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A History of Who Scares Us and Why

by Mark Stein

Pub Date: May 20th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-137-27902-6
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

A fresh take on the outbursts of hysteria over witches, Catholics, women, communists, gays, Muslims, illegal aliens and others that have occurred throughout American history.

Stein (How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines, 2011, etc.) explores the common source for political panics: the irrational fear that one’s government is in danger. Beginning with the 1692 Salem witch trials, the author describes how Americans have acted out of fears of conspiracy and fears based on stereotypes in an effort to make the world comprehensible. The richly detailed episodes recounted here are often quite familiar, but Stein brings a new perspective to understanding how they came about, what they have in common and how the panics sometimes link to one another. In an early hallmark of political panic, Native Americans were deemed vile, and accusers engaged in heinous acts (ethnic cleansing) against them. Biblical justifications fostered hysteria over African-Americans, gays, women and Muslims. Secrecy, real or imagined, spurred fear of freemasons and the Chinese. The most enduring panic, over the danger of African-Americans, predates the American Revolution and soared after the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation reached a mass audience. There was never widespread panic over Jews, perhaps since they lacked a homeland and the equivalent of a pope. Most panics are fueled by unverified claims, an insistence on absolutes and the assertion that correlation is causation. Alarmists cannot be stereotyped: They include both the ignorant and the well-educated, and they are often opportunists—e.g., power broker Thurlow Weed, who benefited from the anti-Masonic movement, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose anti-Red raids of the 1920s factored into his presidential ambitions.

Popular history that will appeal to readers of the author’s How the States Got Their Shapes.