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The Culture of Fear: 

Why Americans are Still Afraid of the Wrong Things

By Barry Glassner, December 27, 2009

Los Angeles, Calif. - University of Southern California (USC) - 

Plane crashes, road rage, child abductions, unwed mothers, teenage promiscuity, and more.  When USC sociologist Barry Glassner looked at the American decade of the 1990s, he saw a society reeling from one scare to another - and usually for no reason.

The truth, as Glassner pointed out, is that American children are more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than shot in school by alienated teenagers or "taken out" by terrorists.  Despite occasional catastrophic failures, air travel is still far less risky than automobile travel.  And most unwed mothers are simply members of the underclass - not part of a liberal conspiracy against the institution of marriage.

"[In the 1990s] police and reporters had warned of disparate new categories of creeps out to get us—home invasion robbers, carjackers, child nabbers, deranged postal workers," wrote Glassner.  "In just about every contemporary American scare, rather than confront disturbing shortcomings in society the public discussion centers on disturbed individuals."

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Glassner writes in the new edition of "The Culture of Fear," the basic narrative of fear in America quickly shifted from “there are monsters among us” to “foreign terrorists want to destroy us.”

"In the first weeks after 9/11, the homegrown scares of the previous three decades about crime, teenagers, drugs, metaphorical illnesses, and the like seemed trivial, obsolete, beside the point. The nation’s collective fear sensibly coalesced against a hard target: Osama bin Laden and his organization, al Qaeda."

But as the attacks receded in the public's memory, the first decade of the 21st Century has seen a return to faux mass hysteria, says Glassner -- not the least of has been caused by the cynical manipulation by politicians of the fear of terrorism.

Beyond the two ground wars launched, and the global war on terror, Americans still don't seem to have a balanced perspective on what to be worried - or not worried - about, he says. 

Take the case of the advocacy groups who have managed to repeatedly raise the false fear that vaccines in small children cause autism.  Years after a supposed link between diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine and autism had been repeatedly debunked by scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere, advocacy groups - fueled by TV appearances by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy - continue to organize public challenges.

"The vaccine scare underscores a fundamental if regrettable reality about metaphoric illnesses, and more generally, about the persistence of fear in American society. A scare can continue long after its rightful expiration date so long as it has two things going for it: it has to tap into current cultural anxieties, and it has to have media-savvy advocates behind it," says Glassner.

So, are we living in exceptionally dangerous times? In The Culture of Fear, Glassner demonstrates that it is our perception of danger that has increased, not the actual level of risk. Glassner exposes the people and organizations that manipulate our perceptions and profit from our fears, including advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases and politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime, drug use, and terrorism.


Culture of Fear, Revised
Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More
Jan 4, 2010, Basic Books ISBN: 9780465003365  ISBN-10: 0465003362


Praise for
By Barry Glassner
(Basic Books)

“If you were to go to my house, you wouldn’t see a gun under my bed, but you would see The Culture of Fear by my night side table.” —Oprah Winfrey

“The Culture of Fear will amaze you, make you upset, and give you a new resolve to do what's best for this county." — Michael Moore

“Glassner does a splendid job of contrasting fear-soaked perception and sober reality.”                  —Journal of Social History

“Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things could change society if everybody read it.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“We seem to be afraid of a good many things. Just how many is meticulously documented in a new book by Dr. Barry Glassner.”—Ottawa Citizen

“A gutsy expose of one of the most widespread delusions of our time: misplaced fear.”               —The Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Wields an impressive body of research and consequently enjoys the power of redefining reality for a moment in history.” —

“One of the most important sociological books you’ll read this year, and certainly the most reassuring.” — Kirkus Review.

Contact: James Grant, USC News at (213) 740-6156 or
Contact USC Media Relations 24/7 at (213) 740-2215 or






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