watching Why We Fight, It’s a bit dry, but it helped me understand government incentives to fight wars a little bit better.

    This was my least favorite book so far, but I didn’t dislike it. I like that all of the book club books really help me to feel like a more educated person who can make more informed decisions!

    AmyC83 Reply:

    My husband and I heard that story about the boy being raped on NPR a couple of weeks ago. We were in the car and arrived at our destination, but stayed in the car so we could finish listening. Very moving and definitely makes you think.

    Sophia Reply:

    Uggh, I heard that story too, so sad :( And it’s also sad that the people most likely to rape or molest children are those in the family, or people close to the family. I think the reason people project so much “stranger danger” fear is because it can probably be a little crazy-making to think that your kid is more likely to be molested by Uncle Thomas than by a creepy guy at the playground. If the danger is “out there” you can feel some sort of control over it. If it’s within your circle of friends or family, it’s much more raw and scary.

  5. I couldn’t get this book from my library and it looks like I can’t get the February book about Henrietta Lacks either. BOO! May I suggest My Name Is Iran by Davar Ardalan? It’s of interest to me and I can get it at my library. Keeping my fingers crossed this book (or one of similar topic) is on a book club survey soon!

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