I usually don’t do reviews of movies, music, books and the like for various reasons. I generally don’t review movies since I never see films in the theater. (By the way, have you seen the Star Wars prequel trilogy? It’s rocky and there’s a lot that I didn’t enjoy about it, but if you make it through all three films it really puts Lucas’ politics into focus in a really interesting way.) I generally don’t review music, because I’m often embarrassed by what’s playing on my iTunes. (Currently I have t.A.T.u. playing.) And I generally don’t read books because I’ve been finding myself reading books by political authors of the extreme right, which are really well written but slightly under half of the country won’t enjoy reading them. (Although I submit that Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them is still an excellent read.)
I’m going to review a book that I think everyone should read because we are living in a society of fear, and the author goes through a whole cavalcade of pseudo-dangers of which you shouldn’t be afraid. It’s astounding how as a country we have made mountains out of molehills. The book is The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner, and as the subtitle says “Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage & So Much More”
“But Jason…shouldn’t we be afraid of crime, plane crashes & road rage?” I hear you saying, “These seem like helpful fears to have.”
Well, you should read the book. Some fears he debunks as being myths (road rage), some he addresses how the situation is blown way out of proportion (teenage pregnancy), and others he analyzes how some aspects of a situation is healthy to have fear but in other aspects it is very unhealthy (crime).
Each example is so fascinating in and of itself that you really have to read the book, but I would be remiss as a reviewer not to give at least one example. Answer the following question:
How many cases are there each year of tainted Halloween candy?
I remember when I was in second grade my parents would dig through my Halloween candy to make sure that there wasn’t a razor blade hidden in an apple or a tear in wrapped candy through which poisons or drugs may have been snuck. With the sprawl of suburbia, you couldn’t know all your neighbors so there was the fear of some nefarious neighbor who wanted to hurt your children just for the sick thrill of doing so.
I don’t have stats for recent years, but in that year I was in second grade (1985) going back three decades there was not a single case of tainted Halloween candy being given to children going door-to-door in this country.
This is an astounding figure showing how some of our fears are not exaggerations of the truth, but a myth invented whole-cloth out of our fears and nothing more.
“But Jason…what’s the harm?” I hear you saying, “What’s the harm of your parents going through your candy to make sure it wasn’t tampered.”
There’s no harm necessarily in that act when looked at discretely, but there is a danger (as with all the pseudo-dangers analyzed in the book) of distraction from real dangers.
The statistic I gave you was very specifically worded because in those thirty years there were two cases of a child being killed by poisoned Halloween candy. In both cases the evil, mysterious, unknown neighbor was the first suspect, but in both cases this mysterious nobody wasn’t to blame. One case was a straightforward case of a father poisoning his son to collect on some insurance money. There other was a case of a heroine-laced chocolate bar, which was a ruse by the boy’s uncle who had accidentally left his stash out and the boy had eaten enough to be fatal; taking advantage of the death occuring in early November, he took the opportunity to lace the kids’ candy to take suspicion off himself.
There are two dangers, the first is that both of these cases are in some ways “copycat crimes”. The men in both cases heard of a crime that was happening (in this case the crime happens to be fictitious) and inspires him in one case to commit murder in this fashion and in the other case inspires him to hide the crime in this fashion.
The second danger is much subtler. By making ourselves so afraid of an evil neighbor out to hurt and kill your kids that we neglect to address the dangers in your own house. In almost every case of a traumatic danger, the danger is much more likely to come from someone the family knows than a stranger. Statistically you are safer letting your kids go trick-or-treating in any neighborhood across America and eating their candy uninspected than letting your kids stay the weekend at a friend’s house.
I was astounded by this story, and the stories of epidemics of road rage, teen pregnancy, and political correctness gone wrong all follow similar paths.
The book has had two effects on me. One, it has made me less fearful of certain huge issues in our society; two, it has made much much more critical of statistics, scenarios, and scares that get thrown at me…and it’s amazing how often people are urging me to be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Buy this book.