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.
May, a professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota, pulls together a hodgepodge of cultural and political events—episodes of The Twilight Zone, the popularity of backyard swimming pools, the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, Dirty Harry, and the McMartin preschool case, to name a few. May’s book is an unapologetic cry from the left, condemning what she sees as unjustified fears of crime and pointless security-seeking by Americans, and lamenting the political consequences, which, she argues, culminated in the election of Trump.
May’s thesis is that Americans, encouraged to look to themselves rather than to their government for help during the unsettling postwar era, ended up in a self-protective spiral and fears blown far out of proportion. Her style is brisk and catholic, and no cultural artifact is too minute to catch her eye. The effect is like watching one gem of cultural trivia after another shaken loose from an ephemeral recent past.
The merits of this book lie chiefly in these excavations and in the cultural picture they paint of nervous modernity. One need not agree with May to appreciate the 1950s advertisement for the “all-concrete blast-resistant house” complete with cheery headline, “Houses for the Atomic Age!” This single image, by itself, evokes better than could any academic treatise the odd juxtaposition of an era at once innocent and dreadful.
The book is also a useful guide to the mindset of the contemporary left, exposing many of its underlying attitudes. Why do the same people who advocated for nuclear disarmament and civil rights eschew SUVs and gated communities? Why do the same people who disliked Charles Bronson oppose Donald Trump on immigration? In making her case, May tacitly lays bare an entire worldview united by the conviction that certain fears are baseless. And she supplies lively insights along the way—like how the nation’s highways were first envisioned as evacuation routes for the nuclear apocalypse.
It’s one thing to make the obvious point that fear is powerful and fear-mongering effective. It’s quite another to prove that fear is unwarranted and that the manipulation of phantom threats has placed present-day political realities on a foundation of illusion. Nuclear war, communist subversion, economic volatility, street crime, urban demographic shifts, satanic rituals, and terrorism are not identical bogeymen after all, even when they inspire similar-seeming fears. Some of these fears are easily labeled hysterical or racist. Others—the nuclear threat, for instance—are more difficult to assess from the standpoint of personal safety. How scared should we be of World War III? Our shifting uncertainty, sinking unease, and swings of denial would hardly seem to merit contempt, just as it is hard to laugh outright at the turtle.
May compounds this problem with some jarring errors. She asserts, for example, that violent crime was stable for white Americans in the 1960s in an effort to show that rising fears of crime were baseless. In fact, homicide death rates for white men nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970, according to mortality data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. May similarly clucks at “exaggerated fears” of crime in the early ’90s, a period she incorrectly—and astonishingly—places after a period of falling violent crime. In fact, murders reached their highest point in American history in 1991, with nearly 25,000 human beings slaughtered in acts of criminal violence. This tidal wave affected African Americans disproportionately but was large enough to wash across people of all backgrounds.
May stumbles in other areas, too. She describes vigilantism in the spirit of self-protection as a postwar phenomenon and suggests that mistrust of government helped fuel its subsequent rise as a cultural trend. But this ignores centuries of tension between vigilantes and legitimate law enforcement. Recent studies have done much to boost our understanding of mob violence in response to crime. They tend to read like gruesome catalogs, so common were hangings and beatings of criminal suspects in the 19th-century South and West.
A more trivial, but telling, example comes when May singles out the actor Gwyneth Paltrow in the midst of an otherwise engaging discussion of safe rooms in the homes of the wealthy. According to public sources, Paltrow has endured the repeated intrusions of a stalker who sent her pornographic images and a barrage of letters referring to her death and insisting that she marry him. May clearly views Paltrow’s safe room as risible. But picking on a demonstrable victim of criminal stalking exemplifies the larger problem with her argument, namely the ease with which she dismisses the fears of others without examining closely from whence they come.
In fact, in the cases of Paltrow and others discussed in these pages, it is possible to argue the opposite of what May concludes: people are actually pretty rational when it comes to fear.
This proposition leads to more interesting questions than those May grapples with, or that her worldview permits. For if people are mostly rational about what they fear, the routes by which they turn hysterical or paranoid are not so easy to discern. The chicken fable rings hollow to those upon whom the sky sometimes really falls. May has exposed an abundance of interesting cultural milestones, but she has left a much larger territory tantalizingly unmapped—the treacherous boundary between reason and unreason.
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