“It’s impossible to imagine Trump’s presidency absent a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety,” says Sasha Abramsky, author of Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. In this interview with Truthout, Abramsky discusses how fear is often used as a lens through which to understand a rapidly changing world, and why a culture of fear is destructive to democracy.
Mark Karlin: To what degree has the sensationalistic coverage of events like mass shootings and suspected terrorism, particularly on television with its vivid images, contributed to a country in a state of fear?
Sasha Abramsky: The thing about fear is that it’s a very sticky emotion: The neuroscience on this suggests that once one has developed a fear of something — be it a person of a particular color or a method of traveling (flying, say), be it a certain animal or a particular disease — it’s very hard to un-learn that fear. This would be bad enough if it took primary experience of something to develop such a fear. But what makes it far worse is that fear is also extremely easy to acquire as a result of indirect exposure to something.
A generation ago, local TV news took tabloid sensationalism to the next level with the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra, meaning, of course, that any gory, violent story, filled with criminals and with victims was a “gimme” for the headlines, because it guaranteed an audience, was cheap to produce, didn’t involve an understanding of context and so on. Today, a generation on, all of that has been ramped up. So, our news is filled with stories of, as you say, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, rapes, and so on. Now I’m not saying there’s no room for coverage of these issues; obviously, if there is a big terrorist attack, any responsible editor would have an obligation to give the story prominence. But what seems to be happening now is that in the era of endless “breaking news” headlines, click-bait stories, the expectation of minute-by-minute news updates on smartphones, tablets and so on, we have entered this moment where we, as a society … feel cheated without these stories….
It’s impossible to imagine Trump’s presidency absent a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety.
And so, we watch these stories; we horrify ourselves time after time after time, and it validates our fears and our anxieties; it allows us to form psychological, and even political, communities with fear as the bonding agent. As I reported [in] Jumping at Shadows, I was continually struck by how the people I interviewed were using their fear — not necessarily consciously — as a lens through which to understand their rapidly changing world, their shifting economic and cultural and political environments. It’s extraordinary, because when fear acquires such currency, almost such cultural cache, it opens the door to a very demagogic, strongman kind of politics. And we saw this, of course, during the last presidential election campaign. And today, we’re seeing it in how the Trump presidency operates — this endless churning of fear, this endless pitting of “us” against “them.”
You site the estimated 60,000 deaths due to Vioxx around the turn of the century as an example of how pharmaceuticals often can pose a risk, but that in general, that is not one of the things Americans fear greatly. Why?
When I spoke with Ralph Nader about this, he said to me that we tend to acquire mainly the fears that corporations want us to acquire. We’re terrified of terrorism, for example, which allows us as a society to then invest hundreds of billions of dollars over the years in an endless “war on terror.” Now terrorism is an awful thing, and it certainly has ruined many, many lives in recent years. But it’s not the only thing, or the most lethal thing, that can and does harm us. Non-terrorist, non-political gun violence kills somewhere in the region of 30,000 Americans each year, victims of murders, suicides or accidents. Yet more Americans are scared of gun control than of the guns themselves. It’s a fear that has been shaped by a very powerful gun lobby — the NRA — but also the gun manufacturers and sellers. Similarly, every few years, there is a pharmaceutical debacle, whereby a drug is over-marketed to vulnerable patients, despite warning signs that it has very dangerous side-effects. Vioxx is one example. But when you talk to people about their fears, few people will list bad medicines as amongst their top terrors, despite the absolutely huge body count that comes with such scandals.
Throughout Jumping at Shadows, this is one of the leitmotifs that fascinates me: Why we fear some things so profoundly, perhaps to the point of irrationality, whereas other things we shrug off, ignore, respond to with, at best, a yawn. You know, in a rational world, we’d be really very fearful of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as the concentration of vast destructive power in the hands of a few global leaders: Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping in China and the other leaders of the nuclear states. Yet, until the recent flare-up in tensions with North Korea, nuclear weapons have existed largely outside of popular consciousness since the end of the Cold War. It’s such an overwhelming issue that it’s easier to psychologically offload, to focus on other, smaller, more relatable fears instead. I guess the same holds for climate change, which even after all of the recent hurricanes and epic wildfires, even after all of the evidence that icecaps are melting, that species are dying off as the climate changes, doesn’t seem to have really grabbed the American imagination. Yes, more Americans are scared of climate change today than was the case a decade ago, but it’s still a relatively small group of people. And yet, this really is something with such vast potential for harm that we should be focusing much more of our political and emotional energies on it.
Promulgating fear is not a good way of creating community. It’s certainly not a good way of shaping our national political conversation.
I’m not arguing in my book that there is no place for big-picture fears. What I’m arguing is that the way we experience fear, and the way we calculate risk — to us as individuals, to our family, to our broader community — is often way off-base. And as a result, oftentimes a politician who stokes such fears can reap tremendous political advantage, not because their policies make sense or really do work to make society safer, but because they sound good to an audience fed this drip-drip diet of fear stories, and to an audience primed to be deeply fearful of an array of different things, people, cultures, religions and so on.
Can you provide some examples of how business has profited off a state of fear?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier, the “war on terror” is a good example here. The way we have reinvented national security, the way we have bounced from one war in the Middle East to another, the amounts of money we now spend on surveillance — both at the national and international level, but also at the level of private companies and of local neighborhoods — is absolutely stunning. Now, of course, we should be investing in a security infrastructure to protect us from terror networks. But we shouldn’t be doing so at the expense of other vital investments — such as adequate public health infrastructure so that we can tackle emerging epidemics and prepare for the possibility of a global pandemic in an age of easy international air travel. You know, in my book, I detail examples of private companies piggy-backing off of parents’ fears in the wake of school shootings at Sandy Hook and elsewhere. Some companies are developing technologies, such as monitors that can detect where a bullet was fired from, so as to direct police in the right direction during a shooting. Some is simply exploitative, such as the companies marketing bulletproof backpacks that parents can send their kids to school with. This stuff would be comical if it weren’t actually true. It’s not going to save lives, and it certainly has the potential to generate a whole lot of deeply neurotic kids. But it also has the potential to generate revenue for these companies. When I encounter stories like that, it fills me with sadness, and also makes me quite angry. Each generation has its snake oil salesmen. These, it seems to me, are ours.
You state that Trump benefited from the fear trap. Can you elaborate?
Well, I’ve already talked about this somewhat in my earlier answers. But to get more specific: Trump feeds off of fear. It’s impossible to imagine Trump’s presidency absent a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety. An optimistic, hopeful electorate would shun someone of Trump’s demagogic temperament. But with fear, the implausible suddenly becomes plausible. If you look at Trump’s language over the past years, he has identified a large number of fears that he can use to political effect. These range from fears of Muslims to fears of young African-American and Latino men; from fears of an uncontrolled, perhaps uncontrollable border to fears of epidemic disease. He has made some remarkably dangerous statements as he sought to consolidate his support using fear as a solvent. For example, he sided, at one point, with the anti-vaccine movement, seeming to sympathize with the idea that vaccines — which the overwhelming majority of responsible scientists support as a vital public health pillar — cause autism. He declared that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. He declared that Mexicans were “rapists” and “drug dealers.” He averred that Islamic terrorism was such an existential threat that it justified a complete “ban” on the entry of Muslims into America, and the imposition of both torture and collective punishment against suspected terrorists and their families. This is, quite simply, the darkest, darkest form of demagoguery. And, in a fearful age, it’s created a really dangerous political movement.
How is much of the gun culture based on fear?
Weapons trainers often talk to their clients about the need to maintain a permanent state of alert, what some of them term “Code Yellow.” It basically implies one should go through life in a state of wariness, always looking out of the corner of one’s eyes for trouble, always thinking through how to respond when — and it’s always when, not if — the worst occurs. Now, that’s great for gun sales; if you’re always ready for violence, you’ll likely want weaponry to protect yourself. But it’s not at all good for our sense of community. I really do believe that community involves trust; not naivety, not a suspension of one’s rational faculties, but a willingness to at least imagine that people might be trying to do good instead of bad. I really do think that when we, as a society, go down a road where millions of people are more and more heavily armed, ultimately, really bad things happen. It’s an unsustainable path, one that leads to such a morally corrupted, Mad Max vision that … society itself will eventually cave in under the weight.
How, then, does one work toward calibrating fear to match real risk?
When I was deep into the research for my book, I spoke with Damian Stanley, a computational neuroscientist [from] Cal-Tech about how the brain calculates risk. We do this without much, if any, conscious input. Essentially, we see or hear or smell or touch or taste something, and at something approaching warp speed, a huge number of things happen in our brain — in parts of the brain like the amygdala. We start running patterns through our vast collection of mental files, to see if anything leaps out as familiar. We look for patterns that might resemble something good or bad, something safe or risky that we’ve experienced before. If alarm bells start going off — if we start detecting risk — the brain sends out this huge set of instructions to different parts of the body: increase the heart rate so blood pumps more effectively to the muscles, in case we need to flee or to fight. Narrow the focus of the eyes, so we can concentrate on the immediate threat. Send out adrenaline. Send out cortisol, warning that things might be going awry. And so on. This is all the non-conscious parts of our brain operating at a speed far, far in excess of anything the conscious “us” might be capable of. One of the things Stanley explained to me was that the brain is continually trying to calibrate risk, based on patterns from the past. We’re running this massive set of probability computations 24/7. But if an event is overwhelming and unfamiliar — the 9/11 terrorist attacks, say — those patterns aren’t there. The brain realizes it’s facing a huge threat, but it can’t accurately calculate risk because it doesn’t have previous experience to fall back on. In such a situation, Stanley hypothesized, it makes sense to go for overwhelming caution. The brain sort of assumes the worst possible scenario is what is happening, and so it starts over-calculating risk, the probability of an event occurring, or of a series of events based on the first one, occurring over time.
Because so much of this initial response occurs without our conscious input, there’s not a huge amount we can do initially to redo our immediate risk assessment. But in the long-run, precisely because we are a thinking, analytic species, we do have the ability to second-guess, to try to work out whether our initial reactions make sense, to try to calibrate risk better.
In the reporting for my book, the people who most impressed me were those willing to challenge their initial gut-check reactions about things, be it the risk of disease contagion or the risk of their children personally being hurt if they were allowed to play outdoors, say. I met fascinating people: crime victims who were trying to understand what had happened to them, and what had motivated the people who had hurt them; parents who had decided to limit the amount of local TV news they watched because they realized it was ramping up their fears beyond all reason; people who were standing up, in deeply conservative parts of the country, to protect Muslim neighbors who were falling victim to increased incidences of Islamophobia. And so on. These people gave me hope — that there are ways to dial down the fear rhetoric, and also to stand up to that unleashed fear and to posit better, more humane alternatives. I don’t think, in the long run, that promulgating fear is a good way of creating community. It’s certainly not a good way of shaping our national political conversation. I really do think that we can jump at shadows for only so long. At the end of the day, a culture of fear is just so destructive of who we are as a people, so destructive of optimism and of hope, that I don’t think it’s ultimately a viable way of structuring a democratic, pluralist society.