Commentary Magazine

Panic, American Style

American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why
By Mark Stein
Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pages

When it comes to the English language, few words rival the evocative power of panic. Standing alone, panic conjures up a wild batch of scenes in the human imagination, many of which, at least in my mind, are somewhat comical: the frantic, unbecoming dances inspired by a bee in the car or a giant bug in the shower; or, even better, the vision of George Constanza, the pudgy anti-hero of Seinfeld, discovering a small kitchen fire at a children’s birthday party—and then plowing his way to the front door, leaving a trail of knocked-down little old ladies, shoved-aside kids, and a very disgruntled clown in his wake.

Merriam Webster describes panic as “a state or feeling of extreme fear that makes someone unable to act or think normally.” With this in mind, it seems that panic, much like its close friend chaos, would be fairly difficult to classify. In American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why, Mark Stein valiantly attempts to do just that.

A playwright and screenwriter whose movie credits include the comedy Housesitter with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, Mark Stein is not to be confused with Mark Steyn, another bestselling writer (albeit a more provocative, conservative Canadian one). The evidence in this book suggests that Stein might be mildly horrified by the comparison. American Panic wishes to be beyond prejudice and immune to bias, to speak with a detached, rational voice above the partisan fray—to be, one imagines, what National Public Radio and also sincerely envision themselves to be. Alas, American Panic does not succeed. But it does offer an unintentionally clear look at various biases that fuel some of our current political debates.

Stein defines political panic as “the irrational fear that one’s government is in danger.” His book, he writes, “seeks to illuminate such elements that form [a] recurring pattern in American political panic.” Describing national “panics” surrounding Native Americans, Freemasons, Catholics, Communists, corporations, Asian people, women, homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, and illegal immigrants—the term “panic,” it should be noted, is tossed around a bit loosely—Stein attempts to find common threads and build a solid analytical framework using various examples from history. What he ends up with is a vast, rickety, unwieldy structure. If one were forced to take up permanent residence in such a structure, one might very quickly, to use one of Stein’s favorite phrases, “enter the portal to panic.”

Speaking of turns of phrase, I will now briefly interrupt this review to present a real sentence that appears in American Panic. It is on page 15, which wraps up the chapter on the long and tragic persecution of Native Americans in this country. “Widespread panic is long past,” notes Stein. “In its aftermath, however, winds of guilt continue to blow through ravines in the soul of the nation now living on the land it conquered.” I hope this gives you a slightly painful sense of what it is like to read this book.

American Panic offers up a list of elements supposedly common to political panics, along with an occasional rash of unintentional humor that comes from the effort of trying to put something as wild-eyed as panic into a neat box. Because these elements are rather random, they are also often presented in italics, in order to ensure, I suppose, that you don’t miss them. Among the book’s recurring panic essentials are the use of a “misbegotten assertion,” reliance on an “unverified claim,” and, my favorite, the appearance of “Founding Father anxiety,” which can also apparently reveal itself as “reverence for the Founding Fathers.”

Inciters of panic, according to Stein, “filter” out facts that might otherwise cause a panic to subside. Once someone has veered into the “realm of panic,” they will end up doing or urging precisely “that which they fear.” In the Salem witch trials, for example, overzealous witch hunters would occasionally craft bizarre spells—one involving a dog eating a “witch cake”—to try to sniff other spell-makers out.

There is some fascinating history in American Panic, but there is also a sizeable amount of fiction disguised as fact. Stein has an disquieting habit of “entering the portal to panic” by “doing that which he fears,” firing “misbegotten assertions,” “filtered” facts, and “unverified claims” all over the place.

Stein implies, for example, that Jared Lee Loughner, the disturbed individual who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was affiliated with the Tea Party. (He was not.) He writes that Matthew Shepard was “murdered in the United States for no other reason” than being gay. (Updated reports show he was a meth dealer killed by a former lover and fellow dealer.) He notes that the growth of the National Rifle Association is probably the result of people cloaking their fear of black people “in the Second Amendment right to bear arms.” (As an NRA member who learned how to shoot from a black NRA member, I can assure the author that this is dubious.) Stein claims, oddly, that there is a “right to privacy guaranteed under Article IV of the Constitution” and insists that Fox News host Brit Hume once attempted to “lure listeners into the realm of panic” with a casual mention of the “feminized atmosphere” of today’s politics. (Hard to know where to start on that one.)

Still, American Panic is certainly good for something: It shines a clear, broad light on how activist media revisionism and groupthink shape our modern, largely progressive panics.

Witches, those longtime outcasts, are no longer our fear. On a recent trip to New Mexico, in fact, I noticed that a particularly well-kept stretch of highway had been adopted by the local Lady of the Woods Wiccan society. In one of history’s ironies, we now unleash our most enthusiastic witch hunts upon the ranks of the “privileged,” relentlessly targeting upscale college lacrosse players, conservative commencement speakers, religious wedding-cake bakers, and executives who vote the wrong way.

None of these, of course, is mentioned in American Panic. Panic, Stein suggests, is a condition experienced by other people, by which he means people with whom he disagrees politically—and all their panics seem to blend into one. “Just as Samuel Morse’s warning over Catholics was so closely echoed in J. Edgar Hoover’s warning over Communists,” Stein writes, “we will also hear these warnings echo in the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st) in fears regarding homosexuals.”

While certain events in American history (the rounding up of Japanese citizens into internment camps, for instance) are worth labeling as genuine expressions of panic, others discussed in the book—particularly discrimination against women—appear to be more the result of simple human mendacity and prejudice than fear. People don’t have to be panicking, or “not thinking clearly,” to act like jerks.

“Fear will always be available to alarmists,” Stein writes, “for whom the United States provides particularly fertile soil.” Given recent reports that witches are still being burned in Kenya, the United States doesn’t seem especially fertile when it comes to fear. But there is always room for hope: hope for fairness, clear thinking, and even-handed logic instead of knee-jerk outrage. Stein’s chief recommendation, it appears, would be not to watch Fox News.

“Truly,” Stein writes, closing the book, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance—keeping guard not only at our windows but also at our mirrors.” You said it, buddy.

About the Author

Heather Wilhelm writes regularly for Real Clear Politics and lives in Austin, Texas.

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