Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats

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Overview

Robert Wuthnow has been praised as one of "the country's best social scientists" by columnist David Brooks, who hails his writing as "tremendously valuable." The New York Times calls him "temperate, balanced, compassionate," adding, "one can't but admire Mr. Wuthnow's views." A leading authority on religion, he now addresses one of the most profound subjects: the end of the world.

In Be Very Afraid, Wuthnow examines the human response to existential threats—once a matter for theology, but now looming before us in multiple forms. Nuclear weapons, pandemics, global warming: each threatens to destroy the planet, or at least to annihilate our species. Freud, he notes, famously taught that the standard psychological response to an overwhelming danger is denial. In fact, Wuthnow writes, the opposite is true: we seek ways of positively meeting the threat, of doing something—anything—even if it's wasteful and time-consuming. The atomic era that began with the bombing of Hiroshima sparked a flurry of activity, ranging from duck-and-cover drills, basement bomb shelters, and marches for a nuclear freeze. All were arguably ineffectual, yet each sprang from an innate desire to take action. It would be one thing if our responses were merely pointless, Wuthnow observes, but they can actually be harmful. Both the public and policymakers tend to model reactions to grave threats on how we met previous ones. The response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, echoed the Cold War—citizens went out to buy duct tape, mimicking 1950s-era civil defense measures, and the administration launched two costly conflicts overseas.

Offering insight into our responses to everything from An Inconvenient Truth to the bird and swine flu epidemics, Robert Wuthnow provides a profound new understanding of the human reaction to existential vulnerability.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A solidly resourced, cogently analyzed, and persuasively argued brief."-Publishers Weekly

"Wuthnow considers the range of huge hazards that Americans have faced and asks, how have we responded? His answers are nuanced, penetrating, and wide-ranging. A fascinating intellectual journey led by a truly creative mind."

—Lee Clarke, author of Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster and Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

"In Be Very Afraid, sociologist Robert Wuthnow examines Americans' responses to the multiple perils we've confronted since 1945, from nuclear dangers to looming environmental hazards. Downplaying the usual emphasis on individual psychology-terror, despair, denial, etc.-he focuses on the culturally embedded impulse to action and problem-solving, as well as on the social norms, institutional structures, and governmental strategies that have shaped these responses. Stimulating and timely, this book offers calm and thought-provoking reflections on our contemporary cultural moment."

—Paul Boyer, Author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture

"In this carefully researched and subtly rendered sociological history, Wuthnow demonstrates that fear about great social dangers has been central to modern American life. Americans have responded to these fears with neither panic nor denial but with culture. By making fears meaningful, they have made sense out of them, and made action against them possible. There is wisdom here."

—Jeffrey C. Alexander, Author of Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (2009)

"Wuthnow considers how Americans have responded to seemingly existential perils, including nuclear weapons, terrorism, the millennium bug, the avian flu, and global warming.
This thoughtful account explains how official responses become institutionalized in organizations and professional bodies that have an interest in describing a threat in ways they can manage."-Foreign Affairs

Publishers Weekly
Wuthnow (American Mythos) surveys the cultural response to the “prospect of devastation, even annihilation” in this provocative if uneven study. Relying on government reports, scientific studies, poll results, novels and films, and extensive interviews, the author examines the response of Americans to a series of apocalyptic threats since WWII: nuclear holocaust, pandemic influenza, terrorism, and global warming. He categorically dismisses suggestions that “denial and immobilization” have been the default responses of Americans facing disaster and argues instead that “we have responded quite aggressively.” The “great outpouring of cultural activity” in the face of these crises suggests our propensity to creatively search for solutions, not to be paralyzed by fear. But given their daunting scope and complexity, individual action has largely yielded to collective action, and these “crises have essentially become institutionalized” in large-scale organizations like the Department of Homeland Security. A solidly resourced, cogently analyzed, and persuasively argued brief. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199730872
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/7/2010
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. He is the author of numerous articles and books about American culture, including American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short and Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Christianity.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

1 Perilous Times

2 The Nuclear-Haunted Era

3 What to Mobilize Against

4 Waging War on Terror

5 Weapons of Mass Destruction

6 Panics and Pandemics

7 Environmental Catastrophe

8 Setting a New Agenda

9 The Call for Action

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

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