NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Book Review: Sasha Abramsky’s Jumping At Shadows explores America’s culture of fear

Reg­gie Watts’ 2012 TED Talk had many unique obser­va­tions, but one has always stuck with me as par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful. In his words: “As we face fear in these times — and fear is all around us — we also have anti-fear.”

Jumping At Shadows book cover

Jump­ing at Shad­ows: The Tri­umph of Fear and the End of the Amer­i­can Dream, by Sasha Abram­sky (Hard­cov­er, Pub­li­cAf­fairs)

That line of satir­i­cal pseu­do-bab­ble was part of an impro­vised comedy/musical per­for­mance but has achieved a sur­pris­ing res­o­nance in years since, and it’s as con­cise a sum­ma­ry of jour­nal­ist Sasha Abram­sky’s lat­est book Jump­ing At Shad­ows as the one pro­vid­ed by the book’s pub­lish­er:

In this day and age, per­haps the thing that binds Amer­i­cans togeth­er most strong­ly is the fact that we’re afraid.

But are we afraid of the right things?

Abram­sky makes a con­vinc­ing case that we’re clear­ly not wor­ried enough about what’s actu­al­ly com­mon­ly dan­ger­ous and pre­ventable com­pared with things that are rare, unavoid­able, or out­right false.

A promi­nent exam­ple he gives is the wide­spread pan­ic in response to the U.S. por­tion of an ebo­la out­break that killed one per­son and infect­ed a total of four back in 2014. This out­break received a huge amount of media cov­er­age and gen­er­at­ed a lot of anx­i­ety. But while rel­a­tive­ly few peo­ple died from that ebo­la out­break, 12,000 to 56,000 Amer­i­cans have died from sea­son­al influen­za every year since 2010.

If this phe­nom­e­non is inter­est­ing to you, you should con­sid­er pick­ing up this book.

Each top­ic is sup­port­ed with data and sound rea­son­ing; each is impor­tant to the health and wel­fare of the nation going for­ward. But that also means the top­ics are so impor­tant, you’re sure to have heard about them before, includ­ing the pre­cise exam­ples Abram­sky looks at, from Dooms­day Prep­pers to the Texas boy who made a clock author­i­ties assumed to be a bomb because he was a Mus­lim.

“I believe that too often we cal­cu­late risk not by the prob­a­bil­i­ty of an event occur­ring but by the num­ber of news items or talk radio min­utes or Face­book post­ings or movie screens devot­ed to a top­ic,” the author writes.

Our inher­it­ed rodent brain does tend to make us lit­er­al­ly “jump at shad­ows”, and we’re neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly primed to skit­ter at pos­si­ble warn­ings like cats notic­ing vague­ly ser­pen­tine cucum­bers. (You know air­planes are safer than dri­ving, but your heart still races dur­ing tur­bu­lence more than pulling through an inter­sec­tion.)

Knowl­edge and change based on knowl­edge are very far apart.

Abram­sky admits as much while inter­view­ing par­ents who agree, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, that Amer­i­can soci­ety is actu­al­ly safer for chil­dren now than thir­ty years ago, that firearms in the home are more like­ly to be used against some­one in the house­hold than defend­ing it from any strangers.

But those par­ents still cling to ever-more guns and still fear their chil­dren walk­ing alone, even to gat­ed schools, even if wear­ing bul­let­proof back­packs.

The book promis­es “a play­book for how to conquer…the most fright­en­ing aspects of mod­ern life,” but if you’re feel­ing irra­tional fears, that play­book sounds like some­thing out of a Bob Newhart sketch on “Sat­ur­day Night Live”: Just stop it.

If that’s the best advice pos­si­ble, it’s the same one that Abram­sky crit­i­cizes regard­ing Dooms­day Prep­pers — a non-pro­gram­mat­ic, non-pol­i­cy sug­ges­tion.

Oth­er than feel­ing a sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty over big­ots, guns nuts, anti-vaxxers, and the like, what good does the read­er get out of any of it?

And that’s all tak­ing Abram­sky’s argu­ment at face-val­ue.

It gets worse if you start to inter­ro­gate it.

The sub­ti­tle of this book is The Tri­umph of Fear and the End of the Amer­i­can Dream. Abram­sky is argu­ing fear, pushed by cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy, is what makes indi­vid­u­als afraid of Mus­lim, immi­grant, and black Amer­i­cans, and what got Don­ald Trump elect­ed as pres­i­dent by the Elec­toral Col­lege in 2016.

Though Trump won in the Elec­toral Col­lege, it must be not­ed that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee, Hillary Clin­ton, won the nation­al pop­u­lar vote.

This is a much bet­ter result than we’ve had pre­vi­ous times in our his­to­ry that peo­ple pro­nounced the Amer­i­can Dream dead; Hunter S. Thomp­son had more rea­son to fear and loathe in ’72, con­sid­er­ing that elec­tion’s mar­gins. Did nativism, reli­gious intol­er­ance, and racism moti­vate us less in the past than now?

There’s one more flaw in the book that hurts it, and that’s a struc­tur­al one.

The intro­duc­tion tells the sto­ry of a trip the author took to South Amer­i­ca, where he was poi­soned by cigua­tox­in, appar­ent­ly from bad fish in Chile.

The symp­toms he expe­ri­enced were sim­i­lar to a heart attack but impos­si­ble to defin­i­tive­ly diag­nose. The poi­son­ing sapped his phys­i­cal strength but also his con­fi­dence, his will­ing­ness to take risks, every­thing, and all of it irra­tional­ly.

Abram­sky makes the con­nec­tion from his body to the body politic in the book’s intro­duc­tion, but does­n’t cir­cle back to make the con­nec­tion lat­er in the book. Which is a shame because the obvi­ous les­son from his per­son­al anec­dote is also seem­ing­ly the solu­tion the prob­lems the book is describ­ing.

You don’t push aside your fear of fly­ing pure­ly because of sta­tis­tics, but because some places you can’t get to quick­ly enough, or at all, except by plane.

You trav­el, you try new food, you let your chil­dren play and explore, because life is hard­ly worth liv­ing oth­er­wise.

Every attempt at elim­i­nat­ing risk also involves elim­i­nat­ing val­ue. We have to live our lives bal­anc­ing these things against each oth­er, counter-stack­ing wor­ries to achieve healthy equi­lib­ri­um. That’s a worth­while and effec­tive mes­sage to com­bat fear-mon­ger­ing. Because fear is all around us. But there is also anti-fear.

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