The Duct Tape Solution
Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats
Oxford University Press, USA
April 7, 2010
304 pp., $26.69
Conventional wisdom says that fear paralyzes people. And activists who preach about perils accuse Americans of being in denial. "Denial is not a river in Egypt," declared then-Senator Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance, reviving a familiar line from Mark Twain. In a recent interview, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow told Christianity Today that accusations of denial are mainly "rhetorical devices" designed to "get attention and mobilize people."
Wuthnow's new book, Be Very Afraid (Oxford University Press, 2010), examines "the cultural response to terror, pandemics, environmental devastation, nuclear annihilation, and other threats." He surveys the history of American responses to crises beginning with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He concludes that Americans tend not to freeze in the face of threat, but get busy and buy duct tape.
Is your book's title ironic?
Yes. As most everybody knows, it's from the 1986 movie The Fly—"Be afraid. Be very afraid." We have reason to fear some terrible catastrophes that might hit us, but fear has often been misunderstood and overplayed in the popular media. We don't usually just recoil from danger. We buck up, take courage, and try to face it.
Does being afraid help society face crises?
It does. To be blasé about everything isn't appropriate. We're learning from neuroscience that fear does not just prompt us into fight-or-flight syndrome but also into an engaged problem-solving mode. That can be quite useful.
Even accusations of denial can make us start thinking about our moral responsibilities: Am I sitting back and not being a good citizen? Am I not protecting my family?
In the book, you say that people think the normal response to fear is to freeze up, but in American society we actually do the opposite: we get busy.
In our society, we have a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-busy attitude. Much of the time, we don't know quite what to do and we waste effort, but we do take a problem-solving approach, whether that means doing something on a small scale to protect our family or following what scientists and government officials tell us we ought to do as a society.
Back in the fifties, children learned the duck-and-cover routine in case of nuclear attack. Today people replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents to help the environment. Are these individual actions usually on target?
A lot of the time, what we do really is helpful. But since risk is hard to calculate, we usually err, doing either too much or not enough.
For example, with the recent swine flu scare, my extended family was picking up a lot of information from the Internet and e-mails. Those sources said the new flu could really be terrible. Millions of people could die. You have to do something. So my wife and I bought Tamiflu and stockpiled extra water and food.
The extra water and food are still sitting there, despite the scary scenario that said there would be nobody well enough to run grocery stores.
On the other hand, when two of my grown children got swine flu, we used the Tamiflu, and it helped. So some of what you do is good preparation; some is useless.
How much has America's "Protestant ethic" given us an ethos of preparation? Do some other societies fail to prepare the way we do because their cultures are fatalistic?
I saw a bumper sticker recently that said Jesus Is Coming: Look Busy. That sums up who we are as Americans. Our broadly Christian ethos has encouraged moral responsibility both on the part of the individual and of the government. It has encouraged a collective sense of responsibility. While we are still plenty selfish, we tend to ask if a policy is going to be good for our country or even good for humanity.