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Professor Barry Glassner, The Man Who Knows About Fear in American Culture

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Questions:

How do Glassner's arguments explain how the government may have harnessed the media to take advantage of a population that his been primed for obsessing about what may be LEAST threatening to them on a daily basis?

Although the interview doesn't spend a lot of time talking with Glassner directly about the Bush strategy or politics per se, does the interview help us to understand how we got to the point, as a culture, that we could accept a political agenda largely based on fear?

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BUZZFLASH: Fear is a basic instinct in animals, including our own species. How does it differ between, for instance, a rabbit who hears a noise and hops away and the way a human processes and reacts to fear?

BARRY GLASSNER: Well, the first difference that comes to my mind is the rabbit probably doesn't watch Fox News Channel. Or receive solicitations from advocacy groups in the mail every day saying that if the rabbit doesn't write a check, some horrible thing will happen.

I think there are big differences in human society that have mostly to do with who does the fear-mongering, and to what ends. I am not someone who would argue that if your fears are legitimate that you should not respond accordingly and be cautious and take self-protective action. What I'm really talking about is exaggerated fears –- the kind that are promoted by organizations in their own self-interest and that have unfortunate consequences, like parents raising paranoid children, people being suspicious of their neighbors.

In the U.S., our fears are so exaggerated and out of control that anxiety is the number-one mental health problem in the country.

BUZZFLASH: Let's say we're in a dark parking lot and someone approaches with a black mask on and a gun. I think you'd consider that a basis for legitimate fear. And we'd do what we could to flee what we'd consider a hostile force, someone that can cause us bodily harm or death, just as the deer flees a wild animal that is pursuing it. And that's a primal fear.

You seem to be talking about something that is more distinct to humans -– that comes from language, the environment, images on television. As humans, we can process language and images in a way to make us anxious.

GLASSNER: Well, the fear-mongers in our society certainly rely on the fact that we have something like what you're calling primal fear that they can tap into. In your example, the kind of distinction I would raise is between a person who's in that black mask and the person who has a dark complexion and is wearing no mask.

BUZZFLASH: Who just happens to be there.

GLASSNER: And in U.S. society, most everyone, but especially Anglo-Americans, fear people of color, and especially men of color, very much disproportionately to any threat that they pose to them in the abstract. And I think in that kind of example, we have to ask, why is that the case? Where does it come from, and who's benefiting from it? And that's the question I would ask in many other cases as well where there are high levels of fear that are disproportionate to the danger.

And when we ask that question, it seems to me, it's reasonably clear who is doing the fear-mongering, and it's TV news magazines and news programs that are trying to sell programs to their viewers, advocacy groups that are trying to sell memberships and make some money, lawyers who are selling class-action lawsuits, politicians who win elections by whipping up fear of crime, even when crime rates are way down. And the list goes on and on, all the way to marketers of anti-bacterial soaps and realtors who sell homes in gated communities. And when living in that kind of environment, with so much profit available to those who can manipulate our fears effectively, it's not surprising that we're so fearful.

BUZZFLASH: How do we know what to fear and what not to fear? If we can have fear instilled in us through television, through words, through language and through visual images -- and so much of that is being done, as you point out, by the different organizations and people you just mentioned -- how do we as individuals make a decision on what is a legitimate fear and what's artificially produced for gains of some sort by different people?

GLASSNER: The short answer to that question is why I wrote a book –- to try to help people know how to do that. But let me just talk about a couple of what I think are the most important sorts of clues that we have that we are in the presence of exaggerated fear-mongering. One of those is when isolated incidents are treated as trends, and that often occurs in scares about groups of people.

So, for example, if we flash back just a few years to the hysteria over school shootings, for instance, what we find is that this was occurring at a time when there were fewer deaths at schools than in the past -– at a time, in fact, when the rate of youth violent crime was falling precipitously. So how was it that various politicians and journalists and others were talking about a quote-unquote epidemic of youth violence? Primarily they were doing it by taking isolated incidents and treating them as trends.

There were some horrific incidents that any of us over the age of about 20 will recall of school shootings in places like Pearl, Mississippi and West Paducah, Kentucky, which occurred in the late 1990s. But they did not constitute what Geraldo Rivera, at the time, referred to as "an epidemic of seemingly depraved adolescent murderers." And they didn't constitute what various politicians were referring to in the same terms, or worse.

The word "predator" was used quite often. And then with the shootings at Columbine High School, of course, there was this general sense in the country that just about every adolescent male was a potential mass murderer, when, in fact, there were fewer of these incidents during this period than there had been in the past. And the probability of someone being shot at school was tiny. So the moral – one moral of the story -- I would draw is that we should be very cautious when incidents and anecdotes that substitute for facts. And secondly, we need to ask ourselves what the real probability of danger is from what we're being led to be fearful about.

BUZZFLASH: You said that people profit from fear-mongering. Now in the case of this issue of school shootings, who profited or gained from the belief that we had an epidemic?

GLASSNER: All those groups profited that were able to put the sorts of policies toward youth in place that they found politically appealing: for example, those who wanted much more surveillance and supervision of schoolchildren. Obviously, another group that profited is the security industry that was able to sell devices ranging from metal detectors to camera equipment, to the services of security guards. Probably the biggest beneficiary was the television news media, as is often the case, because they had a dramatic story that they could run with for a very long period of time.

BUZZFLASH: Let's talk about television a bit. In the movie Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore emphasized your theory of a culture of fear. That was the central thesis of the film. In the film, you went with Michael to South Central L.A., a Mexican-American community. And you were standing on a corner and talking about the perception to white Americans that South Central LA is an extremely dangerous place. That really wasn't a valid fear on a day-to-day basis, as both of you showed walking through the area. And then Michael had a segment where there was a shooting in the area, and he was asking the media why they didn't cover pollution and so forth. And it was comical, as much of the film is, but in a very sort of tragic sort of way. The media people looked at him like he was from Pluto.

We know that television has been accused of it "if it bleeds, it leads," and that so much of news, particularly weekend news in urban areas, focuses on murders, shootings and crime in the city. Why does television have such an impact on creating that sort of stereotype and fear -- particularly among whites -- of minorities? And why is that so beneficial to the corporations that transmit the news?

GLASSNER: Well, I think it's fair to say that many Americans live in a televisual environment. They spend considerable amounts of time watching television and get a good part of their view of reality beyond their immediate surroundings by what they see on television. It's one thing when those representations are in programs that are avowedly fictional, like TV dramas or sitcoms. Almost every viewer and, with the exception of perhaps some children and persons with perceptual problems, everyone else understands that that's fiction.

When we watch the news, we believe, unsurprisingly, that we're watching reality. What's unfortunate is that often what we watch when we watch local TV news is a distorted view of the community in which we live. And when we watch national TV news, and TV news magazines, a distorted view of the nation and the world in which we live. It is distorted, in particular, in my view, in the direction of making the community, the nation and the world appear much more dangerous for the average TV viewer in the U.S. than is actually the case.

And at the same time, what is at least as unfortunate for the well-being of the society and the individuals within it, is the near-invisibility of phenomena that are actually much more common in the world in which we're living. Those range from what may seem utterly banal, like the fact that the greatest killer of children is unintentional injuries, a great many of which can be avoided, and a great many of which are from very common causes, to some very large socioeconomic and political issues like the fact that nearly one in three Americans lacked health insurance for some period during the last two years.

TV news gains by continuing its style of coverage in several ways. First, it is relatively inexpensive to run a news operation based on the maxim "if it bleeds, it leads." You need a police radio and an adequate camera, or, in some cities, a helicopter, to follow the police around. You will get very dramatic pictures. The audience is understandably anxious and engaged when presented with the prospect of violence by strangers in their own community. In point of fact, of course, most interpersonal violence is between people who know each other, often people who live together.

But we don't get that impression from the TV news. And were they to present that to us, it would create lots of uncomfortable viewers, uncomfortable advertisers, and an uncomfortable political climate for them. It would raise difficult and important questions. No one can disagree with the premise that an attack by a stranger is a bad thing and a frightening thing that should be stopped. And that's basically what they cover, and what those newscasts cover, and a lot of what police in many cities focus upon.

To cover corporate crime in any way that makes for compelling TV viewing is very difficult and expensive, so they're not going to cover that. To cover domestic violence would require a level of understanding that they typically don't have, and a level of access that is more difficult for them to get as well. Now if we talk about other areas, however, there's quite a bit that TV news could be doing. So I mentioned a couple of minutes ago the roughly 75 million Americans who've gone without health insurance for at least some part of the last couple of years. There are great pictures and stories to be had, simply by going to public hospitals and emergency rooms, and medical facilities. Going into the homes of people who are underinsured or uninsured. There are very dramatic stories to be told.

And so I personally am impatient when I hear TV news directors and reporters saying we can't really cover those stories because we wouldn't have an audience, or because they're too expensive to cover. For TV news to cover the major social problems and dangers that people in this country face need not be more expensive, though they would have to learn something about the problems. And they would have somewhat greater challenges on their hands in putting together a dramatic narrative that would keep viewers watching. But the story itself is at least as dramatic and interesting at those emergency rooms or at under-funded schools in their communities, as on the street corner where someone attacks someone else.

BUZZFLASH: Is there something in human nature that makes violence appeal to us in a vicarious way? There was a period –- less so now –- where Hollywood was just putting out enormously violent films. And the argument of Hollywood is, well, people come and see them. Television too –- it helps in the ratings. This is an invariable formula: Show the person who's been killed. Show the blood. Show the grieving relative. Get a comment from the police. And go to the next one. Commercial break. It's like creating a "bleed and lead" gaper's block on the local news. We denounce it, but we can't help watching it.

GLASSNER: You're right to compare to the fictional media -– movies and TV shows. And if we look at that comparison, we see that it's very feasible to attract large audiences for other types of material. To stay with the example I was giving just a minute ago, hospital ER-type shows do very well, just to take one example. More generally, it's sometimes said that there's an epidemic of violence on television and the movies, but if that's the case, there's an even bigger epidemic of kissing in television and in the movies. And the kissing does just as well in the ratings and at the box office as the shooting. So I think there are lessons to be drawn from that comparison and they're not the ones that producers of local TV news would like to draw.

But more broadly, the notion that it is the viewers' fault somehow, either because of the way we're hard-wired as human beings, or because of our preferences for what we watch –- that somehow it's the viewers' fault that this is the fear they get –- is nothing but a cop-out from those who produce these programs. We're not asking for this kind of material, and we have very little choice.

If I turn on the television news in any major market in the country, on any given night, I will not be able to find out much about what is going on of consequence in my community because the stories are not available for me to watch. It's not as if I have a choice of watching the latest crime story versus, say, a story about the state of the public schools or the healthcare system, or the increasing number of unemployed, or any of the other serious environmental, economic and other social problems that are very much worthy of my attention. I can flip the channels as many times as I want, and I'm not going to find much of anything about those much more pressing and prevalent dangers.

BUZZFLASH: On September 11, 2001, a dreadful, horrible tragedy struck this country in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Subsequent to that, we've experienced a series of ongoing terror alerts; most recently, advice to duct tape our houses and so forth. And people ran out and got duct tape and plastic sheeting. We've been told that basically -- if you assemble all the terrorist alerts together -- terrorists could strike in any way. We've been told terrorists may be disguised as beggars. We've been told they may drive trucks. Last year, in May, we were told that they had targeted apartment buildings, which probably includes half of the country. We've been told they might use hydrofoils in the Everglades, that they might attack ports, airports, centers of governments, tall buildings, small buildings. Basically we've been told, in bursts of fear, that terrorists may strike in any manner and at any time. So what do the alerts tell us?

Within the context of the culture of fear, how are we supposed to sort this out? The government says, well, be wary and vigilant. As an individual, I have no idea what that means. And when these alerts come, the question remains: What am I supposed to do? The only concrete thing the government's offered is duct tape and plastic sheeting.

GLASSNER: To the extent that the government is asking us to do something specific, I think they need to tell us what that is in each instance, and why they are asking us to do that. If they meet those two criteria –- which they have not so far, at least to my mind -– then I think it's a reasonable thing for them to do. So if they need to tell us that they have reason to believe someone may be leaving packages unattended on the subway, and we should watch out for that, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to ask us to do.

If, on the other hand, the alert is just a general statement with no specific requests, no substance behind it, I can't see how it benefits anyone except those persons who would like the general population to be more fearful. It discourages us from participating in our communities, in community life. This is harmful to the well-being of the community -- not only in terms of revenues for businesses, which is the point that is often raised, but in terms of what we sociologists refer to as community integration -- the connection between people -- the very sense of community, people's political engagement, and so forth.

Another point I would emphasize in this regard is that we need to ask ourselves, when we are living in this environment that you describe well, where we're hearing about all sorts of terrifying attacks that could occur, I think we need to put those dangers into some sort of rational perspective, as we should do with any other danger that is being blown out of proportion.

So, for example, I thought I would check some of the relative levels of risk during 2001, the year of the terrible attacks of 9/11. So I checked the National Safety Council's statistics for motor vehicle deaths -– for deaths from motor vehicle accidents. And I discovered that that number is 42,900 for 2001. Then I checked the number of deaths from terrorist attacks worldwide that year, and the number is 3,547, according to the figures published by the U.S. State Department; 3,000 of which were on 9/11. That suggests that my odds that year as an American citizen of dying in a motor vehicle crash were more than 10 times as high as my odds of dying from a terrorist attack. This comparison is relevant, partly because of the relative nature of the danger, and partly because the more anxious, fearful and distracted I am, the more likely I am to be involved in an accident, whether while driving a motor vehicle or doing anything else.

BUZZFLASH: So the generalized fear, if we live in a state of fear, can cause such anxiety that it actually could result in an accident.

GLASSNER: Anxiety, fear –- just the distraction that comes from those –- increases the likelihood of an accident. It also increases the likelihood of a variety of illnesses, ranging from the common cold to much more serious conditions, such as heart conditions. And in terms of sociological dimension of this, high levels of fear and anxiety also create unfortunate social conditions, like people being more willing to give up civil liberties, like people not participating in the life of their community and political institutions and so forth.

For individuals, at a much more personal level, there's a separate upshot to what I'm suggesting. And that is if you want to protect yourself and your loved ones as an individual, the place to do that is not in the duct tape aisle of the store, but other places, like, for example, if you have concern for your children, you should ask questions like whether they wear helmets when they ride their bicycles, because head injuries account for about 60 percent of bicycle-related deaths for children, and about two-thirds of bicycle-related hospital admissions. The probability that your child is going to go to the hospital as a result of a terrorist attack, even if there are more terrorist attacks than there have been in this country, does not compare to the risk from common household accidents and from motor vehicle accidents. And so we need to keep it in proportion in that sort of way.

And then finally I would say, to the extent that any of us might be concerned about protecting ourselves and our loved ones during and after a terrorist attack, what we should be focusing on is not what we can do to secure our homes with duct tape, but rather the condition of the public health system and the public health facilities in our communities. Because if there really is an attack of any of the sorts you've mentioned earlier, it's not duct tape we're going to need. It's a sufficiently large, well-functioning and well-funded public health system, which is not something that we have been particularly good at building in this country for quite some time.

BUZZFLASH: You mention in your book -- and historically we've seen this during elections -- politicians have used fear of crime -- and fear within the white community of minorities particularly -- to wipe other issues off the table. They'll say, "I'm for law and order and more police; lock ‘em up and throw ‘em away the key." And they use the fear of rampant crime, which usually doesn't exist in the communities they're running in, particularly in the suburbs, to get elected. And now we're seeing fear as part of a political context, involving dark skinned Arabic men are to be feared. How is fear used to control people?

GLASSNER: Well, if we're going to lock people up or go to war with them, we need to either hate them or be fearful of them, or preferably both. And so it is incumbent upon politicians or others who want to engage in those activities, or who want the public to support those activities, to make sure that they are fearful and/or full of hatred for those other persons. What we members of the public need to ask is: Are we being manipulated into these responses? And are these really the responses we want? And why, at any particular time, are those feelings being whipped up in us?

A lot of what politicians do is what I refer to as misdirection, which is a magician's term. If I want to make a coin seem to disappear from my right hand, I need to get you to look at my left hand for a moment while I get rid of the coin. Politicians use this technique to get the public's mind off of those issues and problems that the politicians are either unable or unwilling to confront -- and to keep our attention instead on those issues or problems that they are willing or able to confront. So even though we had this horrible attack on 9/11, and we have been involved in at least two major military engagements since that time, and there's all sorts of talk about the threat from terrorism, I think it's important to note that misdirection around domestic issues hasn't stopped.

What was the big news story of the summer of 2002 –- last summer? If you turned on the TV news channels, you couldn't watch for more than a few minutes without seeing a story about kidnapped children. And there was lots of talk about how there was a new epidemic of stranger kidnappings, when really the number of kidnappings was less during last year than previous years. And the media can't leave that alone. When a child was thankfully returned home to her family, a tremendous amount of time on television news and a significant amount of space in the print media was devoted to her story, and to the whole issue of stranger kidnapping again.

Given all of this coverage, people can be forgiven for thinking that stranger kidnapping is something they need to worry about for their children, when in point of fact, it would be very near the bottom of the list of dangers children confront, based on how likely the danger is to actually affect any given child.

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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BuzzFlash Note: We strongly recommend Glassner's book, which was written in 1999, before September 11th. Please note, however, that Glassner also takes on some of the sacred cows of the left. He is an academician of integrity. He's not a political advocate. You may disagree with one or two of his examples of fear-inducing campaigns, but you'll end up with deep appreciation for his insight. He's nailed it on the head as to how we have become a nation of fear.

Get your copy of "A Culture of Fear" from BuzzFlash.

Last Updated: 11/14/2014
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