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Review: Sasha Abramsky’s “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream”

Sasha Abramsky’s previous book, The American Way of Poverty (2013)how the truly poor in our country struggle to survive in our thankless nation, ruled by greed—ought to have been a wakeup call to our common humanity. Four years later, with inhumanity entrenched within the Trump presidency, his ignorant base, and the Republican sycophants in Congress, it’s easy to scream out in frustration at how we’ve become such any uncaring nation. As I wrote this review of Abramsky’s newest book, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream—written in the wake of the recent hurricanes—it’s logical to ask another question. Will we rise to the needs of the hurricanes’ victims or let petty politics demonstrate, still again, that Republicans have no blood in their bodies and will do everything to guarantee that our government should also be bloodless?

Yes, Jumping at Shadows is about something different—how we’ve become a nation living in fear—but it’s also about politicians who whip up these fears and then tell their followers, “Only I can fix these problems.” No wonder the Neo-Nazis in our midst see Donald Trump as their hero, since the President’s call to fear is right out of the Nazi playbook. Abramsky is not afraid to point his finger where it needs to be pointed or demonstrate our collective gullibility/stupidity. We’ve allowed ourselves to be seduced by quick-talking con men (remember trickle-down economics, which trickled up but not down?) We live in what he calls the “age of anxiety,” though he concludes what ought to be totally obvious if we still had any ability to think: “Hysterias don’t solve vast social problems. Too often, overwrought responses generate more of the very conditions they were intended to vitiate, creating cycles of chaos and, at the same time, ever-greater curbs on personal liberty.” And an inability to think.

TV news, the Internet, the media in general, and politicians—always focusing on the worst events—have taught us to be afraid.  Abramsky states, “It is hard to stay upbeat if you always fear the worst.” And then he piles on with multiple examples. A Muslim boy brings a clock he made to school to show his teacher. He’s interrogated by several police officers and handcuffed because the police believe his clock might be a bomb. The over-reaction fits nicely with too many Americans’ belief that all Muslims are out to kill us. Bumper stickers proclaim a “Muslim-free State,” and the leading Republican candidate launches a full-scale hate campaign against one of the world’s largest religions. Sadly, authoritarian voters love a demigod like Trump. He’ll alleviate their worries, never fear.

Or take guns, candy of the masses. “In early 2016, the BBC calculated that in the first eleven months of 2015 the United States had experienced 353 mass shootings, all but one of them, the San Bernardino shootings, unconnected to Islamic terrorism.” Fourteen years earlier when Washington, D.C. was terrorized by sniper killings, “shooting thirteen and killing ten” people during three weeks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency concluded that during the same period “239 people were assaulted by assailants carrying deadly weapons, 32 people were shot, and 22 people were murdered. ‘None of these crimes merited front page coverage.’” Or total panic.

Or, juxtapose the fear of contracting Ebola to concern with dying from an automobile accident. Or consider—as a more equivalent analogy—Ebola with flu. In 2014, the year of the Ebola pandemic, roughly a dozen Americans contracted the disease (and several died), though of the previous year, 2013, the CDC says 56,000 Americans died of flu. Abramsky says that Americans have a “bizarre understanding of risk and fear.” Fear of dying in an airplane crash is constant for most Americans, though not from automobile crashes. Our fears have created a major business opportunity: anxiety treatment centers. A California phobia specialist has identified more than 200 phobias that people have permitted to control their emotions. Some border on the ludicrous: anuptaphobia, “a fear of staying single”; caligynephobia, the “fear of beautiful women”; or syngenesophobia, “a fear of one’s relatives.” Well, the last one night make some sense.

Racial profiling has led to “an epidemic of police violence.” Parents have been charged for permitting their children to pay in parks without adult supervision or let their children walk to school unaccompanied because of the do-gooders who fear almost everything. The school security industry has turned our public schools into prisons, with valuable resources going to elaborate protection systems rather than for teachers’ salaries or books, all because of the million-in-one chance that a child will be killed at school. “Put a child through enough lockdown drills, and you will teach that child to regard life as little more than a series of potential deathtraps. You will, eventually, teach that child to jump at [his] own shadow.”

The same day those 20 children and 6 adults were murdered by Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook [which some loonies say was a staged event by the Obama administration to take away citizens’ guns] somewhere in the region of 4,000 people globally died of tuberculosis. More than 300 of those who died were children. That same day, globally, another 3,500-plus people died of HIV/AIDS. In Russia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Korea, Portugal, Peru, and several other countries, rampant alcoholism was reducing each resident’s life in the early years of the century by an average of five years. “The same day that 130 people died at the hands of ISIS fanatics in Paris, roughly the same number of people died in the United States of drug overdoses. The same number had died the day before and would die the day afterwards. In 2015 as a whole, roughly 50,000 Americans would die of drug overdoses—many of them taking powerful pharmaceuticals such as oxycontin and fentanyl that they had become addicted to after being prescribed them by their doctors.”

You get the picture? My favorite example—not in Abramsky’s book—is Mike Flynn and his mentally-challenged son, Mike Flynn, Jr., believing that Hillary Clinton didn’t have enough to do to keep her busy during the campaign, so she took time off to set up a pedophilia ring at a Washington, D.C., pizza outlet, presumably checking in from time to time to see how things were going.

Abramsky illustrates our similar madness about numerous other insanities that have crept into our collective consciousness as well as our legal system. Did you know, for example, that “thirteen states [require] someone convicted of public urination to register as a sex offender”? Fortunately, the number of times in my life when I’ve had to take a leak outside because I couldn’t get to a john, no one was watching me with a camera. But those states, had they caught me, would brand me a sex offender.

Jumping at Shadows identifies how, collectively, Americans have lost the ability to think. Worse, it shows us, indirectly, how Donald Trump was elected. Sasha Abramsky identifies the issues—the insane fears that people have—but can’t suggest much of a correction because there is only one possible solution: eliminating ignorance, quality education but, again, too many of our politicians are unwilling to contribute additional tax money for our public schools. (Need I remind you that Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is the most pathetic figure ever approved [by one vote in the Senate] to administer the department). Thus, Abramsky is left with isolated examples of individuals who have bucked the system, though often to their own detriment.  So read this important book and cry. And remember not to urinate outside. Or possibly move to a more forgiving state.

The issues are obviously much more serious than that flip remark about public urination.

Sasha Abramsky: Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream
Nation Books, 324 pp., $28.00

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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