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In Print: Why Worry?

In Print

Why Worry?

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
by Barry Glassner
Basic Books,1999, $25

SCHOOLYARD SHOOTOUTS. Pedophiles in cyberspace. Road rage. Workplace violence. Flesh-eating bacteria.
Such trendy threats do pose a grave danger to American society, but not the kind you might suppose.
“We waste tens of billions of dollars and person-hours every year on largely mythical dangers,” writes sociologist Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. “We’d better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy us.”
Marshaling police reports, scientific studies and skeptical media accounts, Glassner debunks dozens of false fears in his new book.
Did you know that there’s never been a single confirmed death or injury from a stranger poisoning Halloween candy since the scare first surfaced in 1958? Or that no matter how catchy the phrase “going postal” may be, postal workers actually are two-and-a-half times less likely to be killed on their jobs than the average worker?

THE PROBLEM with aggrandizing questionable concerns, Glassner says, is that legitimate concerns get swept under the rug. He points to the unreported dangers of a population that’s undereducated, ill-housed, over-armed and inadequately doctored.
Isn’t it odd, asks the sociologist, how exposés about cybercreeps omit the fact that it’s poor children – few of whom can afford America Online connections – who are disproportionately abused? And that it’s in their own homes and those of close relatives where children are most often sexually molested?
Or how seldom we hear about work-related dangers (7 million injuries and 50,000 fatalities in the mid-1990s), while the media obsesses over airline accidents resulting in at worst a few hundred deaths a year?
Glassner became interested in fear during the 1992 presidential campaign, when controversy over the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of television character Murphy Brown escalated into a full-scale attack on all unwed mothers. It turned out that at the height of the scare over “babies raising babies,” fewer than 22,000 teen moms lived alone. Between 1992 and 1996, teen motherhood actually declined by nearly 12 percent.
School violence is another unwarranted fear: “More than three times as many people are killed by lightning as by violence at schools,” Glassner says. The same goes for flesh-eating bacteria: “An American is 55 times as likely to be struck by lightning as to die of this microbe,” he says.
The author spent five years poring over more than 10,000 newspaper, radio and television accounts of social issues, and he discovered a distinct pattern. “Scratch the surface of any pseudo-fear and you’ll find a wide array of groups that stand to benefit from promoting the scares,” he says.
Despite his own best efforts – and brisk sales of his new book – Glassner predicts that no amount of debunking will wipe out a fear as long as someone can find a way to profit from it.

– Meg Sullivan

Veronica Franco:
Poems and Selected Letters
edited and translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal
University of Chicago Press, $17

Italian Renaissance scholar Margaret F. Rosenthal first brought the spotlight on 16th-century Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco with her 1995 book, The Honest Courtesan (adapted into the 1998 film, Dangerous Beauty). Now Rosenthal and her co-author have edited and translated a selection of Franco’s writings. Presented in both Italian and English, the stylish poems of this erudite prostitute contrast with her matter-of-fact letters, which include a warning to a woman considering apprenticing her daughter to a courtesan.

Urban Design Downtown:
Poetics and Politics of Form
by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris
and Tridib Banerjee
University of California Press, $40

Focusing on Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, this well-illustrated volume explores the corporate downtown, with its multitude of social dilemmas and contradictions. Policy and planning professor Tridib Banerjee and his co-author offer a critical appraisal of the poetics and politics of emerging urban forms. Through three contemporary case studies, they reveal patterns that are happening or may happen in other downtown developments.

Luis Buñuel’s
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
edited by Marsha Kinder
Cambridge University Press, $14.95

In this collection of critical essays, film theorist Marsha Kinder gathers fresh perspectives on Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s 1972 Academy Award-winning masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – a surreal film about a dinner party. Essays explore the director’s relationship to surrealism, the transnational (Spanish, French, Mexican and American) nature of his work, and his dramatic and provocative rethinking of sex, narrative and gender.


Book photograph by Rick Szczechowski

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