A provocative look at the science and psychology behind fear-based politics.
Demos senior fellow Abramsky’s (The House of Twenty Thousand Books, 2015, etc.) argument feels simultaneously complex and familiar: constant sensationalism via social media and selective journalism of the Fox News variety has overwhelmed rationality within society. “Our anxieties and terrors were being nurtured by people and institutions who stood to make a buck out of those fears,” he writes. “In the campaign for the US presidency in 2016, those fears were nurtured as never before.” This American tendency to make fundamental decisions “with worst-case-scenarios as a psychic backdrop” is creating a more oppressive society, particularly for the poor and people of color, while corporate or criminal interests may profit. In crisply organized chapters, the author links a particular fear-driven aspect of life, such as extreme firearm or “prepper” culture or obsessive “helicopter parenting,” to the science behind brain chemistry and pattern recognition that may explain the ease of conditioning us to be fearful. He notes this occurred on a national level following 9/11, when citizens permitted the attackers’ fanaticism “to dictate the terms of our policy discourse.” Similarly, Abramsky is disturbed by Donald Trump’s rhetorical embrace of torture, which he views as an attempt to make his supporters complicit in any such actions. While more benign, he draws connections to fear-based movements such as preppers or anti-vaccination parents as part of a broader trend against rational risk calculation: “It turns out that pretty bizarre understandings of risk and fear are the norm rather than the exception.” The author argues that neurologists are using MRIs to understand how “simple presentiments of risk” have left us vulnerable to the manipulations of bigots. Though his argument can seem broad or overly tailored to current trends, Abramsky presents a clearly written synthesis of science and sociology.
A thoughtful progressive feint against the vulgar fearmongering of the moment.