Fear Factor: Swine Flu, Nuclear Weapons, Reacting to Doom
Robert Wuthnow discusses his new book 'Be Very Afraid'
A child of the early Cold War, Robert Wuthnow says he's always had an interest in how society copes with the fear
of its own extinction. His new book,
Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats,
offers some surprising insights into how humans think about themselves and their capacity to face peril. The editor of the Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion and head of the
What prompted you to write about fear?
I've studied issues of culture, religion, and the arts, and I've always been puzzled by the literature on the threat of annihilation. For more than six decades, humankind has lived with the knowledge that it could be the agent of its own annihilation. We are constantly reminded of crises large and small, present and anticipated. I wanted to understand what effect this awareness has had on our culture. It was always assumed that we live in a state of denial about the scope and nature of these dangers, but I've come to believe that that's not true. We actually pay quite a bit of attention to existential threats and those fears affect the way we think about life.
What have you learned?
That we are fundamentally problem solvers. We like to think of ourselves as can-do people even when the problems seem really, really huge, like climate change or nuclear weapons. We don't just recoil in fear and put our heads in the sand. We tend to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable parts and address them as scientists, individuals, and governments. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. But as I read the evidence, we want to think that whatever the problem, we'll at least try to solve it or go down trying.
Is this a uniquely American response or would the Greeks, faced with the barbarian hoards, respond in a similar way?
I suspect that this penchant for problem solving is not uniquely American. One of the things that's different, perhaps more different than we realize, is that even though we as a nation are a religious culture, we've moved away from understanding these threats in a superstitious or metaphysical way. Sure, some preachers on television blame certain things on acts of God, but that's not really how as a society we understand them. Many of the people that I interviewed for the book, who themselves were quite religious, wouldn't say that God would intervene and solve the problem. There's a good bumper sticker which exemplifies this idea, that says: "Jesus Is Coming, Look Busy." That's what we do.
Are there similarities in how we deal with each of the threats you outline?
The country learned a lot from the Cold War; for instance, that scientists are really in charge. That made sense then because scientists made nuclear weapons in the first place. That's served us quite well because we now have the
Some argue that many crises are manufactured to justify a new government department or a surrender of freedoms.
In some ways, that argument is too simple. Climate change really does threaten our existence and millions could die from a pandemic or a weapon of mass destruction attack in a major city. We do need action to prepare for and guard against these threats. We have a built-in propensity to act, but we need to engage in the right actions. The complicated part of all of this is figuring out why we so often respond inappropriately.
What about the deeply anti-scientific strain in our culture, from climate science to evolution?
An anti-science attitude is part of the issue. I'm quite sure that during the Middle Ages, there was popular skepticism toward the priesthood or the king. These days, there is both a great deal of trust placed in the government and scientists, but there is also a good deal of skepticism in their solutions. That's the population trying to keep those people honest. So, on the one hand, there's the popular skepticism at dire predictions, say, about a flu pandemic. But on the other hand, there's an anger when scientists and the government don't heed their own dire warnings, like with Hurricane Katrina.
Does this break down by education?
Fear transcends education. That's the result of living in an information age. But there is a great deal of difference. People with more education tend to process information in different ways. Doesn't always mean that they process it correctly, but they are more rigorous. Efforts to reduce complicated issues down to sound bites, for instance, a kind of fear mongering, is not as effective with groups of people who have higher levels of education.
Does the media contribute positively to this debate?
We are exposed to many voices whether we mean to be or not. On
What are you afraid of?
Pandemics. If a deadly virus did mutate, that could really spread far and wide and come in subtle and sudden ways. It doesn't keep me up at night, but when swine flu came, we got Tamiflu. Two of my children ended up catching swine flu. And we still have a garage full of water and canned food, just in case.
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United States: Fear Factor: Swine Flu, Nuclear Weapons, Reacting to Doom | Alex Kingsbury
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