Book Reviews - Winter 2018

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Subscription required

What are we hiding from in our policed and gated communities?

By Jill Leovy | December 4, 2017
A large gated community in Plano, Texas near Dallas. (Dean Terry/Flickr)

Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy by Elaine Tyler May; Basic Books, 256 pp., $30 

Face away from the blast: that’s what the animated Bert the Turtle advised American children to do if caught in an atomic attack. The year was 1951, and a shaken nation was coming to terms with the brand-new threat of nuclear war. The bomb is indeed something to be feared, according to the instructional film Duck and Cover, but no matter how frightened the victims, they should remember to protect their eyes.

The detail, one of many telling and poignant moments from Elaine Tyler May’s Fortress America, evokes the kind of half-laughter that catches in the throat. After all, the threat of nuclear war remains all too real, and that early, wishful impulse to control it seems in retrospect only a shade removed from the only alternative, despair.

As it happened, Bert the Turtle had something over the ordinary schoolchild—a shell to disappear into. The nation’s collective yearning for some variation on a shell is the focus of May’s study, which shows how Americans’ obsessive quest for personal security has contorted its political and cultural landscape.

Login to view the full article

If you are a current digital subscriber, login here.

Forgot password?

Need to register?

Already a subscriber through The American Scholar?


Are you a Phi Beta Kappa sustaining member?

Want to subscribe?

Print subscribers get access to our entire website

You can also just subscribe to our website for $9.99.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus