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There has never been another era in modern history, even during wartime or the Great Depression, when so many people have feared so much. Three out of four Americans say they feel more fearful today then they did twenty years ago. The Culture of Fear describes the high costs of living in a fear-ridden environment where realism has become rarer than doors without deadbolts.Why do we have so many fears these days? Are we living in exceptionally dangerous times? To watch the news, you’d certainly think so, but ...
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There has never been another era in modern history, even during wartime or the Great Depression, when so many people have feared so much. Three out of four Americans say they feel more fearful today then they did twenty years ago. The Culture of Fear describes the high costs of living in a fear-ridden environment where realism has become rarer than doors without deadbolts.Why do we have so many fears these days? Are we living in exceptionally dangerous times? To watch the news, you’d certainly think so, but Glassner demonstrates that it is our perception of danger that has increased, not the actual level of risk. The Culture of Fear is an expose of the people and organizations that manipulate our perceptions and profit from our fears: politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime and drug use even as rates for both are declining; advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases; TV newsmagazines that monger a new scare every week to garner ratings.Glassner spells out the prices we pay for social panics: the huge sums of money that go to waste on unnecessary programs and products as well as time and energy spent worrying about our fears.
Start with silly scares, the kind that would be laughable were they not advanced with utter seriousness by influential organizations, politicians, and news media. Promoted by the same means as other fears—and often to the same ends—they afford a comfortable entry point into the fear mongers' bag of tricks. It becomes easier to recognize how we are bamboozled about serious concerns, having seen the same techniques at work in the promotion of frivolous dangers.
Scenarios Substitute for Facts
"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it," said the ultimate master of terror, Alfred Hitchcock. Fear mongers regularly put his wisdom to use by depicting would-be perils as imminent disasters. "They're all around you, everywhere you drive, waiting to explode," exclaimed an announcer at the beginning of ABC's newsmagazine "20/20" in 1996, devoted to what he called "a growing American danger—road rage." Hugh Downs, the program's coanchor, continued the ruse. Eliciting viewers' everyday experiences, he recast them as portentous. "How many times have you been bullied on the road, honked at or tailed, cursed at by another driver? Maybe you've done this yourself. Well, tonight, you will see again where this kind of aggression can lead," said Downs, insinuating that viewers had already anticipated what Tom Jarriel, the reporter whose story he then introduced, was about to detail.
A seemingly innocuous beep of the car horn can lead, Jarriel said, to "anger so explosive it pushes people over the edge: fist fights, evenshootings, between perfect strangers." Out in the real world, people honk their horns all the time without getting socked or shot, but in the fluid logic of Jarriel's narrative stark imagery and atypical anecdotes eclipsed reality. "It happens without warning to ordinary people," Jarriel said, and to prove the point, he interviewed a man who was shot in the face after cutting someone off on a highway.
Oprah Winfrey, in a program on road rage in 1997, used the same approach. First she transmuted familiar occurrences into a huge new danger. "We've all been there. It starts out with the tap of the horn, an angry gesture, a dirty look ..., " she declared. Then she proceeded to recount a few actual incidents in which the outcome was a shooting or fistfight. That expressions of annoyance almost never intensify to a shooting or fight was beside the point. "This is a show that affects so many people," she said, and then cleverly produced an impressive but ultimately meaningless number. "This woman's biggest offense was pulling out of her driveway ... countless millions of you have done that," she said in the course of introducing someone who had been attacked by another driver.
Journalists in the print media used a slightly different tactic. Call it the foreshadowing anecdote. After relaying the gory details of a particular instance of highway violence, they asserted that the given example "raises the overarching question of road anarchy" (Time) or represents "just the latest case of `road rage' to gain national attention" (USA Today). A page-one story in the Los Angeles Times in 1998 declared that "road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country" and depicted the Pacific Northwest as a region particularly "plagued by a rise in road rage." Only after wading through twenty-two paragraphs of alarming first-person accounts and warnings from authorities did the reader learn that a grand total of five drivers and passengers had died in road rage incidents in the region over the previous five years.
An average of one death a year constitutes a plague? The only other statistical evidence the reporter managed to muster was from a study released in 1997 by the American Automobile Association. Cited habitually in stories about road rage, the AAA study afforded reporters an opportunity to declare that incidents of road rage had "been rising 7% a year" (Los Angeles Times), or as People magazine put it, "more than 50 percent since 1990." I found only one article that put the AAA's findings in proper perspective: a piece in U.S. News & World Report noted that, of approximately 250,000 people killed on roadways between 1990 and 1997, the AAA attributed 218 deaths, or less than one in a thousand, directly to angry drivers. And of the 20 million motorists injured during that period the AAA attributed less than 1 percent of those injuries to aggressive driving.
Big percentages do not necessarily have big numbers behind them. The dramatic "up more than 50%" statistic in the AAA study derived from the difference between two relatively modest figures: the number of traffic incidents that involved major violence in 1990 (1,129) compared to 1996 (1,800). An increase of 671 incidents in fifty states over seven years is hardly "a growing epidemic" (USA Today's description of road rage). Nor does it warrant the thousands of stories about road rage that appeared in print and on radio and television—coverage that helped produce the 671 figure in the first place. The AAA derived their estimates from newspaper, police, and insurance reports, all of which are influenced by hype. The more talk there is about road rage, the more likely are newspaper reporters, police officers, and insurance agents to classify as examples of it incidents that they would have ignored altogether or catalogued differently in the past.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Pygmalion effect, in deference to George Bernard Shaw. In Shaw's Pygmalion, Liza comes to appreciate that, as she puts it to Colonel Pickering, "the difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaves, but how she's treated." Posits Liza, during an exchange with the Colonel, "I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will."
In the late 1990s police and reporters treated all variety of highway mishaps as road rage. One evening in 1998 the lead image on local news shows in Los Angeles was a car that had been sliced in half by a truck on a freeway. The fatal accident had been caused by the driver going up an exit ramp in the wrong direction, but reporters and highway patrol officers labeled it "another case of road rage." Their justification? Witnesses reported the driver had been tailgating a van just moments earlier. At the time she drove up the exit ramp and into oncoming traffic she was neither a perpetrator nor victim of road rage, but because she may have acted aggressively in the recent past the incident could be counted as road rage.
A few days after that incident, when an off-duty prison guard was shot dead on a freeway ramp, police and reporters described the event as "a random act of violence, like other examples of so-called road rage violence plaguing the nation's motorists" (Los Angeles Times). This time too the characterization was unfounded. The victim's husband, who had been driving the car, let police know immediately after the event that it was neither random nor an instance of road rage. According to his account, their assailants had followed them from a shopping mall, forced them to pull off the road, and stolen money. It was when his wife pulled out her state corrections officer badge, the husband reported, that they shot her. Police later suspected the husband himself in the murder, but never was road rage a likely hypothesis.
Bad People Substitute for Bad Policies
Stories about road rage left little doubt as to what, or rather who, was Responsible—vicious strangers. Over the past decade or so police and reporters had warned of disparate new categories of creeps out to get us—home invasion robbers, carjackers, child nabbers, deranged postal workers. Now they were issuing an even broader warning. Everywhere we go are "strangers in their cars, ready to snap, driven to violence by the wrong move," the announcer on "20/20" cautioned. Indeed, Tom Jarriel went on to suggest, "the most disturbing aspect of the growing trend toward roadway violence is that we can't choose who we drive with on the highways."
In just about every contemporary American scare, rather than confront disturbing shortcomings in society the public discussion centers on disturbed individuals. Demented drivers rather than insane public policies occupied center stage in the coverage of road rage. Where reference was made at all to serious problems that drivers face, these were promptly shoved behind a curtain of talk about violent motorists. "Roads are more crowded all the time, which means more delays and more frustration," National Public Radio's Alex Chadwick reported, but rather than pursue the point with insights from, say, experts on mass transit, he quotes someone from the AAA who contends that driving "frees the beast" in people.
In USA Today reporter Patrick O'Driscoll notes that 70 percent of urban freeways are clogged at rush hour (up 15 percent over the past fifteen years) and that traffic exceeds road capacity in most U.S. cities. Did he then go on to consider possibilities for relieving the congestion? On the contrary, his next sentence began, "Faced with tempers boiling over like radiators in rush-hour gridlock, police agencies are seeking ways to brand aggressive driving as socially unacceptable ..."
Rather than traffic experts journalists spotlighted police officials, who understandably took the opportunity to urge the hiring of more officers. Or reporters turned to so-called experts such as Arnold Nerenberg, a psychologist who dubs himself "America's road-rage therapist" and runs a web site (www.roadrage.com) where he brags that he has been featured in dozens of TV programs and magazines. Not a researcher, Nerenberg nonetheless offers authoritative-sounding sound bites that support reporters' portrayal of highway violence as personal pathology. "There's a deep psychological urge," he tells Newsweek, "to release aggression against an anonymous other." Road rage is "a mental disorder that is contagious," USA Today quotes him. In an interview with the New York Times, Nerenberg called on the American Psychiatric Association to add road rage to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). At some point in their lives, he said, more than half of the U.S. population suffers from the disorder, which Nerenberg described on ABC's "World News Tonight" as "an adjustment reaction disorder."
Such psychoblather only obscures what even Nerenberg himself knows to be the primary instrument of murder on the nation's roadways. Asked directly by People magazine whether there is truly any difference between now and twenty years ago, Nerenberg allows, "One thing that makes the problem worse is that we have more Americans arming themselves. Millions of us illegally carry loaded weapons. The more guns in cars, the greater the chance they'll be used."
Most of the coverage of road rage, however, shamelessly disregarded the import of firearms, even though the AAA study found that offenders in road rage incidents often use guns to kill or injure their victims. On Oprah Winfrey's show devoted to road rage the murder of one driver by another was recounted tearfully and in detail by the victim's fiancé as well as by the man who killed him. But at no point in the program did anyone mention that the victim would almost certainly have survived had there not been a gun involved. In fact, when Winfrey brought on the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, his only mention of weapons was metaphoric. He referred to cars as "three-thousand-pound weapons."
Experts who do try to direct attention to the matter of guns seldom succeed. In a road rage story on CNN occasioned by a fatal shooting, the local district attorney counseled against "too many guns in cars" and made a comparison: "When you go to Canada, they ask you, `Do you have any guns in your car,' because you have to check them at their border. If you're coming from Canada to this country, they ask you if you have any fruit." Rather than pursue the matter CNN correspondent Dennis O'Hayer promptly shifted the focus. "Even if you don't have a gun, your own driving tactics could be setting you up for a dangerous face-off," he said. Someone identified as a traffic columnist with the Atlanta Constitution then proceeded to urge viewers against death-defying acts such as "getting in the left lane and holding up traffic."
One of my initial hypotheses about why pseudodangers receive so much attention was that they provide opportunities to talk about, and perhaps rectify, problems too big to face in their totality. Stupefied by the quantity of guns on the streets, we might focus on doing something about the much smaller number in cars. My hypothesis could not have been farther from the truth. Pseudodangers represent further opportunities to avoid problems we do not want to confront, such as overcrowded roads and the superabundance of guns, as well as those we have grown tired of confronting. An example of the latter is drunk driving, a behavior that causes about eighty-five times as many deaths as road rage (about 17,000 versus 200). Close to half of all fatal traffic crashes involve alcohol, and three in five Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some point in their lives. Moved by those statistics and by the advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, journalists had covered the issue of drunk driving in a sound and sustained way throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Thanks in part to that coverage, the number of alcohol-related highway deaths plunged by 31 percent between 1982 and 1995. Fatality rates fall twice as rapidly, studies find, in years of high media attention compared to those of relatively little attention. Intensive coverage permits passage of powerful laws, creation of sobriety checkpoints, and new notions such as the "designated driver," all of which save lives.
Yet by the mid-1990s groups like MADD were finding it difficult to be heard in the media over the noise about road rage and other trendy issues. In the years that followed the fatality rate stopped declining. Polls taken on the eastern seaboard during the late 1990s found people more concerned about road rage than drunk driving. Who could blame them when they read in their local paper, "It's not drunken or elderly or inexperienced drivers who are wreaking havoc. Instead, scores of people are severely injured or killed every day by stressed-out drivers who have abandoned civil roadway behavior" (Philadelphia Daily News).
The Power of Calling Something "P.C."
If the first of those two sentences by Don Russell of the Daily News inverted the truth about dangerous drivers, the second misled more broadly still. Russell is one of several writers on road rage who alluded to the issue of civility. Reporters variously raised the matter themselves or quoted police officers declaring that "people have forgotten how to be civil to each other" (USA Today). In so doing they exemplified another unfortunate hallmark of fear mongering: the tendency to trivialize legitimate concerns even while aggrandizing questionable ones.
Worries about Americans acting uncivilly toward one another date back at least to frontier days, and in our present era bad behavior behind the wheel is far from the most significant or pressing form of incivility. At a time when a disabled black man in Texas was beaten by racists then chained to a truck and dragged down a road to his death and a gay college student in Wyoming was tied to a fence, pistol-whipped, and left to die, we would do well to focus our sights on bigtime incivilities such as racism and homophobia. Instead we are diverted by willy-nilly references in stories about road rage, or worse, by fear mongers who intentionally set out to confuse matters.
One of the most effective scare campaigns of the late twentieth Century—political correctness on college campuses—was undertaken for the express purpose of changing the terms of debate about civility. The people who generated the scare did not phrase it in those terms, mind you; they couched their alarmism in First Amendment language. In the late 1980s conservative commentators began warning of what they described as "the greatest threat to the First Amendment in our history" (Rush Limbaugh), "the equivalent of the Nazi brownshirt thought-control movement" (Walter Williams), and "an ideological virus as deadly as AIDS" (David Horowitz).
President George Bush, in a commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1991, put the matter somewhat more soberly when he decried those who would "declare certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits." Some professors and students were indeed urging that certain categories of statements and gestures be eradicated from university life. Specifically, they sought to do away with racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior. If anything qualifies as uncivil in a diverse society, they argued, it is precisely these sorts of acts.
People who got chastised as PC were trying to create a more respectful and inclusive environment on campuses for groups that largely had been excluded—a goal that conservatives could not attack head-on lest they lose the already limited support they had in minority communities. Besides, far from being First Amendment absolutists themselves, many conservatives eagerly support restraints on a range of behaviors, from flag burning to the display of homoerotic art. So rather than engage in honest debate with campus liberals and progressives, conservatives labeled them "politically correct." Much the way their forebears had used the epithet "Communist" a few decades earlier, conservatives of the 1990s accused their enemies of being PC. Primarily by means of anecdotes retold time and again in political speeches, in the news media, and in popular books such as Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radical, they created an impression of armies of PC militants occupying the nation's colleges and universities.
Conservatives told, for instance, of a mob of 200 at the State University of New York at Binghamton who, armed with sticks and canes, invaded a lecture hall and threatened an elderly man who was giving a talk. According to pieces in the Wall Street Journal (one of them titled "The Return of the Storm Troopers"), the university's president did nothing about the hooligans because college presidents "live in terror of being politically incorrect."
Then there was the story of a class at Harvard on feminist theory taught by Alice Jardine, a professor of French. According to Dinesh D'Souza, who sat in on the class one day, a student delivered "ribald one-liners about a man who lost his penis ... and brought loud and unembarrassed laughter from the professor and other students."
Almost invariably, after such stories came out witnesses to the actual events debunked them. Participants at the Binghamton event, as well as a campus police investigator and one of the speakers, reported there had been no violence. The entire incident consisted, they said, of a single student who engaged in disruptive behavior for about four minutes, for which the university placed him on probation. About the class at Harvard, Alice Jardine subsequently explained that the discussion of the missing penis was actually about the myth of Osiris, a deity whose body parts were scattered throughout Egypt. Osiris's wife, Isis, buried each part as she found them. The phallus was never recovered; images of it, which are used in festivals, can be bought at tourist shops in Egypt.
Yet information correcting the faulty reports came out mostly in academic books and journals, not in the mass media. The general public was left with a highly inaccurate image of white men being mercilessly jeered and muzzled at America's public and private universities.
Granted, activists from the political left sometimes behaved with impudence or intolerance. Speakers were shouted down on occasion if they were perceived as racist, sexist, or antigay. The sum of those occurrences did not support, however, a claim that "the delegitimization, even demonization, of the white male has reached extreme lengths," as Paul Craig Roberts of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, put it in an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner in 1996. Guilefully trading on the memory of the Holocaust, Roberts went on to assert that affronts to white males on college campuses are "comparable to ... the denunciation of Jewry by anti-Semites."
Exaggerated assertions of that kind received more public notice than did the true patterns of discrimination and exclusion on U.S. campuses. Perhaps editors despaired of being called PC themselves if they ran the story, but there was an important story to be told. The data were rather shocking: on the eve of the twenty-first century women, blacks, and Hispanics, far from displacing white males in the professorate, mostly hold jobs at lower ranks and with lower pay. At the height of the PC scare, in the early and mid-1990s, women made up less than one-third of full-time faculty at American colleges and universities, a figure just slightly higher than in 1920, when women won the right to vote. Only about one in twenty professors was Hispanic or African American.
Research on students documented additional disturbing trends. Women and students of color often received less attention and encouragement in classrooms than did their white male counterparts, and outside of class they were the targets of tens of thousands of verbal and physical attacks each year. Gay and lesbian students likewise faced assaults, bigotry, and death threats. Even at famously liberal colleges gays and lesbians experienced prejudice. In a survey at Yale almost all gay and lesbian students said they had overheard antigay remarks, and one in four had been threatened. At Oberlin College nearly half of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students said they have to censor themselves when discussing gay issues.
For faculty members in the meantime, to be openly gay or lesbian at many colleges was to risk being denied tenure, promotion, and opportunities to move into administrative positions, research showed.
Smoke Trumps Fire
The PC scare demonstrates how an orchestrated harangue can drown out a chorus of genuine concern. Faculty and students would raise questions about inequities at their schools only to find themselves made into causes célèbres of anti-PC fear mongering.
Imagine how surprised people must have been at Chico State University in 1996 and 1997, when just about every prominent conservative commentator took out after them. "Totalitarianism didn't disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's alive and well on many American college campuses today," wrote Linda Chavez in a column in USA Today in reaction to an event at the previously unnoticed California school. Her comment was typical of the commentary by conservative essayists. Reading them, you would have thought that Chico State was under some sort of military occupation. The conservatives in fact were reacting to a one-word alteration in a help-wanted ad. "We are seeking a dynamic classroom teacher ...," the draft of an advertisement for a philosophy teacher had read. When a member of the university committee that reviews job ads questioned whether dynamic was the best word to describe the kind of teacher the program was actually seeking, the word was replaced by excellent. Some highly effective teachers do not have dynamic personal styles, the English professor had observed, and vice versa, some high-spirited teachers do not actually have much worthwhile knowledge. In addition, she suggested, the term dynamic may unintentionally discriminate against candidates from certain Asian and Hispanic backgrounds in which personal styles tend to be more unassuming.
Just about everyone involved at Chico State had concurred with the editorial revision, yet in the months that followed the editing of the ad conservatives took every opportunity to assail the modification as PC degeneracy. "This episode typifies the sorry state of higher education today: Academes are so afraid of offending people that they're afraid to ask for strong teachers," Debra Saunders, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, blasted without bothering to explain her assumption that excellent teachers are not strong. In San Francisco's other paper, the Examiner, Paul Roberts of the Cato Institute suggested that the secret plan at Chico was to exclude white men from faculty positions. "All qualifications are restrictive, which explains their de-emphasis and the plight of overrepresented white males in our brave new world of equal outcomes," Roberts wrote.
By this point in the PC scare sense and sensibility had become optional. Once a pseudodanger becomes so familiar it ends up in the dictionary (not to say the title of a popular TV show hosted by comedian Bill Maher), argument and evidence are dispensable. Indeed, in the late 1990s some of the best-known conservative columnists, no longer feeling obliged to diagnose particular incidents of political correctness in any depth, simply threw out bunches of ostensible examples. George Will, in a piece disparaging what he called "sensitivity-soaked Chico," went on to complain about an entry in a mail-order catalogue for kindling wood "felled by lightning or other natural causes." Even mail-order companies have to act PC, Will bemoaned, "lest the friends of trees have their feelings hurt." John Leo, of U.S. News & World Report, likewise included Chico in a laundry list of what he dubbed "p.c. crimes and misdemeanors." His sardonic subhead—"Wanted: Lethargic New Teacher"—was rather mild compared to some others in the same column. Beneath the heading "Tired of Education? Try Gender Courses" Leo warned that "p.c. folk" have been "working to replace useful college courses with dubious ones." He cited as examples "The Politics of Dance Performance" offered at Swarthmore and "Christianity, Violence and Victimization" at Brown.
Both Leo and Will banked on the improbability that anyone would look into their examples. The courses Leo cited did not replace other courses; they were added as electives. Nor did the courses represent dubious additions to the curriculum. A well-educated student of a particular art form ought to know something about its political dimensions, and the serious study of a religion necessarily includes attention to dishonorable as well as glorious moments in its history. As for the mail-order catalogue—the company was merely trying to make an unexceptional product sound special, a common practice in direct marketing.
Success Doesn't Come Cheap
If so many of their examples were untenable, how did conservatives engender such a successful scare? How did it come about that politically correct, a phrase hardly used in the media prior to Bush's speech in 1991, appeared in the nation's major newspapers and magazines more than 5,000 times a year in the mid-1900s? In 1997, the last year for which data were available, it appeared 7,200 times.
The short but not incorrect answer is money. Behind the scenes millions of dollars were spent to generate that level of noise. Right-wing foundations such as Coors, Olin, and Bradley, along with corporate and individual contributors, provided funding for a national network of organizations: such think tanks as the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute; conservative college newspapers, including the Dartmouth Review, where Dinesh D'Souza got his start; magazines such as William F. Buckley's National Review and David Horowitz's Heterodoxy; and faculty groups, most notably the National Association of Scholars. With an annual budget in the vicinity of $1 million, the NAS had the wherewithal to provide politicians and the press with an unending supply of sound bites, anecdotes, and op-eds.
In an article in Skeptic magazine on what he termed "the great p.c. conspiracy hoax" Brian Siano of the University of Pennsylvania compared the strategies of the NAS to a national magazine that asks its readers to send in accounts of psychic experiences or sightings of flying saucers. Such a request would inevitably produce loads of testimonials. "One might be able to debunk one or two accounts, but the rest of this database would remain `unchallenged,' to be trotted out by the faithful as often as possible," Siano suggests. "Now imagine," he adds, "if you could spend a half dozen years and millions of dollars on such a project."
Siano's comparison is apt. The NAS continually collected reports of political correctness gone amiss, packaged the best, and peddled them to the media. Anyone who dared challenge the reports quickly discovered the power of NAS's home-court advantage. In 1996 after USA Today quoted an NAS official's assertion that Georgetown University, as part of a general "dumbing down" of its curriculum, had decided to drop Shakespeare as a requirement for English majors, the dean at Georgetown responded that the school was doing nothing of the sort. Georgetown's curriculum for English majors includes more, not fewer, Shakespeare classes than in the past, he pointed out. Moreover, regardless of their major, all Georgetown students must complete twelve courses of general-education requirements, including two literature courses. This factual information from the dean did not appear, though, in the news story, but only later, in a letter-to-the-editor column.
When Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, picked up on NAS rhetoric and proclaimed that "most English departments are now held so completely hostage to fashionable political and theoretical agendas that it is unlikely Shakespeare can qualify as an appropriate author," journalists found the quote too juicy to resist. The image appeared widely in the press of PC thugs in ivory towers forcibly evicting the Bard. But when John Wilson, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, suspicious of the claim, consulted data from the Modern Language Association, he discovered that fully 97 percent of English departments at four-year colleges offered at least one course on Shakespeare. Almost two-thirds, he learned, required English majors to take a Shakespeare course. In the MLA's on-line bibliography, Shakespeare received nearly 20,000 entries—more than three times the next runner-up (James Joyce), and thirty-six times as many as Toni Morrison, reported Wilson. Wilson's correction to the NAS and Brustein et al. appeared, however, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the equivalent of a trade magazine.
To the extent that great literary works were being withheld from America's youth, PC forces were seldom to blame. The real censors, though they received scant attention, were people like the school superintendent in Maryland who banned Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon in 1997 after some parents called the classic of African-American literature "trash" and "anti-white." And they were conservatives in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. "The real danger to Shakespeare," Katha Pollitt accurately noted in The Nation, "is not that he will cease to be compulsory at elite colleges like Georgetown but that he will cease to be made available and accessible to a broad range of students." Throughout the 1980s and 1990s conservatives slashed budgets at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, and other public programs. Among the unfortunate results of those reductions in funding, such places as the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts, and the Folger Shakespeare Library had to curtail programs that train teachers and reach wide audiences.
Conservative politicians had whipped up popular support for such cuts in the first place by—you guessed it—portraying the public agencies as hotbeds of political correctness.
One Scare Supports Another
Once a scare catches on, not only do its advocates have the offensive advantage, as the Shakespeare follies illustrate, but they can also use the scare as a defensive weapon in other disputes. This chapter concludes with an important case in point, in which the PC label was actually used to countermand a scientific fact.
Anyone who commuted by bus or train in the Washington, D.C., area during the mid-1990s or sought an abortion in the South in that period will probably remember this fear campaign. More than one thousand advertisements appeared in buses and subway stations around Washington and Baltimore alluding to a scary statistic: "Women who choose abortion suffer more and deadlier breast cancer." In Louisiana and Mississippi legislators passed laws that require doctors to inform women twenty-four hours before an abortion that the procedure can increase their risk of breast cancer.
Some antiabortion activists had been pushing the point since the early 1980s, when it first became apparent that as the number of abortions rose in the years after 1973, when the procedure became legal, rates of breast cancer also increased. Not until 1994, however, did the news media pay much attention to prolifers' fear mongering. That year, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published an article in which researchers estimated that having an abortion might raise a woman's risk of breast cancer by 50 percent.
To their credit, journalists were circumspect about the study. In contrast to coverage of some other pseudodangers (road rage among them), the news media generally did an excellent job of putting in perspective the 50 percent figure. Reporters noted that other studies had found no increased risk, and that even if future research confirmed the figure, the import would be minimal for most women considering abortion. A 50 percent increased risk may sound large, but in epidemiologic terms it is not. It does not mean that if all women had abortions, half again as many would develop breast cancer; rather, it means that a woman's lifetime risk goes up by 50 percent. If she had a 10 percent probability of developing breast cancer, abortion would raise it to 15 percent. Heavy smoking, by comparison, increases the risk of developing lung cancer by 3,000 percent. Some studies suggest that living in a city or drinking one glass of alcohol a day raises the risk of breast cancer by greater than 50 percent.
Reporters generally did a laudable job the following year as well, when anti-abortion groups heralded two more studies. One estimated a 30 percent increased risk of breast cancer for women who have abortions; the other put the figure at 23 percent. Journalists explained that both studies suffered, as had earlier research, from a potential reporting bias that could substantially skew their results. They quoted the lead researcher on one of the studies, the epidemiologist Polly Newcomb of the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who noted that women battling breast cancer might be more likely than others to inform researchers that they had had abortions. Cancer patients are more accustomed to giving full and accurate medical histories, Newcomb suggested, and they are searching themselves for an explanation for their illness.
Strikingly, the lead researcher on the other study in 1995, an endocrinologist at Baruch College named Joel Brind, offered no such caveats. On the contrary, he told CNN, "The evidence is quite clear, in fact, it should have been out long ago." Brind advocated that every woman considering abortion be informed of the potential increased risk of breast cancer. When reporters checked into Brind's background, however, they learned that he is an antiabortion activist who contributes frequently to newsletters and web sites published by prolife groups. Richard Knox of the Boston Globe reported that Brind told him he had conducted the study specifically to provide legislators with justification for requiring doctors to warn women about a cancer risk.
With Brind as their medical mouthpiece, antiabortion groups intensified their scare drive throughout 1995 and 1996. Some persisted even after a massive study published in 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the earlier research had been flawed in precisely the ways Polly Newcomb and other experts suspected. Conducted by epidemiologists from the University of Copenhagen, the later study relied not on self-reports but on data produced through the mandatory registration in Denmark of births, cancer cases, and abortions. The scientists were able to compare 281,000 women who had had abortions with 1.2 million others who had not. They determined that neither group was more likely to develop breast cancer.
Joel Brind's rejoinder when a reporter from the Washington Post asked him to comment on the study? "This is an apparently large and powerful study with the politically correct result that is not scientifically correct," Brind said. At once reinforcing the PC scare and using it to defend another misbegotten terror, Brind vowed to continue his campaign of fear.
|Introduction: Why Americans Fear the Wrong Things|
|1||Dubious Dangers on Roadways and Campuses: How Fears Are Sold||1|
|2||Crime in the News: Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics||21|
|3||Youth at Risk: Faulty Diagnoses and Callous Cures||51|
|4||Monster Moms: On the Art of Misdirection||85|
|5||Black Men: How to Perpetuate Prejudice Without Really Trying||107|
|6||"Smack Is Back": When Presidents and the Press Collude, the Scares Never Stop||129|
|7||Metaphoric Illnesses: How Not to Criticize the Establishment||151|
|8||Plane Wrecks: Small Danger, Big Scare||181|
|9||Final Thoughts: The Martians Aren't Coming||203|
Posted March 3, 2000
Actual newspaper headline: The number of homicides committed by children age 12 and under grew by 125%! Should we be afraid of being done in by tiny tots? Well, the 125% increase brings the annual total up to about 40 per year. I would guess that means there are 40 bad eggs in a population of about 40 million little guys. The misleading reporting just recounted is what this book is all about. Only anecdotal evidence and misleading statistics typically support the latest report on the newest 'national menace'. Then, to really convince you that you should be frightened out of your wits, some second rate professional or scholar is quoted saying that things are just awful. A prominent west coast newspaper declared that the Pacific Northwest was a region particularly 'plagued by a rise in road rage', and then after 22 paragraphs of anecdotes and warnings, informed the reader that 5 people had died in road rage incidents in the region in the last five years. 'One death a year constitutes a plague?' asks the author. In my own experience I am frequently frustrated by these kinds of stories which are often found in the nation's two major newsweeklies (which publications come under frequent attack by Glassner). I am repeatedly asked to believe in some new horror for which only a few anecdotes are presented as support. The sad thing is that this unfortunate reporting has resulted in unnecessary laws; corporate bankruptcies; misapplication of scarce resources; and the ignoring of true problems and their causes. You may disagree with some of the author's views, but hopefully reading the book will make you more skeptical the next time a news anchor tries to inform you of the national danger brought about by the increasing number of people bludgeoned to death with a frozen leg of lamb.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.