Author Barry Glassner tries to make the case in The Culture of Fear that Americans are afraid of the wrong things. Although I don’t think he hits all his points square on, he’s far more right than wrong. For the most part, Glassner correctly blames media hype for the alarmist reports we read on everything from air travel to killer kids. He has a lot of good and important things to say, and I highly recommend the book as a starting point for an examination of American society.
It’s not a book without faults. Glassner, a sociology professor at USC, uses dubious examples at times, at one point comparing the treatment of women in the film True Lies unfavorably with their treatment in the world of gangsta rap. His argument that the Black rap group 2 Live Crew was castigated for misogyny while comedian Andrew Dice Clay was not is absurd. And if he’s something of an apologist for gangsta rap, he misses the boat entirely in condemning white artists like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Neil Young and The Beatles for their occasional song that crosses his politically correct line. Songs aren’t necessarily advocacy; they can just as easily be an imagined universe, in the same way that actors fill a role. There are other problems, but nothing which a reader with a critical eye can’t discern.
Finally, despite a subtitle that begins “Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” the book inadequately answers this question in my opinion. Media hype is only the mechanism through which the alarms are sounded, not the prime mover. Behind the veil you’ll find those with a political agenda of increasing their own power and wealth. Though there are numerous people and groups who would fall into this category, the most prominent example these days would be the Bush administration. Still, The Culture of Fear is well-worth reading.